A few months ago, I read Keith Haring’s journal because I wanted to find out who K.Haring was. The least I can say is that I wasn’t disappointed by this reading.
The first thing that hit me when I started reading K. Haring’s journal was the maturity of his thoughts. He started writing his journal when he was 19, and I can tell you that many people (including me) would never have been able to think like him at that age.
I think that most people 19-year-olds are like me when I was that age: they want to enjoy life, do trivial things, and live without worrying about what might happen next. They also experience feelings that aren’t always pleasant.
Reading the first entry, you can feel that he’s experiencing one of these feelings. Yet it is so well written that it looks like it was written by an adult, as if he had taken enough distance to write it. In this extract (and in most of his journal too), his words are well-chosen.
Let’s look at an extract from this entry:
‘Lately it hasn’t been as evident, or perhaps I am just more ignorant of it, but I know that I’ll end up somewhere for some reason or no reason, but with some answers or at least be a little clearer on why I am and what I am aiming to do or what I am gonna do or just “do.” If this fate is negative, that isn’t negative because that is what happened and that then was the fate. I only wish that I could have more confidence and try to forget all my silly preconceptions, misconceptions, and just live. Just live. Just. Live. Just live till I die.’
April 29, 1977. Pittsburgh.
K.H is young, but he knows that he can’t control fate and he’s ready to accept that. Moreover, he no longer wants to be who he is.
One of K. Haring’s greatest qualities was certainly his ability to distance himself from things and then consider them carefully. He did this with himself and, as we shall see, with many other topics as well.
In his journal, Keith Haring often provides interesting theoretical reflections on art. In a way, he says things that are obvious but really need to be said. His journal is an excellent guide if you want to know what it is to be, think and feel like an artist. I can’t tell you how many times I thought “He’s so right!”, as if he had written something I had in mind for years but that I couldn’t express.
‘I feel in some way that I may be continuing a search, continuing an
exploration that other painters have started and were unable to finish because they advanced to new ideas, as I will also, or perhaps because they were unable to carry out their ideas because of the cruel simple fact of death. (…) Every true artist leaves unresolved statements, interrupted searches’
Election Day. NOVEMBER 7, 1978
I like this extract very much because it explains very well the ‘family tree’ between artists. I think that artists always want to create something new while (un)consciously taking inspiration from those who came before them. We work on the same topics but in different ways.
We create, as Keith Haring says, a chain and I really like this idea because it’s exactly how I feel.
Unlike some artists who create art only for themselves (and for art dealers), Keith Haring really took people into account and wanted them to have an important place in his art. His aim was to create art for and with people, without making a distinction between them.
Even today, some people think that art is only for the intelligent and educated, but it’s not. Anyone can look at art, talk about it, like it or dislike it.
‘I paint images that are derivative of my personal exploration. I leave it up to others to decipher them, to understand their symbolism and implications. I am merely the middleman. I gather information, or receive information that comes from other sources. I translate that information through the use of images and objects into a physical form. The duty is then out of my hands. It is the responsibility of the viewer or interpreter who will receive my information to derive their own ideas or meanings from it.’
January 12, 1979–21 FIRST AVENUE APT. 18, NEW YORK CITY
K.H sometimes talks about the exhibitions he visits and how he perceives them. For instance, he talks about what he experienced when he visited Rothko’s, and it’s great to read about how this kind of thing can impact the way he sees and creates art. He also talks about his inspirations and the people who have valued him, such as Timothy Leary, Brion Gysin, Bobby Breslaw and of course Andy Warhol. The way he talks about them shows how much he loves them and thanks them for being so supportive. He seems to say that he wouldn’t have been the artist he is without them.
‘Like Bobby, Andy was the reassurance I looked forward to for the difficult
course I am charting. He set the precedent for my venture into the commercial world and the popular culture. He is the validation for a kind of “seriousness” or “realness” that is balanced on the tightrope I am walking between “high” and “low” art. His support made me oblivious to the critic cultures waiting for a wrong move and anxiously anticipated fall. His understanding was more valued than any art critic’s. Most critics only write to defend their own ideas and previous statements, anyway.’ February 1987
When you’re an artist, you usually work alone, at home or in your studio. You don’t know what other artists think of the art market. So I was very happy to find out Haring’s opinion on this subject because, once again, I can see myself in what he says.
‘Lots of people there. More art dealers than artists. Definitely is “money art.” It even “looks” expensive. I think that’s my market problem, my paintings don’t “look” expensive.’ Wednesday, May 20, 1987
Keith Haring seems to have had a tough relationship with the art market,
I believe he didn’t like the commercial and financial aspects of it.
As an artist myself, I totally get that. I tend to think that people don’t want to have my pictures hanging in their living rooms because it’s not the kind of art they want to buy and see every day, which makes me sad…and yet I don’t want to make any other kind of art!
I can’t talk about his vision of the art market without mentioning the relationship he had with counterfeiting. I would be so pissed off if someone was making money out of my work…but in his case, K.H seems strangely often amused by that (there are some exceptions though). He could have sued these people, but instead he decided to laugh about it and even buy and collect some of the fake things. I think it shows that he didn’t always take the financial aspect of the whole thing seriously.
‘I spent all afternoon walking around, mostly buying fake KH T-shirts. They
had the best ones, so far, at Hysteric Glamour. Blow-ups of Club DV8 shirts with Pop Shop wall photos printed all over the sleeves. Pretty weird! My favorite of the ones I bought is a good second-generation KH rip-off. There were a lot with just the Pop Shop logo. We haven’t even done that yet, but it’s a good idea.’ October 13, 1987: TOKYO
The last thing I wanted to discuss in this section is K.H’s anchorage in art history. On the one hand, his journal reveals that he sometimes fears that his work will be forgotten once he is dead. He wants it to be part of the art world forever. But on the other hand, it’s as if he knows that his work will always be there. It’s a bit sad because he’ll never know how much his work is appreciated and looked at, even today.
‘Today I am 24 years old. Twenty-four years is not a very long time, and then
again it is enough time. I have added many things to the world. The world is this thing around me that I made for myself and I see for myself. The world will, however, go on without me being there to see it, it just won’t be “my” world then. That is what interests me most about the situation that I am in now. I am making things in the world that won’t go away when I do.’
May 4, 1982, IN BRUSSELS AIRPORT
Society & technology
Keith Haring is constantly wondering how society and technology are evolving and what the consequences of this evolution will be. It’s weird because what he said in the 1970s-1980, as in the following extracts, could also be said nowadays.
‘Being born in 1958, the first generation of the Space Age, born into a world of television technology and instant gratification, a child of the atomic age. Raised in America during the sixties and learning about war from Life magazines on Vietnam. Watching riots on television in a warm living room comfortably safe in middle-class white America. I don’t believe in solutions. Things are beyond my control and beyond comprehension. I do not have dreams of changing the world. I do not have dreams of saving the world. However, I am in the world and I am a human being. In 1982, with telephones and radio, computers and airplanes, world news and video tape, satellites and automobiles, human beings are still frighteningly similar to human beings 2,000 years ago. I am scared to death.’ March 18, 1982
‘Art becomes the way we define our existence as human beings. This has a
perverse air to it, I admit. The very idea that we are so different from other
beings (animals) and things (rocks, trees, air, water) is, I think, a great
misconception, but if understood is not necessarily evil. We know that “humans” determine the future of this planet. We have the power to destroy and create. We, after all is said and done, are the perpetrators of the destruction of the Earth we inhabit. No matter how slowly this destruction is occurring, no matter how “natural” this de-composition is, we are the harborers of this change.’
July 7, 1986: MONTREUX
‘We all went to visit the Peace Museum & Memorial, which is a vivid
documentation of the horrors of Hiroshima. It is impossible to imagine the
magnitude of the bombing until you personally experience this museum. I was followed by the photographer, which was uncomfortable, but not even that could minimize the shock of what I was looking at. There were many families with children in the museum at the same time. I had, of course, read about and seen some photos of Hiroshima, but I never felt it like this. It is incredible that this destruction was caused by a bomb that was made in 1945, and that the level of sophistication and number of nuclear warheads has increased since then. Who could ever want this to happen again? To anyone? The frightening thing is that people debate and discuss the arms race as if they were playing with toys. All of these men should have to come here, not to a bargaining table in some safe European country.’ Thursday, July 28, 1988
I don’t think it‘s stupid to say that If Keith Haring were still alive, he would be sad to see that nothing has changed. History repeats itself.
People are still making war, still destroying the earth. And, above all, it’s getting worse and worse. So as I read his diary, I couldn’t help but wonder what Keith Haring would think of our times.
A friendly and genuine guy
When I read Virginia Woolf’s diary, I was surprised that she was sometimes mean to people. I felt the opposite when I read Keith Haring’s (not that I expected him to be mean). Actually, he seems to be a really nice guy. Someone who rarely says mean things, being instead a caring person I would have liked to meet.
‘I do 11 drawings. The girls working in the gallery invite some friends and one girl’s sister makes a video. A kid from the street passing by recognizes me and comes in to watch for almost the entire time. He’s a skateboarder and graffiti writer. After I finish I do small drawings for everyone that is there, with ink on cardboard. Everyone is happily amazed and they invite me to have dinner at a Japanese restaurant. Great dinner, really nice people.’ Thursday, June 11, 1987
I chose this extract but, trust me, I could have chosen many other extracts to show you how nice Keith Haring was. I believe he truly loved people and people loved him. He wanted to make them happy. It’s even more obvious when he talks about how he feels when he’s around kids.
Artists rarely talk about the difficulties they face.
This is why reading Keith Haring’s diary was good for me, especially when he talks about his lack of confidence. I remember thinking ‘Okay, even Keith Haring had low self-esteem at times and needed to be supported’. It’s easy to imagine that the grass is greener elsewhere when you don’t know what‘s behind appearances. But once you do, it’s good to see that even the greatest artists have their demons too.
‘Funny how sometimes I lose all faith and everything looks like shit to me. Luckily this doesn’t last long, or maybe it’s good it happens ’cause it pushes me further.I hope I’m never satisfied. You always have to strive for improvement.’ Wednesday, July 8, 1987
‘A few weeks ago I was invited to Bob Rauschenberg’s studio for a reception
to receive representatives of USSR’s artists’ union (the governing organization of all artist activities). I felt honored to even be invited, considering the only other artists were Roy Lichtenstein, Christo, Laurie Anderson and some others. I met the representatives from Russia and we talked about my possible work there. I explained I have been trying to get something organized there, but have not had much luck. Information packages and letters had gone through the U.N. and Yoko Ono, but I had gotten no response. They assured me that they were the only ones who could help me. A man I met there who runs a project in Florida
that does multiples with American artists like Lichtenstein, Johns,
Rauschenberg, etc., told me he was the one working on Bob’s exhibition in
Moscow and he would personally deliver a package of info for me.
I chatted with Roy Lichtenstein for a long time and made arrangements to
visit his new studio the following week. When I visited him we traded some
prints. I’m only writing this now because for me it was significant that I was invited and that I’m accepted and treated as an equal by these artists, while much of the art world (at least critics, dealers and museum people) treat me as a curiosity easily ignored. It is times like this that I regain the confidence that is continually being drained by the ignorance of the art magazines, and criticism that pretends I don’t even exist. The acceptance by these artists, who I respect, and who I feel my work fits in historically with, is much more important to me than any critics, museum directors or art dealers. Anyway, I just wanted to write this down so I’d remember it later.’ Sunday, JULY 31, 1988
K.Haring died of AIDS-related complications in 1991 (when he was only 31). AIDS isn’t omnipresent in his journal. He only talks about it from time to time. But when he knows he’s going to die, it’s heartbreaking because you can feel how much he wants to survive.
‘I think riding on the front of this boat (lying down with Nina’s head on my
arm), with warm water splashing my hand, the cool ocean breeze and the
landscape of the cliffs of Amalfi lit up like an opera set, was one of the most
incredible moments of my life. This is why I want to be alive, for moments like this.’Tuesday, September 5, 1989
It is sometimes said that the best people die before the worst.
I won’t say that Keith Haring was undoubtedly a great person as I didn’t know him personally. Yet I’m now sure that he brought a lot of positive things to this world.
Reading this book didn’t make me a fan of Keith Haring’s work.
But I certainly understand it better and I definitely know more about Keith Haring.
I believe reading a diary or autobiography is the best way to get to know someone, it’s actually always better than reading something written by someone else.
The only drawback of this book is that there aren’t enough texts, especially texts about the rise of his career. It seems that he went straight from being an art student to a famous artist , but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t the case.
So, I wish there were more texts.
If you want to read his whole journal, you can either buy his book or visit this tumblr.