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Queer Masterworks: ‘31 Subway Keith Haring Drawings’

Updated: Mar 9, 2022

Haring chalking in Subway

‘31 Subway Keith Haring Drawings’ offers large illustrations of his white chalk on black paper subway drawings. Works that still exist are, of course, valuable.

Keith Allen Haring (1958-1990) died of AIDS, but his legacy lives on through his cartoon-esque drawings which are recognizable everywhere, especially on Kitschy merchandise which museum shops happily sell. Haring appears on the Rainbow Honor Walk in San Francisco’s Castro District, and he is one of 50 inducted into the National LGBTQ Wall of Honor at the Stonewall Inn, New York City, memorializing The Stonewall Riots, 1969.

Haring was born in Reading, Pennsylvania to a churchy middle class family with four children. He enrolled/dropped out of Pittsburgh’s commercial art school: Ivy School of Professional Art. Heading to New York City, he attended/dropped out of the School of Visual Arts (SVA) and became a street artist.

Haring, subway work near the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art

Haring gravitated to black paper used to cover expired subway advertisements and began drawing with white chalk upon these empty billboards, giving him visibility, leading to gallery exhibitions and Biennials worldwide. He also opened a Pop Shop selling his designs on t-shirts and posters, etc. In 1988 he was diagnosed with AIDS, establishing the Keith Haring Foundation before he died in 1990.

Haring wrote, “I arrived in New York at a time when the most beautiful paintings being shown in the city were on wheels—on trains—paintings that traveled to you instead of visa versa.” Haring explained his subway drawing aftermath, “The panel remains from a few days to a few weeks before a new advertisement is posted on top of it…. Sometimes the advertisements on the side of the empty panels provide inspiration for the drawings and often create iconic associations (9-10).”

In the past few years Graffiti has become popular. Guiliani-esque politicians that once overreacted seem to be ignoring street art today. Perhaps it’s politically incorrect to arrest artists who are poor, non-white and LGBTQ. Curator Henry Geldzahler (1935-1994) wrote, “What to one observer seems a healthy artistic outlet for rage, frustration, and the opportunity for identity in a culture which only ‘stars’ are admired, is to another the unsightly defacement of public property (23).” Today, graffiti is sought after, fetching up in galleries for high prices. Street art is worldwide. Walk around London or Paris; you can’t go far without seeing raw outdoor imagery. In Berlin remains of ‘The Wall’ are plastered with new and old graffiti from when this concrete barrier separated the politics of the city and the world. Haring wrote, “The drawings are by necessity quick and simple…..I have been caught many times. Some cops have given me a $10.00 ticket….More than once, I’ve been taken to a station handcuffed by a cop who realized, much to his dismay, that the other cops in the precinct were my fans and were anxious to meet me and shake my hand (10).”

Haring Christmas chalking

Haring was appearing in tony establishments while continuing to paint below the streets (23). Were his parallel careers so fascinating to both glitzy gallery goers and the street public, that he obtained acceptance in both places? Or was it his aesthetic style or his persona? Dealer Jeffrey Deitch wrote, “There are cynics who view Haring’s public works merely as clever, free advertisement for his ‘real’ art that is sold in the galleries. And of course one can take the opposite view and interpret his gallery pieces merely as funding source for his ‘real’ work, his work on the streets (37).” Geldzhaler wrote that Haring’s work was, “Exchanges of energy from person to person and from ‘inanimate’ objects to individuals (24-25).” Haring’s cartoons kept viewers looking because they recognized repeating patterns. And the idea of drawing below ground seemed to evoke mystery when creating something nefarious. Chalk drawings were so well executed, they were often stolen. Question: Is stealing what was illegal in the first place a double crime? Haring was influenced by the Post-war underground comic scene that arose because the McCarthy era had disdain for the medium (50). Deitch wrote, “Haring is one of the few artists since the Pop Art era who has been able to successfully integrate America’s great commercial art form—cartooning—into fine art….Like Andy Warhol and Christo, [Haring was] unconstrained by the boundaries of the traditional artist’s role (37).”

During the ‘70s and ‘80s New York City was not only dangerous after dark, it harbored a hatred for homosexuals, who were often beaten and killed. A Gay hangout was the abandoned ocean liner docks of the Lower Hudson River--today parks, and bike trails. Mayor Guiliani (tenure:1994-2001) went on a rampage to end crime; subway graffiti became his scapegoat. Guiliani is credited with making New York City tourist-safe, but he couldn’t stop the art community from endorsing the unconventional. Upper East Side aesthetic aficionados frequented lower Manhattan bars and night life associated with these so-called hoodlums, thus blurring boundaries.

Did Haring and other artists who are now in the mainstream: David Hammons, Barbara Kruger etc. disobey conventions to become famous, or did they have a mission to make art that might reform society? Drawing with chalk became a metaphor for Haring’s legacy before he harbored notions of fame. Haring wrote, “After a while, my subway drawing became more of a responsibility than a hobby. So many people wished me luck and told me to ‘keep it up’ that it became difficult to stop (9).” Critic Carlo McCormick described chalk’s fugitive quality which is “Far more impermanent than the more typical [graffiti] spray paint, [as] chalk embraces its own ephemerality in ways that contradict the quest for immortality so fundamental to the arts (51).” Art created by the masses and for the masses, has had been broached since the French Revolution. In late Nineteenth Century Paris, Impressionists rebelled against the art establishment with its École des Beaux-Arts mainly for the privileged.

Consider the chalk line frames that Haring drew around his subway works, which after all weren’t essential. Did he wish to allude to the new innovation of television, deemed by some a ‘rotting the mind of kids’ invention (50)? Or was this a clue that Haring really wanted to obtain fame, as picture frames are associated with art’s Western canon? Jacques Derrida (1930-2004) insisted upon a painter’s pledge, “I owe you the truth on painting and I will tell it to you.” Is the truth to remain traditional or is truth meant to break the mold? Jason Farago writes about the upcoming Jacques-Louis David show at the Met, “You are an artist, you want to change the world. But what on earth are you going to do if you succeed (NYTimes 2/17/22)?”

Mini Sleuth: Passages from ‘31 Subway Keith Haring Drawings’ available on Amazon. Thank you, Jodi Price at Princeton

Email: Jean Bundy-MFA,PhD is a writer/painter living in Anchorage. She is a VP at AICA-International and on the governance at Pictor, NYC.

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