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by Jonathan D. Katz

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Self Portrait 1989
Collection of Estate of Keith Haring
Courtesy: André Emmerich Gallery

Perhaps the emblematic artist of the eighties, Keith Haring's career had all the makings of a Hollywood drama--obscure beginnings, skyrocketing fame, celebrities galore and an early, tragic death. With his trademark attention grabbing style, penchant for high profile friendships and deliberate popularization of his work through murals, public sculpture, graffiti drawings and clothing designs, Haring--the man and his work--rapidly entered public conciousness in the early and mid 80's. By the end of the decade, he was in the minds of many heir apparent to Andy Warhol as the most widely recognized artist in the world.

This celebrity was no accident. On the contrary, Haring aggressively pursued a deliberate socio-political strategem to make an art accessible to people, seeking to blur the built-in class hierarchy that is surely one of the major market forces in the contemporary art world. While he was exhibiting drawings in major galleries and museums in New York, he was executing similar drawings in public space which were classified as graffitti by the local authorities. At a certain moment in New York, you could see original Haring's at both the Whitney in New York and the subway that took you there.

Without a doubt, this populist strategy had its own marketing hook, and Haring was a masterful promoter of Haring. But any purely cynical reading of Haring's populism must take into account his many donated works, his genuine joy at collaborating with children and his oft-stated anxiety over the price of his spiralling fame. Equally, Haring sought to bring his celebrity to bear in pursuit of causes about which he felt deeply--Queer equality, AIDS, racism, children's right to happiness--among many other pressing social issues. This melding of an interest in sexuality, anti-racism and children, though as politically volatile in the Eighties as it is today, never led Haring to back down on one issue in deference to another. He insisted on the absolute appropriateness of a gay man with AIDS working with children. In this sense, this most New York of artists embraced a very San Francisco mentality, refusing the oppressive compartmentalization of our queer lives.

How right then that this gay artist would, nearly a decade after his death, become the darling of San Francisco's distinctly heterogeneous art public. In a city where nearly every public sculpture proposal is greeted with a range of discordant voices, Haring's work has been universally celebrated.

Bringing people together through public art was a major preoccupation of Haring's. Despite early art school flirtations with a theory heavy practice, mature work like these sculptures display a deft lightness of touch and a chameleon-like ability to insinuate themselves into their locale. Though cast abroad, they have quickly become, in every sense of the word, local.

Jonathan Katz Ph.D.