Keith Haring: The Story of His Life
By the mid 1980s Keith Haring’s art was instanly recognizable by a good number of people whether you knew his name or not, especially if you were queer. Starting out creating graphiti art in New York City’s subways in 1981, Haring began to attract attention outside of his unconventional circle as his work became increasingly popular. Following Marshall McLuhan’s adage of “the medium is the message,” what the mainstream media showed of Haring’s art to middle America was packaged as “cute” and sanitized. True, there is an element of “cuteness” in some of Haring’s art but Haring’s attention was focused on depicting celebrations of queer life and sex and the political, though the simple satisfaction of making art was where his ambition first arose.
Paolo Parisi’s vibrant colors and black contour line work is a fitting stylistic choice to pay homage to the artist. The narrative focuses on Haring’s life in three parts beginning with his teenage years growing up in a small Pennsylvania with conservative parents and in turn discovering art, “Jesus people” and almost becoming one before alcohol and drugs, becoming curious about other boys, and his exposure to other art beyond cartoons through museums. The years from 1980 through 1987 compose the bulk of the book opening with Haring having been dropped off in New York by his father. Haring’s life going forward was a whirlwind of activity from adventures in bath houses, studying at the School of Visual Arts, nights at Club 57, while meeting new people, finding his tribe and the love of his life Juan Dubose, and his exponential increase in art making. The closing chapter marks the final three years of Haring’s life by tracing his continued rise in art world celebrity, openings of his Pop Shop stores in Tokyo and New York City, the shock and grief upon learning of Dubose’s AIDS diagnosis, a last hurrah of sorts with an Italian art installation which Parisi follows with a heartbreaking scene in which Haring remembers his friends lost to AIDS and ponders his own imminent death from the virus.
Certainly Parisi’s visual memoir is not the first book written about or by the artist, as Parisi takes care to mention in his preface. Haring’s Journals and John Gruen’s authorized biography among another baker’s dozen as his research, all of which are listed in a bibliography in addition to a discography and filmography, were the basis of Parisi’s research and inspiration.
A note of appreciation from a book design perspective. The book’s pages are sewn bound, a technique that makes the book and its pages stronger and longer lasting than the perfect binding method whichs simply glues pages to a book’s spine. A sewn bound book will lie open flat and art won’t disappear in page gutters as is the case with trade paperbacks from traditional comic publishers.
Like photographers Robert Mapplethorpe and Peter Hujar and multi media artist David Wojnarowicz, Haring reacted to the social and political events of the time of which AIDS loomed the largest. Parisi’s biography admirably succeeds in illuminating Haring’s life as an important figure of the Eighties counter culture movement. This is my introduction to Parisi’s work and I’ll happily search out his other graphic novels (such as John Coltrane, Billie Holliday, and Basquiat) while anticipating future ones.
A short preview of his Haring biography can be found on the publisher’s site.