Keith Haring’s life, and New York’s Downtown Scene, and perhaps culture as a whole changed in 1980 when Andy Warhol and the art dealer Tony Shafrazi strolled into the basement of Club 57, which neither had ever stepped foot into before, and which Haring had filled with hundreds of drawings in gold and silver magic marker. It was the night of his opening. “We were all buzzing,” recalls Kim Hastreiter, who would soon afterwards found Paper magazine, “‘UH OH,’ ‘What are THEY doing here?’ We were suspicious and in a sense excited and sad at the same time – because that night it felt like our amazing secret world Downtown was being invaded and discovered and wouldn’t be the same again.” In many ways she was right. But first of all, Haring would be catapulted into the limelight.Warhol invited him to his Factory for lunch and they soon became good friends; Haring kept Warhol up to date with 80s youth culture, and Warhol in turn introduced him to the glittering world of celebrity and success. In 1982, Haring had his breakthrough solo show at Tony Shafrazi’s illustrious gallery on Mercer Street. The following year, he collaborated with Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren on their autumn/winter 1983 Witches collection, and Madonna wearing a leather jacket he hand-painted to perform Like a Virgin on Top of the Pops. In 1985, he drew graffiti all over Grace Jones’ naked body for her live shows at Paradise Garage. He was at the heart of both modern art and pop culture, which is exactly where he wanted to be. Had he not passed away of AIDS-related complications in 1990, aged 31, Keith Haring would be celebrating his 60th birthday today – which makes this a good moment to consider his life and his legacy.“I arrived in New York at a time when the most beautiful paintings being shown in the city were on wheels, on trains,” he once said, remembering coming to the city in 1978, “paintings that travelled to you instead of vice versa.” But rather than copying the Wild Style graffiti artists, Haring found a different way of working underground. Noticing one day that unsold advertising spaces on the New York City subway were filled with plain black paper, he ran up the stairs to Times Square, bought some white chalk, ran back underground and began drawing in his trademark language of comic figures and squiggles. Before long, he had made thousands of drawings – up to 40 a day – as he rode the subways across the five boroughs, to and from school, work, clubs, parties and cruising spots. His works would be seen by a colossal number of people every day, and because they were so often replaced, he had to keep coming up with fresh new ideas continually.Haring loved the subway, with all its advertising posters, painted trains and flows of people, and also loved the secret Downtown, the hidden world of metropolitan fucking and clubbing. He loved dancing the night away at now legendary dives like Club 57, Paradise Garage and the Mudd Club, or cruising public bathhouses, or the backrooms of S/M orgy clubs like the Anvil, for the kind of sex that wasn’t so readily available back home in rural Pennsylvania. “He suddenly popped out like a flower, like a seed in that cauldron of energy: New York City,” Timothy Leary once said about Haring, “and he put all his remarkable energy together – the wall, the easel, the canvas, the pigment… it’s a dance!” The city’s nightlife, with all its joie de vivre, its shuddering, intertwined bodies and explosions of colour, was where he found his inspiration but also, in those hardcore early years, before the dangers of AIDs became so well known, and before he became such a prominent advocate of safe sex, that Haring contracted the HIV that would eventually lead to his death. In a classical tragic trajectory, New York is what made Keith Haring and also what killed him, all in the space of just over a decade.His deep love for nightclubs, and for black and Latino culture, and everything around them, was also a huge inspiration for Haring. In that sense, his legacy can be seen in the practices of younger artists like Eddie Peake: who makes bright, graffiti-inspired work, and takes much of his inspiration from gay culture, black culture, club culture and pirate radio culture, and who strips his performers naked and covers them in paint, like Haring and Grace Jones. But of course he’s just one of many artists continuing Haring’s legacy in their own way.
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