Thursday, March 28, 2024

Books: "Radiant: The Life and Line of Keith Haring,” By Brad Gooch"


Radiant: The Life and Line of Keith Haring

By Brad Gooch

HarperCollins Publishers/Harper Books; hardcover, 512 pages; $40.00

Brad Gooch is a poet, novelist, and biographer who has authored ten books including Smash Cut, memoir that captured his exuberant youth in New York's art scene in the 1970s and '80sGodtalk: Travels in Spiritual America; City Poet: The Life and Times of Frank O'Hara; and Flannery: A Life of Flannery O'Connor, which was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, a New York Times bestseller, and a finalist for a National Book Critics Circle Award.

In the fascinating and comprehensive new book, Radiant, which could easily be on a coffee table, Gooch examines the impact of Keith Haring, the street artist whose work defined a particular cultural time and place, that being a once-vibrant downtown Manhattan that was decaying in the 1980s, marked by rebellion and excess, soon to be ravaged by AIDS. Haring's images are instantly recognizable to people in this era because they are on products ranging from kid's sneakers to Coach backpacks. 

Gooch was granted access to Haring's extensive archive, and he was interviewed or assisted by over two hundred people in assembling this definitive account detailing the magic and mystery of a barrier-breaking visionary.

"I saw my first Keith Haring circa 1980, though I can't say exactly when, only that from the first crawling babies spotted in SoHo, his artworks were a marker, a sory of placeholder in my memories of the decade," Gooch writes. "With his early belief that art could change the world for the better, and wishing to make accessible and affordable for everyone, Haring, against all odds, succeeded at his democratizing mission. In our own era of engagement by so many artists with any available surface; with personal icons and licensing; with activism, collaborating, communication; and with the fostering of community, Keith Haring seems more than ever one of us."

Haring arrived in New York City in 1978, at just twenty years old, after growing up in Kutztown, Pennsylvania, which couldn't be more different. Gooch spends a fair amount of time examining this town that had a population of no more than five thousand people, it not only was the embodiment of Main Street USA, but it captured the time of American Graffiti, with teenage boys cruising the main drag at night, and most of the town's workers went to factories. 

Interestingly, Haring was not the only great artist to come from a Pennsylvania town like this. Andy Warhol was the son of a construction worker and grew up in the Oakland neighborhood of Pittsburgh. Jeff Koons, who was similar in age to Haring, came from York County, whose fauna of the backyards gave him inspiration for his stainless steel Rabbit sculpture. Alexander Calder, who made lilting mobiles that Haring admired, came from Lawnton, near the state capital of Harrisburg.

One thing Haring picked up on immediately in New York was how it was a city filled with urgent messages, from ones that were taped to blank walls to ones spraypainted on the sides of buses. The spot he chose to put his unsigned chalk drawings on the black matte sheets used to cover outdated ads in the subway. 

These drawings became Haring's alphabet of sorts, from flying saucers to pyramids, ziggurat stairways, barking dogs, and crawling babies suffused in rays. It wasn't long before he became a global artist, part of an influential cultural crowd that included Warhol, Madonna, and Basquiat. Haring played a part in breaking down the barrier between high art and popular culture, creating accessible work for all that inspired radical social change before he passed away due to AIDS in 1990.

Originally deemed radical, Haring's art has become timeless. Among his most known works are his drawings of human figures, which, the more their heads grew, eventually turned into crawling babies.

"Taking the baby as his mark, or 'tag,' Keith redrew it in a single, continuous line with a thick Magic Marker, which graffiti artists used, over and over, in locations where it would surely be seen," Gooch writes. "Careful not to violate anyone's space, finding spots in between other tags or on previously disregarded territory, he manifested the babies, subtly and persistently, on lamppost bases, police barricades, plastic coverings for subway maps, and the sides of metal dumpsters. I remember seeing these headlong babies and audible dogs popping forward on the sides of ready-made newsstands in SoHo and sensing that they were poetry in motion, or implied motion. Graffiti artist Futura 2000 has spoken of 'first seeing the crawling babies on a concrete wall on the south side of Canal, by Pearl Paint. There were about five of them crawling. Damn, what is that? It was kind of interesting.' That same year, at Christmastime, Keith, fascinated by subway ads as mass messaging for a popular audience, noticed a new Johnnie Walker holiday ad depicting train tracks disappearing into a snowy landscape. The white space of the snow inspired him to pull out his handy marker and draw a row of the unstoppable babies he had been repeating aboveground. One corner of sky lent itself to a flying saucer that beamed its rays down onto a baby, endowing it with special power - the origin of the now-iconic radiant baby. 'At this time, the crawling person - the baby with the rays - became almost like a kind of signature,' Haring said. 'In the beginning, it appeared on almost all of the drawings - instead of signing my name, the baby would appear.' Within a year, the American poet Rene Ricard titled a piece in Artforum introducing Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat to a larger audience 'The Radiant Child,' and the nickname stuck."

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