(Originally published in the San Francisco Bay Area Reporter, 1992)
Andy Warhol’s most extravagant creation was his public persona, a fiction he created by controlling his image in the mass media. Using the mass media as one of his artistic media, Warhol made himself into a “part of American culture, like Mickey Mouse,” Keith Haring recognized.
Keith Haring, The Authorized Biography, by John Guen (Simon and Schuster) has just been released. And Haring, Warhol, Disney, edited by Bruce Kurtz (Prestel Press) has been published in conjunction with the traveling show organized by the Phoenix Art Museum. These two coffee-table tomes examine the effects of populist media on Pop Art, and how it shaped what’s known today in university studies as mass-marketed popular culture. On first impression, both books feel a little deflated. Either their sound bites are uncompelling or the analyses offered (except the pithy essay in the second book on Warhol by Dave Hickey) are too facile when discussing art product universality. But the reader can find some unexpected pearls of wisdom – you just have to dive for them.
The Haring-only book is an authorized biography, so there are subtle veneers of politeness, and again, product control. The book’s seemingly straightforward, linear progression is occasionally ruptured by overly complimentary or directly conflicting opinions of the speakers; it is sometime impossible to determine if someone is speaking in retrospect or historically interviewed at the time of the actual event. The result is that of a video clip suspended in indeterminate yet perpetual animation.
Interesting tidbits in the biography had to dow with Haring’s early development and how influenced he was by spiritual notions about chance. He accidentally found a book in 1976 at a flea market called The Art Spirit, which led him, literally, on the road to art school. He logged the quote, “Chance favors the prepared mind,” by Louis Pasteur from a wall mural about alchemy at the Fischer Scientific Corporation where he worked in 1977. Haring also picked up a scrap of paper found on the ground outside of a Pittsburgh McDonald’s that year which said “God is a Dog” on one side and “Jesus is a Monkey” on the other.
These quirky, personal mappings Haring later integrated into ideas about surrealist automatic writing and the resulting absence of shapes found in the continuous line. They were notions examined at the School of Visual Art during New York’s heyday of graffiti “artists” in the late 1970s. Haring expanded his own system of nonverbal communication icons and went on to paint them on tunnel walls of the NYC subway system.
This early period of his short career, as well as the years just before his 1990 AIDS-related death, were his meatiest because they examined the mechanisms of mass image consumption. The middle years of upbeat, playful, cartooned and decorative pop made his late-in-life serious political commentary on apartheid and AIDS more palatable and accessible to a large audience.
Unfortunately, these books focus on how Haring parachuted down into the art market. Change, seen from this perspective is merely a fresh niche or product to push. Both books avoid a critique of the market forces which prohibit the things Haring smuggle in with him, like content. William Burroughs, Clemente, Castelli, and other celebrities offer pronouncement about the timeless nature of Haring’s work. Such glamorous hype is suspect in that it diminishes the value of a body of work which is time-dated and, therefore, formidably loaded with a high degree of cultural specificity.
In Haring, Warhol, Disney, editor Bruce Kurtz, who organized the Phoenix Art Museum show, alludes to assessing distinctions and relationships between these artists:
One of the reasons whey some guardians of fine art resist admitting Haring into the pantheon that includes Andy Warhol is related to why Walt Disney was not taken seriously by the intelligentsia: their art appeals to children and young people. It is, consequently, not regarded as “serious.” Warhol’s art, however much it appeals to youth because if its mass-media content, has a cynical undercurrent. When his art does not deal with death, disaster and tragedy – from car crashes and assassinations – it often depicts the transitory nature of celebrity status. Warhol’s art is mostly about a sense of loss: loss of life, loss of innocence, potential loss of status. Haring’s and Disney’s art, equally steeped in popular culture, are more optimistic and affirmative. The animated lines in their drawings contain a gregarious energy that conveys the optimism of youth. They jump off the page with movement. Warhol’s lines, as beautiful as they are, just lie there.
This is the basis of Kurtz’s argument that Haring’s art presented three facets. It got a foot in the door of the fine art camp of high culture; it was a shoo-in for the entertainment tastes of middle-class popular culture; and it stubbed its toe appropriating and reversing the graffiti and fold arts of the lower class. These two recent releases are not the best picture books on these artists, but the quick, cursory glance they elicit, like a detour across the surface of the ideas they propose, may provoke the reader’ wish to explore the issues in depth elsewhere.
If you want to know all about Andy Warhol, [the artist said] just look at the surface of my paintings and films and me, and there I am. There’s nothing behind it . . . I just pass my hands over the surface of things.