Are there any images more emblematic of downtown street and queer life in 1980s New York City, including the iconography of ACT UP and other AIDS activists, than the artwork of Keith Haring? The talismanic radiant baby, the barking dog, the frenetic dancers—they’ve all become indelibly associated with a certain time and place, all of them animated by Haring’s distinctive “lines”—both bold and squiggly, stylish and “primitive,” childlike yet actually quite complex in their arrangement. Part of the lore of Haring, who died of AIDS in 1990 after a career that enjoyed epic commercial and popular success in the course of one decade, is that he was a “street artist,” painting not only for galleries and rich collectors, but for public enjoyment in subways, on walls, and on unused billboards, such as his famous “Crack is Wack” work in East Harlem amid the 1980s crack epidemic.
Haring, a white boy from Pennsylvania who came to New York City for art school, engaged with Black and Brown New Yorkers not only in the streets, as an artist, collaborator, and mentor, but in his own works—such as his famous body painting of HIV-positive Black dancer Bill T. Jones—and in his relationships. He preferred romances with young Black and Latinx men and felt such a kinship with Blackness and Brownness that, in his own journals, he would decry racial injustice and muse that surely he could not be white inside. Those aspects of Haring’s life and work are at the center of Keith Haring’s Line: Race and the Performance of Desire, a new book by Ricardo Montez, Ph.D., a professor at The New School, also in New York City. Non-academics may find some of the language in the book challenging (I did!), but Montez still puts across a compelling, complex picture of Haring while capturing the cross-racial creative vibrancy of the downtown New York 1980s art, club, and street scenes, even at the height of the AIDS epidemic. Montez recently made some time to talk to TheBody.
Tim Murphy: Hi there, Ricardo! Congrats on your exciting new book about Keith. It’s clear from the book that you share my fascination with Haring, and his place and time. You talk about leaving the Whitney Museum’s 1997 posthumous retrospective of Keith’s work in tears, and about how your passion for him led you to this research. What is it about Keith that compels you?
Ricardo Montez: I’m 45. Keith is an artist whose work I had seen at various points growing up, but when I picked up his journals [several pages of which are reproduced in the book] and reading about this person, similar to my own age, about to come to NYC as an artist and work through his desires, but also thinking about how he could get as many people as possible interested in seeing and experiencing his art ... and also, in his journals, to see the toll of HIV and that the world he was in was devastated ... it was a very complicated experience to read those journals, and I kind of fell in love with him while doing so.
RM: I think the charismatic enthusiasm that he has for people in the world is hard not to fall in love with. He also lived life in a very sex-positive way that is so inspiring.
TM: Right. And you not only title the book Keith Haring’s Line, but you use that phrase throughout the book. What do you mean by it exactly?
RM: I mean the graphic line that is central to his work, whether it’s the radiant baby, the barking dog, or his other forms. The line is the visual medium that those forms are made of. People often think his line is simplistic. They think, “I could do that,” or “What’s so great about that?” But he drew a very distinct, unique line, which is why people are drawn to it so intensely. It’s also a citation or reference to so-called primitive art objects. And that’s a story about race and appropriation. So I think that the race of Haring’s line is there all the time, and there’s a tension there.
TM: So, let’s get right into the race stuff. I was recently rewatching Madonna’s Truth or Dare for the first time in many years and was really appalled by how she talks to her back-up singers and dancers of color, using all their lingo while also infantilizing them and basically making them worship her. It really brought back to me bell hooks’ famous essay Madonna: Plantation Mistress or Soul Sister? It’s clear in that essay that hooks’ take on Madonna’s appropriation of Black culture and talent is that it’s wrong, it’s highly problematic, it’s a kind of theft, it’s offensive and insulting. So how would you characterize Keith’s relationship with Black and Brown culture, art, and lives?
RM: For me, as someone who thinks critically about race and differential power relations, artists working with people of color and the consequences of that, there was a lot of frustration with Keith, this person whom I’d fallen in love with. But I didn’t want to let that frustration cancel out and diminish the line that he was working with and the life he was living, which I admired and also wanted for myself. I’m ambivalent about his relationship to people of color in his life and work. On one hand, I want to address the problems that arise when Haring works with someone who doesn’t have the same amount of recognition, who might not be trained in legal language to understand how to have continued access to revenues from sales of the work he did with Keith.
TM: It sounds like you’re talking about the work he did with LA II (Angel Ortiz), who in the 1980s was a young, straight, street artist of color, who in the years after Haring’s death complained that the Keith Haring Foundation was not compensating him for that collaborative work. To your knowledge, did Haring make provisions before his death that LA II be compensated properly?
RM: I’m not sure. But my guess is no, or I don’t think that LA II would have the kind of criticism he has today. I think the foundation has struggled on some level, because they don’t feel contractually obligated to honor LA II. I think that people get into [working] relations without understanding the ways to protect yourself and your work—you’re not always thinking about those things at the time.
TM: So, again, what kind of judgment would you level against Keith around that, and around his racial dynamics more generally?
RM: The way he frames desire around race in his journals, where he says, “I’m sure that inside, I’m not white.” He’s really trying to distance himself from this history of white oppression and violence. He can’t understand the racism that he sees in, for instance, the police officers that killed Black graffiti artist Michael Stewart, which Haring memorialized in a famously political 1985 work, “Michael Stewart—USA For Africa.” He can’t understand how he could be part of that system, and he’s working through this in his journal. At a different point, he says that his spirit and soul are much closer to people of color. So there is a fantasy he has, where he thinks he can access this kind of thing. It’s racist. It’s a kind of white liberal fantasy that you can know the difference of the other that you want to take from, to be.
But I’m also trying to not let the problem of this assertion totally diminish Keith Haring’s line, because I also see that his line is a vehicle for him to think through the problems or limits of race. And the utopian potential of his art seems to be about the fact that everyone will make their own meaning in relation to whatever he put out there.
TM: It’s hard not to think about him in relation to Robert Mapplethorpe, who also made art at that time, also had relationships with and used in his photography Black men, and also died of AIDS, a year before Keith. How do you weigh the two of them?
RM: I think they were two very different people. The art critic Kobena Mercer has a pretty well-known essay about Mapplethorpe in which the first part is just criticizing the fetishization and degradation in Mapplethorpe’s work, and the second half is a reevaluation, trying to temper that criticism in light of the fact that Mercer had to think about Mapplethorpe as a gay man, engaged in a subculture, who actually knew the people he was taking pictures of. So there’s a relationship being documented that’s not just fetishization and racism. That essay was very inspiring to me in thinking about Keith, because I’m trying to think about ambivalence in relationship to reading his work.
TM: Is there a tonal difference in their work?
RM: Mapplethorpe’s work is about S&M and also formalism, which is not how I understand Haring’s work. He’s about a connectedness to different quote-unquote street cultures, to Black and Latinx youth. Working in the streets was very different from what Mapplethorpe was doing.
TM: So, you also look at Haring painting Bill T. Jones’ body, as well as his adorning Grace Jones for her video, “I’m Not Perfect, But I’m Perfect for You.” And you also talk about the relationship between Grace Jones and her white French lover, Jean-Paul Goude, who photographed her in ways that some consider fetishistic and primitivist. You talk about both Jones’ “complicity” in those projects, rather than the word “collaboration.” What’s the difference?
RM: When you’re talking about people like Bill T. Jones and Grace Jones, they’re not going to be duped into becoming fetish objects for these white artists. They are engaging in very active ways in the art-making. Collaboration to me suggests only a positive framing, whereas complicity has a different [meaning], and it’s not necessarily a bad word, but it means that there’s something more complicated. Yes, there is that neoprimitive line being put on their Black flesh, but I also try to undermine academic, pious readings. There’s more going on here. When I turn to Grace Jones’ own descriptions of her work with Goude, she brings a wholly different energy to it than my own reading of their relationship. Who am I to have the last word?
TM: In other words, if Grace Jones says that she was down for it, a part of it, that they were in on it together, who are we not to believe it?
RM: Yes. Her whole memoir, I’ll Never Write My Memoirs, is this view of her education and development as a person who had to navigate so many racist fields in terms of her visibility and success. And her deep love of Jean-Paul Goude is remarkable.
TM: Right. So in terms of the role of AIDS in Keith’s life, you say that you cried when you left the Whitney retrospective in 1997, which ended with viewers walking down a dark tunnel and coming to a final, famous painting by Keith that depicts a sperm as the Devil. Why did that affect you?
RM: It’s about the intensity of the HIV narrative of that show. It was so dramatic. Part of my tears was not only feeling the loss of him, but also the way that the show made me feel a loss for his kind of sexual creativity and energy. He resisted morality, the narrative that one got HIV because one deserved it. But the show maintained that morality in the way it structured his life. It lost the playfulness of desire in his work.
TM: I have to admit that at times, such as when you were doing a somewhat dark reading of Grace Jones’ video, which is actually quite fun and silly and over-the-top, I wondered if you sometimes tired of analyzing the culture, and the pop culture, of that era to death and simply want to enjoy how wild and fun and vibrant it is.
RM: I’m an academic, and part of that means thinking through the ways that [cultural works] produce meaning. But I hope my ways of thinking through things doesn’t diminish the fun, because I’m also trying to say that there is fun and pleasure to be had in these various art projects that I look at in the book. I hope I don’t come off as a kind of humorless person. I wouldn’t spend so much time with this material if I wasn’t excited by it on some level. I’m not interested in writing a book that just shits on everything to prove a point. I want to have pleasure and confront problems at the same time.
TM: One thing I learned from your book is that Keith himself liked to read theory, like Roland Barthes. What do you think he would make of your book?
RM: He actually wrote in his journals that he wanted people to write about his line.
TM: So you took it as a kind of invitation?
TM: What do you think he would make of your racial critique of him and his work?
RM: Well, that’s an impossible question to answer. But I get the sense from his journal pages that he was a self-critical person, always challenging himself to think through his work and who he was as a person in the world.
TM: Do you think that if he were alive now, he would be able to say, “I now better understand what I was doing and how it was problematic”?
RM: I think a lot of artists who did work in the ’80s don’t talk about the racial politics of the work they did. Certainly, his foundation has had to confront certain challenges [around power, privilege, recognition, and compensation] that have arisen over the years. He was very invested in being with the people who inspired him and trying to be attentive to different kinds of communities.
TM: It was interesting reading your book from this very culturally and politically fraught moment we are in, 30 years after Keith’s death. Is there a connection between then and now for you?
RM: When we think about Keith’s outrage over the acquittal of the cops who killed Michael Stewart—that’s obviously a case that’s resonant with what we’re seeing today over and over again. And also the question of what does it mean to be a white liberal trying to navigate these racist horrors and not just be patronizing. What does it mean to be a white ally?
TM: You’re ambivalent about whether Haring was a good white ally?
RM: Yes. I believe that he really had a desire to change the political circumstances that people were facing, especially to end racialized oppression. Look at his anti-apartheid work and the images of Michael Stewart. I believe he was very earnest in his desire for a better world, and understanding that, with HIV, certain people were suffering more than others. And yet I’m not sure he fully grasped his own entitlement. It’s really something to say, “I’m not white”—it shows a certain limit in your capacity to be an ally. But I’m not interested in that being the only thing we hold onto when we think about Keith, because clearly, via the foundation, his money continues to fund all sorts of projects that are really important to Black and Latinx youth and artistic communities, and that was something he called for via the foundation’s mission.
TM: OK. And finally, you end by showing some really beautiful images from 1981 of Keith and his then lover, Juan Dubose—whose own death of AIDS prior to Keith’s really devastated Keith—frolicking and lounging on the beach in Brazil. You’re very passionate about these images. And of course, famously, Andy Warhol photographed Haring and Dubose together and made some amazing images from those Polaroids. Why did you end with them?
RM: Juan was Keith’s first significant lover. It was challenging for me that I couldn’t access Juan. Everybody was always talking about him, but we never really hear from him. That’s an interesting silence to work with. So I got fixated on their intimacy precisely because I didn’t have access to it. Then I see the Warhol Polaroids, and they move me so intensely. Keith’s journal passages about Juan’s death are so upsetting and moving. Then I find those beach images, which are from a different stage of their lives, before things get complicated. They look like they’re having so much fun. So I fetishize these beautiful boys on the beach.