Basquiat and Haring: A Hurried Generation
By Glenn O'Brien
Keith Haring’s career ended with his death at 31; Jean-Michel Basquiat’s career ended with his death at 27. They were the most powerful artists of their generation and both produced a life’s work in little more than a decade. Their intensity seemed fated, as if they knew they had only a few years to change the world.
I met Basquiat when he was 18 years old and best known as the author of SAMO, the cryptic and clever graffiti that suddenly popped up around Manhattan, particularly in the art districts of SoHo and the East Village. Here was a guy doing something really different. This wasn’t just a tag, a turf-signifying signature, this was comedic poetry, post-Zen koans and aphorisms of teenage prophesy. After a few weeks of hanging out, I also discovered that the guy was a real artist. Watching him draw was like watching Willie Mays bat or Dr. J dunk. It was no coincidence that he wasn’t tagging stations on the 6 train, but instead concentrating on Mercer, Greene, Wooster and
West Broadway streets. He wasn’t about going to the Bronx but about going to the top.
One day, I guess it was 1980, I asked Basquiat who his favorite artist was and he said Haring. I had no idea who that was, but instead of explaining, he just brought him around to my weekly cable TV show, “TV Party.” I couldn’t have been more surprised. It would have been hard to find someone who looked more the part of an innocent. He had a sweet, open, angelic baby face, curly already-receding hair, and he wore bright pink plastic glasses. He looked like someone Woody Allen might have cast to play a teen Woody, nerdy but also somehow blank and almost defiant. He was two and a half years older than Basquiat, but he looked even younger.
Later I figured out that this kid was the one who was wheat-pasting provocatively funny collage posters up around the rock clubs, satires of The Daily News and New York Post headlines like: “Reagan Slain by Hero Cop” and “Mob Flees at Pope Rally.” At around the same time, Richard Hambleton was doing police-style chalk outlines on sidewalks covering the same turf.
Apparently Haring first met Basquiat by accident at the School of Visual Arts, where Haring was a student. In an interview with Vince Aletti, Haring recalled: “SVA was where I met Kenny Scharf, where I met John Sex; it’s actually where I met SAMO for the first time. I let him into the school without knowing who he was—because he was having trouble getting past the security guard at the front—and he asked me if I’d walk him into the school, so I walked him in, and then later on I saw all this graffiti and found out he was the one
who had done it.”
That generation of New York artists—Basquiat, Haring, Scharf, Lenny McGurr aka “Futura 2000,” and Hambleton, as well as somewhat older artists like John Fekner—was certainly inspired by the graffiti scene, but what they were doing was more like unauthorized public art. It wasn’t simply about marking out territory, about individuals saying “I’m here” in a world of corporate signs; it
was about making art for the great audience, the people on the streets, art that wasn’t a monument to a war hero, or an abstract sculpture funded by a bank, but post-Pop popular art. It often had a message and a political dimension, like the
May ’68 posters of Atelier Populaire, but first of all it was art. Hambleton’s anthropomorphic black shadows were painted on walls along streets that were still dangerous, and they could throw a chill up the spine as you turned a corner. Haring’s subway chalk drawings provided a noncommercial, populist form of delight for MTA riders.
While Basquiat quit working outside with a bang, writing “SAMO IS DEAD,” Haring continued making his subway drawings into 1985 when he had been represented by the Tony Shafrazi Gallery for three years, and had mounted one-man shows in Rotterdam, Tokyo, Naples, Antwerp, London, Cologne, Milan, Basel and Munich, including a solo show of large steel sculptures at Leo Castelli’s gallery.
Haring was committed to erasing the distinction between high and low art, but he tired of having his subway drawings “collected” almost as soon as they appeared, and he had been arrested several times making them. In 1986, he opened the Pop Shop on Lafayette Street which sold his art and products he designed. He said, “My shop is an extension of what I was doing in the subway
stations, breaking down the barriers between high and low art.”
While Basquiat may seem to have taken the high road, and Haring tried to navigate the tricky territory between major gallery artist and
multiples entrepreneur, both artists were keen to have a broad audience and engage their generational peers. Basquiat gave up writing on the walls before Haring, probably because he sensed that what happened to black graffiti artist Michael Stewart, who died at the hands of the police, could easily happen to him.
Haring produced events at Club 57 and curated the gallery space at the Mudd Club. He also created and distributed thousands of anti-nuke posters and designed fabric for designer Vivienne Westwood. He created dozens of indoor and outdoor murals; he created TV spots and stage sets for theater, film, video and dance. He painted a large mural for the Palladium nightclub. He collaborated with such diverse artists as Bill T. Jones, Robert Mapplethorpe, Brion Gysin, Jenny Holzer, Duran Duran and Run DMC.
Basquiat made postcards and sold them on the street, hawked a line of hand-painted clothes under the name MANMADE, and created multiples, including the Anatomy series; he starred in the film Downtown 81, created an MTV video, illustrated a children’s book written by Maya Angelou and like Haring executed a large mural at the Palladium nightclub; he fronted his own band
and produced a seminal hip-hop record. Basquiat DJ’d regularly at the nightclub Area where Haring also painted a skateboard ramp.
Both artists were workaholics, creating in vastly diverse media virtually nonstop. Their lives were work. I don’t believe it had anything to do with ambition per se, or greed, or any kind of obsessive compulsive mental states, but with an almost magical desire to reclaim the power of the visual artist with the public. It’s no coincidence that both became close with the idol Andy Warhol, because he was another relentless worker who ranged seamlessly from painting, sculpture and prints, to film, video, theater and publishing, but
also because Warhol seemed to want to make art itself bigger—to achieve the level of influence by the pop stars he knew like the Beatles and the Stones.
It might have been expected that the 20-something artists sought out an artist old enough to be their father who came closer than any other Pop artist to making truly popular art. What wasn’t expected was that in the end Warhol would be more influenced by Haring and Basquiat than they were by him. The pupils became the master’s master. Warhol, a great draughtsman, had virtually given up drawing until Haring and Basquiat harangued and mocked him into once again showing his hand, which he did with spectacular results in his final bodies of work.
Today, Haring and Basquiat are revered as masters and their work is highly coveted, but more than that they got what they really wanted: a mass public. They not only changed the art world, creating and opening for outsiders with vision; they changed the world’s consciousness across a spectrum—from sexual identity to black history. They made art that was educated and political
but also stunningly captivating to the eye. They made art that was as big as rock, and they did it for the people, for the kids, and it’s still radiating decades later.
From the Collection of a Private Bank