Ciphers, graffiti hieroglyphs, and lateral communication.
This conversation between Andrew Blackley, Johanna Burton, and Scott Treleaven is the third and final component of Keith Haring: Languages. It supplements an exhibition at the Fales Library and Special Collections (NYU) of 130 never-before-exhibited, understudied artworks and documents held by the Keith Haring Foundation. A conference featuring nine speakers coincided with the exhibition's opening, bringing together figures from across academic and professional disciplines in order to publicly address the lineages available in these text-based materials as adjacent and precedent to the more well-known visual art of Haring’s later career. The text below threads together the major themes from Keith Haring: Languages—historicity, methodology, and the readership of artists’ writings and papers as substantive material and theoretical categories.
Andrew Blackley To begin, perhaps it would be best for the two of you to give a short summary of your presentation from December, and, in doing so, describe your own interest—personal or public—that you highlighted. What did you make of this material upon seeing and researching it for presentation?
Scott Treleaven Well, I knew that Keith had a relationship with Brion Gysin and William S. Burroughs—but I had never realized the extent of their influence until I saw the material from his SVA days that you’d shown me. Haring had collaborated with them both, and I knew he had looked up to them as mentors, but what struck me was the he actually followed Burroughs and Gysin’s instructions on how to break down language, how to attack restrictive language—the “language of control,” as they refer to it. Haring went through a whole step-by-step process that Burroughs and Gysin had laid out in The Third Mind that’s supposed to transcend syllabic language and create a kind of pictorial communication that could extend beyond the values of what sanctioned, syllabic language allowed. For someone like Keith, who had such a heavy mistrust of the politics of his era, to be able to insinuate his own agenda—whether it was about HIV, homosexuality, poverty, youth culture, or drug use, he was able to bring all of that material into a mainstream forum in a way that no one at the time had been able to do—it was a completely marginal, forbidden discourse, but he brought it into the mainstream. He did exactly what Burroughs and Gysin said you would be able to do if you followed their process. You would become a “hieroglyphic scribe,” transcending socio-cultural boundaries. Essentially, Haring demonstrated that Burroughs and Gysin were not just making up a bunch of Dadaist party-tricks. They made rules that actually produced real results. It’s basically a confirmation that “magic,” at least as Burroughs considered it, really does exist in art, and that his and Gysin’s view of reality turns out to be pretty close to the way things actually are. (laughter)
AB The work of Burroughs and Gysin is key to this body of work. A collage was included in the exhibition that was created before Haring and Burroughs became friends. In this collage one of the elements is a section of an interview in which Burroughs is describing his approach to writing. Haring was already demonstrating a receptivity to Burroughs's influence—
ST You see a visual language.
AB Even in the most literal sense. Other work from this period shows him working with language: there are gridded poems, cut-ups; elsewhere we see a dynamic developing between the code and the speaker. The study is very interesting as he developed a methodology for language that would allow him to continually push through and redefine boundaries.
ST In 1980, there’s this total switch in his work. He has some kind of epiphany or apotheosis, and you see a very distinct line appear in his work. The hieroglyphs manifest themselves; it’s incredible to see that actual moment. It looks like he made a decision to make these markings in a particularly strategic way. Like he was marking a graduation from Gysin and Burroughs’s academy.
Johanna Burton I think something that is actually crucial to me—and it might sound like I’m contradicting your graduation theory—is that the earnest, repetitive strategies that we recognize as bearing any overt mark of pedagogical inspiration or artistic genealogy are something that seem to have disappeared in histories of contemporary art, where we tend to erase the steps leading up to the “graduation,” to instead privilege what looks “new” and innovative over what looks learned, mimicked, or handed down.
JB —Ironically, Andrew’s show, and the act of ushering in that less “mature” phase of Haring’s early work and taking it seriously (regardless of whether it might have been “derivative" of strategies that can be prescribed to Gysin and Burroughs) got me to see Haring in a way that I had not before. I knew some of that earliest work a little, but in investigating it more thoroughly, it was like I suddenly got to know Haring all over again, and differently. My paper, as you know, took the exact opposite tack, at least on the face of it, focusing on the current mass consumption of Haring. Yet there’s a distinct link, since I argued that reductive narratives that make Haring a prototypical “market artist” could only do so by stripping the texture of his history (including the “pre-graduation” era) and utterly de-contextualizing his multi-faceted activities. So in a funny way there’s something—at least in this case—radical about showing Haring at his most derivative and allowing very evident influences to permeate later moments, in which they aren’t as visibly present but are likely still motivating forces. I think it’s important to discuss the ramifications of how we process early stages of a career where there’s no tongue-in-cheek, no cynicism, and no scare-quotes in work that is earnestly trying to digest that of mentors and friends.
ST There’s also an urgency.
JB An absolute urgency. So what does that processing look like? If you do it a thousand times it will, maybe, stick; only then can you move on to something else. There’s a ritual aspect to it that I find really central. Of course it’s derivative. It’s structural, and that's how structures work. Much of what was on view of this early work felt like the outcome of neurotic or OCD learning, or a version of artistic stalking—totally intentional but deeply psychological in its implications. So in my paper, while I didn't explicitly discuss the ways in which historical foundations play a part in Haring’s work, I discussed the way in which, by not attributing a proper art-historical, poetic, or even homo-social foundation to Haring, he becomes the most recognizable and least understood artist. Haring seems to be seen as a good or bad cultural object, according to the moment and context in which his work is seen. There are moments where he is considered too gauche or too kitsch or too dated, and then there are instances, like right now, when he is more fully embraced and seems to have secured a new kind of relevancy as a historical figure. But that relevancy should not necessarily be seen as positive, it can sometimes simply be a syncing with the style cycle. Especially with work like Haring’s, the political can be totally repressed, subordinated to the superficiality of “the ’80s” at a moment when leg warmers, too, seem to be making a comeback.
Haring’s desire to produce universal, or at very least broadly circulated symbols had to do with political virality. How do you make symbols that are at once totally private and undecipherable and yet have a kind of large-scale appeal? And how might that large-scale appeal serve a political agenda that makes the public aware of issues like AIDS and drug use? But now, it seems, people are able to consume those same symbols, seemingly without their intrinsic content left intact, so the question I want to get back to is: Do they still have an impact beyond the graphic? Even if it’s unconscious or gets carried through undercover—on my good days I think, “It’s there, it’s working, even if people don’t always know it.”
ST That’s a fantastic way to describe it—it must begin somewhere.
JB Not all effects are instantaneous—this is why art has a different kind of political potential, it works over time and changes the way we think about representation, and, in turn, reality. But, then on bad days it feels like some aspects of history really are just lost. I started my paper with a commentary on an exhibition that had just been mounted during Miami Basel, in December 2013, in which all the works were described as “car art,” and one piece was a car that Haring painted in 1986. It was sort of startling, to see how it got imported into this logic, seated alongside Damien Hirst and Richard Prince, and rendered completely—
JB Yeah. I mean, we could talk more about that particular instance, but I was using it as a bridge to discuss Haring’s erasure from art history books as anything but a sort of pop-menace.
ST Haring is an interesting example in terms of what commercial market forces–or an overly-hip curatorial stance–can do to an artist by framing them as ahistorical simply because the market wouldn’t be able digest the actual truth of the artist’s aims, so to speak. Kenneth Anger is a really great example of someone who’s been able to resist the market to a certain degree, because so many of the things that he does just aren’t digestible—and I mean that in the best possible way. You can offer Haring as a graduate of a mystic school, if you will, but we know that won’t fly with the nature of the market, because it’s allergic to sincerity and poetry, so you can only take that so far. Whereas, if you bisect his career and reduce him to a graffiti artist—that has a certain amount of indie cache in the art world. But Haring was terrifically intelligent. He knew all of this. There was an interview with him where he was asked: “If you could be any artist in history which artist would you be?” He said “Warhol or Picasso.” I was shocked at first to hear him say that, but then I thought, Oh, that makes sense. It’s because communication was paramount to him and he wanted to reach the largest number of people. So I think he was a little complicit in leaving his past behind—but he did pick it up again, because in ’86 and ’88 he made those books with Burroughs and Gysin, so he did remain true to his origins. It’s funny—I was suspicious of his work when I was first exposed to him as a teenager, because he was part of the whole MTV crowd, all Absolut Vodka and Swatch. Because I was connected to a more punk-influenced community, those things were considered the enemy; all that stuff was insincere and cynical, it was all about money and fame; it was the game we didn't want to play. But there was a residual element to his work that suggested there was a depth to what I was looking at, and sure enough the more closely I examined it the more I was rewarded—Keith was trying to do things that were politically and socially motivated at their core.
AB It seems Haring was working with language in two different systems. One being the derivative lingual practices inspired by Burroughs and Gysin, and the other being the systems of commerce and media–MTV, Swatch, etcetera. I’m not convinced–nor do I think you are suggesting–that the two are so distinct from one another. It seems that in Haring practicing through these systems - be they derivative or original-here’s something that’s accumulated and naturalized within the work. Maybe the systematic, which is usually assumed external, could be considered as a procedure internalized, systemic.
There is something about naturalization and accumulation of vision and practice that I think is really exciting about this body of work. For example, considering how his early video work developed into video that he would later produce for the Pop Shop, or how the Keith Haring Foundation itself as a philanthropic foundation developed from Haring’s politics alongside his relationship to commerce.
It can be exciting to flip chronological positions given the opportunity of having a beginning and an end to a career–though this body of work challenges any firm beginning date–to ask ourselves what position is most privileged and takes precedence. It’s important, too, to push against the implications of these decisions.
JB In looking back we can also notice that in leaving Haring out of the canon of art history, we’re also leaving out an entire swath of radical social shifts and re-organizations in terms of how culture intersects with it.
JB The way in which AIDS wasn’t—and in many ways still isn’t—processed by the mainstream, for instance. If you leave Haring out, you also leave out a very particular narrative around activism, one that complicates art history but also complicates what activism itself looks like and how it is expected to perform. I want to be clear that I’m not saying that Haring isn’t afforded any place in art history, but that it is a surprisingly minor one, and it is one that, especially in “critical” narratives, reduces his practice to effete, feel-good graffiti.
ST Yeah, we forget how difficult it was to get the message across—the message was not being communicated and thousands of people were dying because the information wasn’t allowed to be disseminated—
JB Right. So you erase the real impetus behind the work, and the whole “medium with a message” construction is rendered illegible. What’s left is a cipher.
ST —Rather than a “by any means necessary” message.
JB Exactly, the urgency is totally stripped down, under-recognized. So too is the continued impact of his being, his presence in the world, even now, decades after his death. Recently, I was in LA and a friend told me, out of the blue, “Oh yeah, I keep meaning to tell you that I made out with Keith Haring”—
AB Someone told me something like that as well, “But, I never really met him,” or something—
JB Exactly! “I didn’t know him, but I made out with him,” and Haring’s strangely political investment in attaining this broad-scope intimacy, or aiming to do so. Intimacy in an unexpected way: “We may not have known each other but we shared this completely rich, if brief, physical connection.” And I was thinking that that’s something that also gets left out–these lateral, unconventional, non-heteronormative modes of making meaning as a group that sort of dissolve and reform organically.
ST And non-cynical, too.
JB Totally non-cynical! Which people sort of can’t imagine how to process, myself included sometimes.
ST I agree, it’s tragic to think that it’s our first line of defense, to approach things in this armor of cynicism.
JB He didn’t have much time to become jaded. I mean, he died when he was what, thirty? Thirty-two?
AB Thirty-one. This period–1978 through ‘81–was extremely active and exciting for Haring in both his interests and output. It leads me to think about Haring’s need to make his own media, or recognize himself within media, by elaborating upon his own codes which, while potentially unrevealing or uncommunicative, remain—in the spirit of the cipher structure—true to the maker. It’s not entirely unlike the idea of not knowing somebody but sharing a kiss with them; there’s at least that one empirical truth. There’s something about the singularity of practiced experience that need not be exclusively biographic, for Haring or others.
JB I do think it’s funny that we keep exclaiming: “I really didn’t know how interesting Haring was!” We are more or less exploring the ramifications of coming to appreciate Haring through deferred action. It didn't happen to me when I was twenty—when that work would generationally seem most appealing, it was the most off-putting and then as I’ve gotten older I’ve started paying more and better attention. In part thanks to Andrew’s show, but even before that I felt a certain responsibility to my current title, to learn a lot more about the person and the amazing Haring Foundation that carries on his legacy—it’s that kind of funny “Oh! Here’s something I thought I knew, but actually there is this really incredible practitioner” and I wonder if it will always work that way with Haring. Where you almost have to pull back the curtain or the veil—
ST —the veil, yeah.
JB And say, “But! And! How amazing!” because he is probably one of the most well-known artists in the world.
AB Yes, by name, but also by this additional saturated and expected recognition of his style.
JB There is a way in which Haring’s work can only be illuminated—or illuminating—when one feels and sees one’s own investments in it. It embodies a kind of mutual reciprocity, even as it’s not really about any kind of highly choreographed relational exchange. It reminds me of the way I became highly attuned to a group of feminist artists who were known for deconstructing popular culture. Not coincidentally, they were making work during the same time period as Haring, though they are treated as though they were worlds apart. I bring this up because it’s so easy for me to understand why I became invested in work by Sherrie Levine, Louise Lawler, Dara Birnbaum, Cindy Sherman, Gretchen Bender, and others—I was searching for tools and tactics to upend a patriarchal image landscape. I was completely energized to see that there were tactics and a language for me to engage and inherit. I hadn’t really thought about this until now, but it’s interesting that these poststructuralist, feminist operations were more or less coincident with Haring’s, since in very different ways they’re both about virality and alternative modes of consciousness raising. I’ve never seen them brought together in critical writing in an interesting way—I guess I have a new project! All to say, in retrospect, I see that while I was immersing myself in more validly “critical” strategies (the likes of Levine and Sherman), I rejected—or better, didn’t even consider—that Haring was engaging in similar ways, even if his engagement looked very different.
ST Which is kind of brilliant because he wouldn’t have been trying to speak to us anyway, because you know he wanted to reach an audience that was immune to this kind of language and ideas—
JB —You’re right.
ST There’s a great video of him doing one of his graffiti hieroglyphs in the New York subway and he’s got a little crowd around him. It dissipates, and there’s this little old woman left standing there and she looks really concerned and asks, “Why are these two men embracing in this graffiti that you’ve done?” and he responds, “Oh, well it’s about brotherhood and brotherly love.” You see her demeanor change and she says, “That’s wonderful” or something, and pats him on the back and carries on. Of course he’s trying to reach the person who would have otherwise resisted a photographic image, or words, about two men embracing–you know, something that Johanna and I would have responded to—
JB Speaking to the converted.
ST Exactly–we were already excluded, so to speak, from the point he was trying to make.
JB It’s an amazing thing, because usually you would want an audience who identifies with your mission and joins your cause, but if you’re actively trying to convert the kind of people who were never, except through the sideways glance, going to come around to your way of thinking, then that's another project. And that might also explain why he’s so misunderstood in terms of his effect on and within art history.
ST And even though he was reaching out to a mass audience he never stopped making his more obscene drawings, the more confrontational ones. It demonstrates his aim was never to be totally palatable or mainstream. Kids were wearing Swatches made by the same guy who painted the fantastic orgy mural in the Gay and Lesbian Center. It’s so great.
AB It’s very interesting from an institutional perspective to focus on the early work of an artist who died midcareer. Nothing seems artificial except for the distinctions we commonly make in defining the early, mid, and late periods of artistic careers. It takes an artist who had a more or less fifteen-year career to make that artifice more evident.
ST It’s a bit of an anomaly because he was also celebrated as an activist, so I think the biographical details necessitate the long view, whereas the juvenilia of an artist tend to be kept tucked away somewhere.
JB I agree. That said, and going back to how we started, as much as I am really very grateful to see the early work (as you know, I just argued for the merits of “student” production in some cases), I’ve seen how such revelations can also be used inappropriately. I do feel that going back to the beginning of his career (or before the beginning!) absolutely sheds light on what Haring did, for all the reasons we discussed. Oftentimes, though, art historians or critics lean on details from the past in order to provide a legitimization for something that may otherwise seem flimsy in the present. What does it mean to show that an artist studied semiotics or film theory in college? It’s often used as a kind of evidence, right? And, with all such information, it can be used to support a certain perspective on something. Remember the Richard Prince show at the Guggenheim, where he used a very particular cross-section of his very early works and studies to recast himself, literally, as a painter rather than photographer? By privileging certain parts of his practice and ignoring others (the ones previously most recognized), he rearranged his whole narrative.
Obviously, Haring didn’t curate the show at the Brooklyn Museum, but somebody wanted to make sure to show what he was steeped in, what he loved, what he knew. Yet, as we see, despite his investments, he quickly decided to work in a mode that didn't link to those things quite so visibly as he once had. I go back and forth because legitimization always links to unspoken rules about what counts as serious and what counts as not, and we’re debating that right now.
I just installed part of Mary Kelly’s Post-partum Document at The Hammer, and I think it could be good to talk about a connection I’m making with Haring’s work via Mary. Scott, you mentioned the misogyny of Gysin and Burroughs, but Haring, though he was emphatically male-orientated, did open a door to a larger construction of gender fluidity. We haven’t talked explicitly enough about feminism, and the reason I bring Mary up is that she turned to strategies of structuralism and psychoanalysis in order to open up the interrogation of language-based systems. In her case, one such system was “the family,” or more broadly, hetero-normative structures. I’m not saying that that was his thing but I think in a weird way it kind of was.
ST I think feminism spurred the permission in queer culture to be more open and playful. The process of taking the dominant voice, recontextualizing it, and spitting it back out. Carrying on the traditions of Situationism and the Cut-Ups, alongside the whole process of deconstruction and everything else. Even though queers have always been the arch social commentators, the AIDS crisis forced their view outwards, and feminism provided certain critical tools to do that.
JB Something that gets left out all too often in discussions of feminist art is just how full of pleasure and humor it often is; the shorthand for describing feminist tactics from the ‘70s and ‘80s is to resort to language around deconstruction and dissection. There’s plenty of pathos and eros, too. So, even the fact that [Haring] would use something so absolutely unacceptable and even goofy as a baby—to me there’s something quite transgressive and interesting about that. Haring certainly was not unaware of the implications that that would have in a larger culture. Surely he involved himself, if obliquely, in a dialogue that that would usually involve questions of female production, or in another vein, bad painting!
AB And a Radiant Baby, either heavenly or polluted…
ST Radiated or divine!
ST It's true.
JB I don't mean to take us into some weird, overdetermined conversation around child bearing—
ST —but it’s true about the baby, what more heteronormative image could you possibly use?
AB I think one thing that can be said about Haring through a lens of feminism in a very general sense, is the notice of varying levels of opacity or transparency in self-production, self-reception, and lived experience alternative to dominant culture. It appears that what has happened in the art history of Keith Haring is an affinity process for the artist that at once combines and separates his actions and artworks—but to be an activist and a fine artist yet still be doodling on stuff and giving it away like signing autographs…
ST Yeah, very generous.
AB And if not generous, in the very least, open–open to seeing where thinking can go wrong a little bit.
JB I mean, one thing that this discussion has made me really aware of is that he’s an artist whom I can really appreciate for his advocacy and enthusiasm. I related to the perils of that: my professional life as a writer and curator has been about advocating, and that can be very tricky, almost inappropriate. You become so attached to the work that you can be very critical of it, but not distanced.
AB You have to love something to be critical of it.
JB Yeah but what I like about Haring is that I’m getting more and more attached to this artist whom I’ve known about forever. There are very few artists who are able to balance a sustained productive ambivalence in me as a viewer and thinker. With Haring, I don't actually feel the work needs to be discussed as bad or good. I think there’s something very interesting about not having to love all his work and still feel that the overall project was maybe even more useful than you thought.
Scott Treleaven is an artist. Recent exhibitions include Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, ICA Philadelphia, Witte de With, Rotterdam, and the British Film Institute, London. He is represented in New York by Invisible-Exports.
Johanna Burton is an art historian, critic, and curator living in New York City. She is the Keith Haring Director and Curator of Education and Public Engagement at the New Museum.
Andrew Blackley lives in New York City and works with artists, writers, and archives.