Keith Haring steps back, paintbrush in hand, to contemplate the amoebic shapes unfurling in magenta and yellow on the white wall of Pasadena Art Center College of Design.
He is clad in luminous white, from his high-top sneakers to painter’s pants and T-shirt. As he silently mouths the words to a disco song that swirls up from a nearby boom box, he appears a slim, solemn, almost ghostly figure, alone despite the gaggle of Art Center students who cluster around spellbound, watching his every move.
“It’s a real privilege to be here . . . because I know his works are coming to an end,” says Mark Whiting, 25, an illustration major. “He’s one of the only fine artists around who’s accessible to the public. He hasn’t sold out at all, he’s doing art a favor.”
Haring, who came from New York’s East Village art community that also spawned Madonna and Jean Michel Basquiat, got his start in the 1970s, drawing graffiti figures in white chalk on subways.
Today, his squiggly, kinetic Neo-pop figures of flying saucers and crawling babies are known around the world. A Haring ceramic painted vase in Robert Mapplethorpe’s personal collection sold at auction recently for $231,000.
The 31-year-old Haring, who is gay and tested positive for the AIDS virus in 1987, was at Art Center this week to paint a mural for “A Day Without Art,” which is being commemorated today by 600 art institutions nationwide alongside the World Health Organization’s second annual AIDS Awareness Day. At 11:30 a.m., Haring will dedicate the Art Center mural and give a talk.
A self-proclaimed workaholic, Haring is almost obsessed with spreading his message and images. He travels around the world, leaving his cartoonish images at hospitals and schools, often engaging children to help him paint, most always volunteering his services without charge.
Haring has always been a controversial artist, a friend and disciple of Andy Warhol’s who eschewed the traditional gallery route and opted to bring his art directly to the people. He owns the Pop Shop in SoHo, a successful venture that sells T-shirts and other memorabilia with Haring designs.
“For the past five or six years, the rewards I’ve gotten are very disproportionate to what I deserve,” he adds. “I make a lot more money than what I should make, so it’s a little bit of guilt, of wanting to give it back.”
Haring has been both lionized and criticized by the art world. Some grant him an important place among neo-Pop art. Others see him as a marginal talent who sold out to commercialism.
Haring, an intelligent and articulate man, bristles at this idea. “For me to have gone into the studio and done just studio work, that would have been selling out,” he says.
John Gruen, a contributing editor to Artweek magazine who is at Art Center with Haring collecting information for a biography, says Haring has been unfairly portrayed by the media and the art world. “Keith Haring does not believe in elitist art,” Gruen says. “He believes art belongs to the people, in the greatest possible accessibility.”
Haring often uses his art to convey political messages: anti-crack, anti-apartheid, safe sex. The artist has long worked with children to increase their understanding and awareness of AIDS. For canvases, he has used everything from the Berlin Wall to school walls in inner-city ghettos.
The only visible signs of Haring’s illness this week were the faint, beige lesions of Kaposi’s sarcoma, a form of cancer that often afflicts those with AIDS.
“My life is my art, it’s intertwined,” says the artist, many of whose close friends have died of AIDS. “When AIDS became a reality in terms of my life, it started becoming a subject in my paintings. The more it affected my life the more it affected my work.”
Students speculate about the giant brown, one-eyed phallic symbol Haring has painted on the left side of the 24x12-foot mural, on the ominous blue dots that mar the bright-yellow curved shapes dancing across the wall. Could those dots represent the Kaposi’s sarcoma lesions, one student wonders. Did Keith happen to mention how he contracted AIDS, another student asks an onlooker.
Haring paints from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. He swigs bottles of mineral water and pauses only to mop the sweat that beads on his brow from the strong lights. When he stops for lunch at 4 p.m., students cluster around him shyly to make small talk while an extended disco mix of Madonna’s “Like a Prayer” plays.
Haring is endlessly patient with them, submitting to cameras and video recorders and interviews by the student film makers.
“Keith is inspiring,” says a Los Angeles graffiti artist who calls himself Slick. He is a former Art Center student who has come to watch his hero in action. “He came up from the street and I respect that. If he can do it, maybe I can too.”