Happy Birthday, Keith Haring!
Yesterday was May 4th, and what would have been Keith Haring’s 59th birthday. I didn’t have an opportunity to write earlier, as I’ve been knee deep into work, deadlines, proposals and other works, but I wanted to acknowledge not just Keith Haring on his birthday day, but his connection to this project. And to celebrate his life. There's a funny thing about creating a project in which is centered on death, and the inspiration and people at the center have gone forward to the next stage of the Life journey. That can be hard, especially when it seems that not much has changed. But, in those moments, it's important to remember that the gifts that we're left – because this work is definitely a gift – are because they lived. And they lived, incandescently. Years later, we're still in the glow of the embers.
Although the project is named Basquiat’s Defacement and is centered on Michael Stewart’s death, Keith Haring is inextricably linked to the painting on too many levels to name in this post. As I currently understand it, he named the painting (further research could prove this to be wrong) and what we know for sure, he commissioned the gold, gilded frame that has become a part of the painting itself. And one is left to wonder what effect it had on him to have Defacement above his bed had on him; in 1985, Haring executed his own painting to memorialize Stewart, Michael Stewart – USA for Africa.
Michael Stewart’s death deeply affected Haring; I’m working to substantiate claims that Haring donated most of the money to Michael Stewart’s legal fund. In Keith Haring’s diaries, he talks about the injustice of Michael Stewart's killers getting away, scot-free. His private anguish was such that, it warranted commentary in Andy Warhol's diary entry for September 29, 1983. "And Keith was ranting and raving about this Black graffiti artist that's in the papers now because the police killed him – Michael Stewart. And Keith said that he's been arrested by the police four times, but that because he looks normal they just sort of call him a fairy, and let him go. But this kid was killed, he had the Jean-Michel look – dreadlocks."
There continues to be a lot to unpack here, and is a part of the research and the work that needs to be done. But on this post, I'd like to keep it focused on Keith Haring's work.
Haring's reaction to Michael Stewart's death was a reaction that was not only personal – by most accounts, they knew each other, but how well, it's still unclear – but was also consistent with politics. And it's an interesting contrast to Jean-Michel Basquiat's political commentary on the canvas, especially Defacement, which was not meant to be viewed or seen publicly. There are many complex reasons as to why Basquiat may have made that decision. It was certainly easier for Haring to leverage White privilege to speak openly about such a highly charged case of police brutality, than it was for Basquiat, a young Black man who had to manage the ever tricky balance of being The Only (Black person in a space), and the pressure of representation and provocation.
The well-received 2014 de Young exhibition, "Keith Haring: The Political Line", has helped a new generation understand just how radical – and in your face – Haring's politics were in the 1970s, 80s and early 90s. It's a conversation about his work that we need more of, especially in the time that we live in. In an era where the American president is condemning potentially millions of Americans to death with the repeal of Obamacare, we must think about how Ronald Reagan did the same thing in the 1980s when he refused to acknowledge AIDS as a crisis. The murder of Jordan Edwards, a 15-year-old boy shot in the head by a Dallas police officer, reminds us that Defacement isn't just in 1983. It's 2017.
Art doesn't just help us endure; it is resistance, it is the path forward. Perhaps it is a bit rose-tinted of me to believe this, but I think that art and words from those that have gone before us are meant to get us through. They are meant to help us find our way to our humanity, when greed, hate, murder and upheaval seem to numb us to the world around us, and each other. I'd like to think that though its been 27 years since Keith Haring's death, that he made a way for even this moment. I feel this so strongly because of the foresight that he had in ensuring that Defacement would be safe and available for future generations to know what happened, and so that we don't forget Michael Stewart and what happened.
Thank you Keith. Happy Birthday.