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Radiant by Brad Gooch review – art with heart


Madonna is on the road with her Celebration tour. The show-stopping moment is her song Live to Tell, in which she pays tribute to friends – and the multitudes she didn’t know – who died from Aids. Keith Haring’s bespectacled and adorably geeky face is one of those displayed on a huge screen. He was only 31 when he died in 1990, Madonna having called him on his deathbed. One of the most harrowing sections in Radiant, a compelling biography of the artist by Brad Gooch, describes Haring’s friend Bruno Schmidt encouraging him to take off his T-shirt on the beach on one of the artist’s final holidays, then being appalled by what was revealed: a back completely blackened by Kaposi’s sarcoma, the skin cancer Aids patients often developed.

Haring’s cruel fate still seems outrageous. How can a man whose work bursts with such warmth and vitality have died so young? Gooch’s meticulous retelling of his story underlines the loss. Born in Reading, Pennsylvania, and brought up in nearby Kutztown, Haring went though several teen identities – evangelical Christian, Grateful Dead fan – until he found himself in New York in 1978. Galvanised by emerging hip-hop culture, of which graffiti was a pillar, Haring realised that his drawings should not be confined to gallery walls. One day, he noticed that the matt black paper exposed when advertising hoardings on the subway were left vacant was ideal for making quick artworks in chalk.

Soon, Haring’s drawings covered the subway – dogs, TVs, dancing figures and, above all, his signature tag, the crawling radiant baby, from which this book takes its name. At the same time, he was becoming an integral part of the downtown art scene, showing his work at Club 57 and the Mudd Club, and then the new galleries that sprang up on the Lower East Side. Haring was able to straddle these two worlds throughout his short life – he had credibility with Harlem’s graffiti writers, but was also feted by New York’s art world, if not always by its critics. His peers and friends included Jean-Michel Basquiat; Andy Warhol and Yoko Ono both took him under their wings. After Haring’s funeral, Ono kept a handful of his ashes, which she scattered in Paris, the city in which, as a schoolboy, he had dreamed of making it as an artist.

Pictures poured out of Haring. He conjured entire shows right at the last minute, and he never did any preparatory studies: his unmistakable figures went straight from his brain on to the wall or canvas.

Alongside his shows in official gallery spaces, he made a point of painting huge public murals that anyone could enjoy – including on the Berlin Wall – that often made sociopolitical statements. His Crack Is Wack mural, which still exists in a repainted version, took the message to the Harlem community affected by the drug; the orgy scene he painted in the toilets of New York’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center (again, it’s still there), is wistfully called Once Upon a Time, a lament for the days of carefree gay sex.

It’s to Haring’s credit that, once he had settled on his sexuality (he had a girlfriend as a teenager), he was unapologetically and publicly gay – penises are another recurring motif in his work. He was also aware of his privilege as a white man engaging in hip-hop culture. Haring usually got off with a slap on the wrist if caught painting graffiti by the New York cops: “They just sort of call him a fairy and let him go,” Warhol noted in his diary. Meanwhile, the 25-year-old Black artist Michael Stewart was allegedly beaten into a coma in police custody after being arrested for scrawling on a subway wall – he died 13 days later. Basquiat, Haring and Warhol each memorialised this outrage in a piece of art; Haring felt particularly guilty as he had turned Stewart away from a party at his house earlier that evening.

Gooch vividly evokes New York in the early 1980s, surely one of the most culturally exciting eras of all time, and Haring was right in the thick of it. A good dancer, he was a regular at Paradise Garage, the groundbreaking nightclub presided over by DJ Larry Levan, and on Spotify you can listen to the mixtapes he played while working, mainly the soul, pop and house music of the day, though there is a detour into Bach and Stravinsky. The stars of the time pop in and out of this book: Grace Jones and dancer Bill T Jones, whose skin he painted, the former for a Robert Mapplethorpe portrait; he even struck up an unlikely friendship with Brooke Shields, years after depicting her with a penis in an early artwork.

Gooch is frank about the fact that Haring had his head turned by celebrity during this period – even Michael Jackson wanted to meet him – and that the work lost some of its purpose as a result. Yet in the years after his Aids diagnosis, Haring redoubled his efforts, both as an artist and activist. With great bravery, he divulged his condition and participated in actions by the pressure group Act Up. His 1989 works Ignorance = Fear and Silence = Death are calls to arms against the disease, that have all the immediate accessibility of his best work.

Like many great artists, Haring seems at once a product of his time and far ahead of it. He was great with children and yearned for some of his own. In 1986, he opened the Pop Shop to turn his work into merchandise in a way that is ubiquitous now but was controversial then, and it stood in SoHo until 2005. A second branch, in Tokyo, failed during his lifetime. It was in Japan that Haring spotted the lesion that confirmed his worst fears. At the funeral of his ex-boyfriend Juan Dubose, he stared into the coffin and said: “Well, soon it will be me there.”

The suffering that gay men endured in the Aids crisis is still shocking, and Haring was luckier than most. Though they didn’t talk about his sexuality, his family never rejected him; his final hours were spent with his parents, who held him as he died. As his faculties failed, his ability to draw was the last thing to go. Along with numerous great pictures of Haring’s work, and Polaroids of him and his friends, the book includes his final drawing – his ultimate symbol of life, the radiant baby.

Radiant: The Life and Line of Keith Haring is published by Harper (£30). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.



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