When New York City officials decided to paste black paper over expired billboard ads in subway stations, they didn’t know what they were starting. In December 1980, on that same black paper, hundreds of white chalk figures began to appear. They took strange and mysterious shapes: a glowing baby, a barking wolf, a cookie-cutter outline of a man with a hole in his stomach. Soon the eerie symbols spread. They appeared on a wall near Manhattan’s sleazy Bowery, at an exposition in São Paulo, Brazil, all over Milan’s chichi Fiorucci clothing store and, yes, this September even on Farrah Fawcett’s plaster cast after she broke her wrist in off-Broadway’s Extremities. What did it all mean? Where would they appear next?
The answer, it seems, lies right at the tip of the paintbrush and chalk stick of one Keith Haring, 25, a polite, slightly built Manhattan artist who in only a few years has left his mark all over the world. An enigma at first, Keith’s unmistakable figures weren’t ignored. Before long it became a New York status symbol to own the decorated buttons, T-shirts or posters Keith gave—and still gives away—for free. (Diane Keaton and Robin Williams own Haring buttons.) By 1981 the Tony Shafrazi Gallery in SoHo took him on; the next year Keith hung paintings at West Germany’s prestigious Documenta exhibit, and this year he installed a huge mural at New York’s Whitney Museum for its biennial show of American artists. These days his sumi ink paintings on vinyl sell in galleries across the U.S., Europe and Japan for $5,000 to $10,000.
“People relate to the drawings on lots of different levels. You can take them as philosophical ideas or as cartoons,” says Keith, explaining his art’s widespread appeal. Another reason for Keith’s underground success is the meticulous care he takes with his subway drawings. Unlike the graffiti sprawled helter-skelter across trains, his chalk sketches appear neatly framed, like pictures at an exhibition. The whimsical line drawings, which he renews by the hundreds every time they are covered with ads, present a curious reality: In one picture a dog chases human figures; in another, people seem to worship a glowing dog.
“I get the most incredible comments,” says Keith, who assigns no exact meaning to his sketches. “I drew a picture of a man with his head opening up. Someone said it looked like a guy pounding his head on the sidewalk looking for a job. When I drew pregnant ladies in May, because my friend’s wife was pregnant, someone said, ‘I love your Mother’s Day drawings.’ ”
Keith also draws admiring comments from art experts, such as his friend and longtime hero, Andy Warhol. “It was just amazing. I saw his crawling-baby drawing everywhere,” says Andy. “It’s transient art. That’s what I like best about it. He just takes his marker and does it anywhere.”
Not everyone accepts Keith so wholeheartedly. Dubbed “the Peter Max of the subways” by art critic Robert Hughes, Keith has been snubbed by culture mavens who feel his work lacks high seriousness. Keith’s other critics come from an unexpected camp: Avant-garde New York artists accuse him of selling out for fame and money.
Determined to tread the line between fine and popular art, Keith still respects the cartooning techniques he learned in Kutztown, Pa. from his dad, a Western Electric foreman. But he also belongs to the art world he discovered in two years of study at Manhattan’s School of Visual Arts. In the end he resists pressures from both sides. Keith has allowed fewer than a dozen of his works to be sold to American collectors this year, although at least 50 put in requests. He also turned down the chance to license his designs in Tokyo, run a Macy’s boutique and paint a Hall & Oates album cover. Instead he concentrates on public spaces and museum pieces. “It’s important for art to be something Joe Shmo can buy,” he says. “But if you only do that, it puts you into the category of the Smurfs. On the other hand, if I slowly get a foot in museums, then when I make a T-shirt, it could be a museum piece.”
But even with a one-man show in SoHo this month, Keith still draws in the subways. In September an unarmed graffiti artist died from injuries incurred during his arrest by police for spray painting a station wall, but Keith has a different story to tell. Undercover cops recently surprised him with a $10 ticket for defacing public property. (He has paid at least $500 in such tickets.) When Keith began to walk away, the cops looked dejected. One of them called him back, pointed to the drawing and said, “You’re not finished, right? Well, finish it. What are you waiting for?”