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The Arts Voyager, 5-9: Love, Art, & Death in the Time of Cholera
Haring fleshed out at Gladstone; Vega's skin-deep McCullers

Keith Haring's "Red" (detail), on view at the Gladstone Gallery through July 1.1982-1984. Gouache and ink on paper. Complete work 106 3/4 x 274 inches (271.1 x 696 cm). ©Keith Haring Foundation. Courtesy Gladstone Gallery, New York.

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2011 Paul Ben-Itzak

NEW YORK -- "These are markers," Bill T. Jones was telling me. We were at last Wednesday's opening for the Gladstone Gallery's mammoth exhibition of the three mammoth works Keith Haring painted in real-time during a series of performances by the Bill T. Jones / Arnie Zane Company in 1982, as well as two long display cases packed with drawings taken from Haring's notebooks, including a couple of dozen sketches of penises, most poignantly several under which the artist has written, "Drawing penises in front of Tiffany's." Jones looked from tableau to tableau, reflected, and added: "I'm a marker." Only Bill T. Jones can say this without seeming ostentatious or self-important. What he meant is that he had signified a certain slice of the American / New York artistic experience during a certain period. Where he was being unfair to himself, though, was that his tone implied the word *was*, and of the three iconic signifiers of the '80s NY art scene I encountered last Wednesday meandering from Gladstone's expansive Chelsea gallery to the intimate Rattlestick Theater on Waverly Place, where Suzanne Vega was holding court as Carson McCullers, or trying to, Jones was the only one who was of his time without being trapped in it. That said, with this courageous exhibition, Barbara Gladstone has liberated Haring from the sanitized version that has been passed down to us in the two decades since his death from AIDS-related illnesses in 1990, at the age of 31. If Jones is "Still / Here," thanks to Gladsone, Haring is here again, in his full unadulterated glory.

It's not that Haring's tableaux aren't thrilling -- they are. But I suspect my own fascination with them is in large part nostalgic, because they recall the at least surface innocence of that time in Greenwich Village. Jones danced, Haring made figures who danced -- cartoons that managed to be simultaneously hip and naive, innocent without irony -- and Vega sang of an innocent neighbor child -- his name was Luca, in case you've forgotten -- beaten by his parents. Even the monotone and almost a-musicality of "Tom's Diner" didn't prevent it from being playful, a romp in an older Manhattan --- the diner -- seen through the eyes of a hip young singer, perhaps slightly jaded but enjoying the scene she was describing nonetheless. This was when irony still seemed a novelty.

But wait. Look more deeply at Haring's murals painted for Jones's 1982 shows and you see a serpent extending from the prolonged bodies of one of the dancers. Look at the dozens of drawings of penises, including his own (one aging hipster at Wednesday's opening, picking a penis to pose by so his friend could take a photo, passed on one which Haring noted was a a true depiction of his own, erect, saying, "Not accurate."), and, being told earlier in the day by another survivor about what John Giorno wrote about having anonymous sex with Haring in the subway bathrooms of New York while others watched, one also has to recall the moment it all came crashing down, and Haring's death at 31 of AIDS.

When I told my survivor friend that I was considering publishing Haring's sketches under which he has written "Drawing penises in front of Tiffany's," (part of his 1978 series, "Manhattan Penis Drawings for Ken Hicks"), juxtaposing them with his dying of AIDS, my friend suggested I would be stigmatizing Haring, and by inference other gay men who died of AIDS. In other words, I would be saying, "This is what all their penis fancies lead to." Perhaps, if the art in question was called, "Drawing penises in front of the subway restroom," but what's jarring here is the tragic transformation signified by the Tiffany's context and framing. When Truman Capote's Holly Golightly (Audrey Hepburn in Blake Edwards's 1961 film) stands in front of the famous Fifth Avenue window after a night of partying staring winsomely at diamonds while eating her croissant and coffee one early New York morning, the route that might get her there is sleeping with wealthy men. When Keith Haring stands in front of the same window some 20 years later, the baubles, bangles, and bright shiny beads he's dreaming of will (probably; the exact reason he got AIDS was not divulged) ultimately serve as the instrument of his death. Both Holly and Haring arrived from small towns with Big Apple dreams, but oh how the cost of those dreams -- of the free lifestyle celebrated by Golightly and pursued by thousands of Hollys and Harings afterwards, perhaps inspired by her story -- had changed! And as far as stigmatization goes, well, look at the way society treated each: Holly was lionized -- never mind that her means were greased by, let's say it, prostitution; and Keith, or at least the larger social strata which encadred him, gay men, was stigmatized -- never mind that unlike Holly he wasn't using others to get rich, he was just a guy who wanted to have fun.

Keith Haring. Manhattan Penis Drawings for Ken Hicks, 1978. Graphite on paper. 8 1/2 x 5 1/2 inches (21.6 x 14 cm). ©Keith Haring Foundation. Courtesy Gladstone Gallery, New York.

Are Haring's drawings of penises in front of Tiffany's great art? In my view, no. (But, as a colleague here at the DI pointed out to me, who am I to judge?) Viewed with the awareness that he would die of AIDs a decade later, do they make a powerful statement about a great artist, and about how the stakes for innocents who arrived in New York with the dream of living an artful life changed so direly over the span of just two decades, and about the death of innocence? Absolutely. (And even without this social context, when juxtaposed with Haring's later, technically more sophisticated and graphically more involved and intricate work -- as we've done on this page -- they do in fact help complete the portrait of the artist.)

Contrast this with Suzanne Vega's "Carson McCullers Talks about Love," a shallow homage about a complicated artist which takes absolutely no risks in trying to understand the author of "The Heart is a Lonely Hunter," "The Member of the Wedding," and other work that played its own part in signifying its era. McCullers looked at misfits, and in probing her, one would have hoped that Vega would have taken a deeper look at what didn't fit about her that made her oeuvre, particularly 'Heart,' so true. But not only does Vega avoid going into these nuances -- including her sexual ambidextrousness -- after making the decision to go with a generic southern accent, she can't even bother to explore its nuances. Every line has the same cadence, except when she flubs one, which is not infrequently. The lyrics of the dozen or so songs are trite, which almost has the effect of trivializing their subject; how can one treat a subject whose chief talent was verbal lyricism with such one-dimensional language? The evening appears to have had a director, Kay Matschullat, but I can't even sense the presence of a dramaturge, which it desperately needs. Vega's fascination with McCullers seems to have started with seeing her photo on a book jacket -- "She looked like a wise old child," the singer recalled in a short introduction spoken as herself before dawning a wig and the unfortunate accent -- but her stage portrait doesn't really delve beyond that one dimension. In effect, Vega has become the man standing outside the window of Tom's Diner. She has not ventured inside the diner, leaving us to wonder if she really sees her subject. One gets the feeling that we're seeing a sanitized version of an artist, McCullers, who was anything but. Consequently, she has taught us nothing new about the author; we leave the theater no more enlightened than we were coming in.

Barbara Gladstone, the owner of the Gladstone Gallery, could have gone the same route. She could have simply presented the three large works on paper Haring made during the Bill T. Jones / Arnie Zane performance, which, lustrous and enjoyable as they are, would simply have confirmed the Keith Haring we already know, the one who's art is safe enough to put on coffee cups. But she didn't want to just profit from the artist, to serve herself of him, she wanted to serve him. Personally, on a visceral level, I was repulsed by the penis images. But as an art maven recently returned from France, where the performing arts at least still have some intellectual heft and pose difficult questions, to a New York -- New York! -- where the lively arts rarely seem to go beyond the surface any more, where the former town crier the Village Voice is a shadow of its former self, and where the spectators don't seem to know the difference, and where the artists who populate the Chelsea galleries seem to be so lightweight, and most of the curators not to know the difference, I celebrate the opportunity to get to know an artist I thought I knew even better, and I applaud a gallery owner's caring enough to provide the opportunity.

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