My first experience of Keith was as a poet. He was still a student at the School of Visual Arts and I was the manager of Club 57. There had been a fire at St. Marks Church, so the St. Marks Poetry Project temporarily held their events at Club 57. Keith showed up at one of the open mic nights where people were invited to get up and read their latest poems.
His poem was completely different from everyone else’s.
He just kept repeating the three words “Fat, Boy, Lick” in different combinations and it just went on and on and on until people got really pissed off and started heckling him and then finally booed him off the stage. Dejected, he walked offstage, came over to the bar, and I gave him a free beer. I told him he was my favorite poet. I loved that he’d made all those people mad, the old guard that used to be the new guard, but who were now aging out.
And here was this new young guy who had just gotten up on stage and pissed them off. To me that was so punk and avant-garde! It reminded me of Alfred Jarry—my artistic hero—whose anarchic and deliciously offensive play UBU ROI caused a riot when it first opened. Keith had never heard of Jarry, so I filled him in. The next week, Keith came back to the club and told me he’d read everything he could find about Jarry and loved him.
Needless to say, Keith and I became friends for life.
He was populist; he was not elitist. Well, it’s more nuanced than that, but he really believed that art could be made by anybody and was for everybody. When he curated his first art shows at Club 57 and the Mudd Club, he told me, “I want you to give me a piece of art,” and when I said I wasn’t an artist, he responded without hesitation,“Yes you are.” And that’s Keith in a nutshell. Even if you didn’t think you could do something, he believed you could, and then you did. And so, I had art pieces in all of these shows.
Keith’s magic lasted until the very end. When AIDS really started to kick in and we all knew it was the fucking plague, everybody amped up their creative output. We just did more and more and more because, you never knew, was this the last year we’d be alive? The last month? And the goal was to keep creating, to keep giving back. That’s what I saw Keith doing. He had been given this very special gift that gave him a lot and he was giving back, double, triple, quadruple. He participated in benefits, he painted murals in schools and for hospitals, for gay men’s health centers, for ACT UP. He didn’t waste a minute of his life and he was all the more inspiring because of that.
From Keith Haring: Art Is for Everybody, published by The Broad and DelMonico Books. Copyright © Ann Magnuson.