We asked fellow New Yorker Chris Kraus (I Love Dick) to commission original pieces by 5 poets in response to the artist Keith Haring and his iconic work. You can read all 5 poems in the free visitor guide which you can pick up at our Keith Haring exhibition. Or read them right here...
Impossible brightness – afterword
When Tom Van de Voorde invited me to commission these original pieces by five poets in response to this exhibition, I was curious about how these younger, and mostly international poets, might perceive it. I lived in New York during the years when Haring did most of his public work, disliked it reflexively, and haven’t considered it since. Perhaps it was time to reconsider these prejudices?
Cecilia Pavón, in her poem ‘Untitled,’ recalls seeing Keith Haring’s work for the first time when she was thirteen, growing up in an Argentine agricultural province. She saw it as a friend’s house on a postcard, and she knew right away that it “wasn’t art” – at least not art in the way she’d been accustomed to viewing it, in art books of European avant-garde modernism – and she would go on to aspire to become a poet who wrote poems that “weren’t poems,” as she demonstrates deftly in this one.
Ruby Brunton, Robert Dewhurst, Faith Wilson and Steven Zultanski were all born in the 80s and 90s, so whatever response these writers had to Keith Haring’s work would be dislodged from its overwrought context – the East Village 80s. I imagined his works floating at them through time like a meteor shower.
I remember viewing each new Keith Haring chalk drawing that appeared in the Astor Place subway with dread. Haring’s cartoonish and upbeat personal lexicon – the shining heart, the radiant child, the dancing stick figures – felt like both the end and beginning of something.
His work came on the heels of an astonishing array of street art in Lower Manhattan that began in the late 1970s. Alongside graffiti, these works transmitted a steady pulse of subliminal messages to every pedestrian. Prolific, insistent, they were the streetscape’s visual backbeat. The young Jean-Michel Basquiat and his friend Al Diaz strategically sprayed their cynically copyrighted SAMO graffiti outside CBGB’s and the Soho art world’s discreet minimal spaces. SAMOc 4 THE SO CALLED AVANT-GARDE; SAMOc 4 MASS MEDIA MINDWISH. SAMO stood for Same Old Shit, and it was, and it felt great to see somebody call it. Jenny Holzer’s strange posters, her long lists of non-sequiters, appeared intermittently, wheat-pasted on lampposts and billboards. Some of the most powerful street interventions never entered the gallery system. There were the red outlines of bodies, straight out of a CSI crime scene, sprayed onto the sidewalk, forcing the viewer to step onto the site of a missing corpse. There were dozens of menacing black human silhouettes sprayed onto buildings alongside interstitial dark alleys and corners.
Within this context, Haring’s upbeat and likeable figures and symbols seemed to belong to the same order as the new Mexican restaurant with blue margaritas: a harbinger of the gentrification that would soon bring an end to our cheap apartments and lives sustained on part-time casual labor. Along with most of my friends, I decided to hate it. Although of course the aggressively brutal street art that felt so pure and uncompromising turned out to be just as co-optable. Remember the Urban Decay line of lipgloss and nail polish? Once it’s been eliminated from the real world, urban grit lingers as a dreadful cliché, so it seemed worth reconsidering those first impressions.
Cecilia Pavón is the author of five books of poems and three collections of stories. She’s lived in Buenos Aires since 1992, when she was a student, but since everyone says Buenos Aires today is just like New York or Berlin in 1983, I thought she’d be well placed to connect with Keith Haring. In fact, Buenos Aires is far more magnificent than New York was in those days, partly because of Pavón’s work and presence. Between 1999 and 2007, during the isolate years of the economic crisis, Pavón and her collaborator Fernanda Laguna ran a kind of highly-curated 99 Cent store out of a disused pharmacy. Its name, Belleza y Feliciad, Beauty and Happiness, was also the name of a ‘zine that they edited. Her poems, to me, are pure happiness, although they aren’t always about happiness, or about happy things. As Cesar Aira has noted, her writing creates a parallel world that unfolds “like a dream, just like reality.”
I met Faith Wilson for the first time in 2017 at a workshop at Winnipeg’s Plug In ICA that I directed. Wilson is a Samoan/Palagi artist and writer from Aotearoa/New Zealand, and I first became aware of her work through a notorious fracas she had with illustrious Berlin-based New Zealand artist, Simon Denny. Nearly every illustrious New Zealand artist under age forty is an expatriate. If you’ve heard of a New Zealand artist, than means they probably don’t live there. Invited to submit work for an exhibition at Artspace in Auckland whose artists would be selected by Denny, she chose to confront him, submitting a video of herself in a pink bathrobe condemning the project and Denny himself: “How is Simon Denny relevant to new perspectives in Aotearoa art? And why are we getting NZ’s biggest WMA bro artist to curate this? Fuck Simon Denny.” The last sentence became an Instagram handle. I thought Wilson’s attack was a courageous initiative – she was, at the time, younger, unknown, and still living in Auckland – although the encounter between them ended sweetly. Denny invited Wilson to be in the show, and Wilson conceded that Denny wasn’t a monster or even a terrible artist. The two arrived at a point of respect for each other’s positions and differences. In Winnipeg, Wilson wrote torrents of poetry that blew everyone away, and then she moved to British Columbia. I invited her to write for this catalogue curious about what she’s been up to, and certain that she’d encounter Keith Haring’s work with truth and immediacy.
Ruby Brunton, a New Zealand/American writer and performer, is presently based in Mexico City. Brunton’s choreographic, dance and performance practice is separate from, but has always proceeded in tandem with, her writing. Since moving from New York to Mexico City two years ago, she’s taken apart old poetic constructs that were closer to monologues, and begun writing poems that at once were more abstract and specific. Like Buenos Aires, contemporary Mexico City is often compared to New York in the late 20th century. Viewing Keith Haring’s drawings she projects herself back into his time, but this projection is prompted solely by visual cues from the work. There are no preconceptions. The ekphrastic transmission occurs almost electrically between Haring’s drawings and Brunton’s clusters of images.
Although he’s best known as a scholar and critic, Robert Dewhurst is one of my favorite American poets. I still remember a line from one of the poems he wrote about a decade ago when he was in grad school: “All my relationships are with dead people.” (The Interdependence of Interpretation and Emotion Makes Semiotics an Emotive Field) He’d started researching his John Wieners biography, and that seemed to sum up that kind of endeavor exactly. Dewhurst and I have worked as co-editors of Hedi El Kholti’s Animal Shelter – A Journal of Art, Sex and Literature – and, alongside Eileen Myles and Lynne Tillman, we organized a two-day tribute to the work of the late David Rattray. It seems fitting to me that Dewhurst chose to center this occasional poem around the occasion of the poet Kevin Killian’s abrupt, recent death. Dewhurst’s drift towards Keith Haring’s work is a drift back to the poet Bruce Boone’s hyperbolic remembrance of Killian during that era. He cuts through the legend surrounding Keith Haring’s career to an image of youth the two may have shared as contemporaries– “Keith Haring selling T-shirts in a Dead lot, St. Paul,/May ’77, before you wanted to be a genius, & were …”
Writing in the New Yorker in 2015, Kenneth Goldsmith described Steven Zultanski as an exemplar of what others might call “post-Internet” poetry. Some of Zultanski’s previous works have been composed almost exclusively from texts found online, snatch and grabbed, cut and pasted, although my first encounter with his writing was the 2018 book-length poem Honestly. Honestly suggests that the long-poem could be the most perfect vehicle for writing subjective critical biography. In it, Zultanski investigates the life of a great-uncle, Dick Stryker, who was a participant in New York City culture in the early 1960s, writing music for The Living Theatre and hanging out with Frank O’Hara and John Ashbery. The book is discursive, digressive, pushing the limits of individual expression, talking and listening. Zultanski seems to hold nothing back, and I wanted to know what he’d make of Keith Haring. His ‘Loop for Keith Haring’ shows how Haring’s work vibrates against all possible limits, containing anger, joy, fear and terror. Unencumbered by the era’s cultural politics, Zultanski circles around Haring’s work and sees how Haring sees the world’s impossible brightness.