A New Keith Haring Biography Draws the Most Complete Picture Yet

RADIANT: The Life and Line of Keith Haring, by Brad Gooch

Modern art can baffle and intimidate. Keith Haring strove to democratize it.

Haring, who died at 31 of complications from AIDS after a brief but dizzyingly productive international career, drew and painted for the masses and the kids, sometimes getting handcuffed and fined for his trouble. In the garbage-and-graffiti-weary New York of the 1980s, his creations — first chalked on blank advertising boards in subways, then bolder and more enduring, like the safety-orange “Crack Is Wack” mural that still stands in an East Harlem handball court — were like a fresh new roll of wallpaper.

As his canvases and sculptures began selling to private collectors for big bucks, he carried on doing public work, notably for a children’s hospital in Paris.

He loved children, and his more G-rated drawings — with faint inflection of Robert Hargreaves’s Mr. Men and Little Miss series — have been grafted onto many books for them, one by his sister Kay Haring. (All four siblings were given “K.A.H.” initials after their parents’ alma mater, Kutztown Area High in Pennsylvania, which the son — Mr. Famous — found screamingly funny.)

There have been oodles of ink spilled previously about the artist for adults too, including from his own pen. Haring’s journals, published in 1996, are still in print, and he’s been the topic of multiple monographs and a Lives of the Artists installment by the former Barneys fixture Simon Doonan.

The authorized biography (more of an oral history) that soon followed his death, by the critic, composer and photographer John Gruen, is harder to locate, and the disco-dotted musical it inspired was a bust. Gruen’s memoir, with the delightful title “Callas Kissed Me … Lenny Too!,” describes how his daughter, Julia, came to be employed as Haring’s assistant and studio manager, and then executor of his estate and director of his foundation — maybe a little cozy.

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