Essays

Longing for Keith Haring’s Lighthearted Penises

Detail of Keith Haring’s “Once Upon a Time” (1989) at the LGBT Center (photo by Ben Sutton/Hyperallergic) (click to enlarge)
Detail of Keith Haring’s “Once Upon a Time” (1989) at the LGBT Center (photo by Ben Sutton/Hyperallergic)

On the second floor of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center on West 13th Street in Manhattan is a lesser-known Keith Haring masterpiece. In a small room that used to be a bathroom, now emptied of its fixtures and used on occasion as a meeting space, is “Once Upon a Time,” a mural Haring painted in 1989, just nine months before his death. The subject matter is fitting for the space: an intricate, interwoven array of anthropomorphized penises and monstrous spermatozoa, which climb the walls and swim loop-the-loops around the room’s corners.

The style is unmistakably Haring, even in its almost R. Crumb–like lewdness. The “Heffalumps and Woozles” quality of the shape-shifting genitals keeps them from being strictly erotic, but the totality of the mural’s sexual content is bracing, particularly in contrast to the more mainstream Haring canon: a baby, a dog, a dancing man. (The classic Haring man is in evidence in “Once Upon a Time,” too, albeit dwarfed by much of the action.) Haring was heavily involved with ACT UP, an advocacy group founded in 1987 to advance the cause of people living with AIDS, and the sexual explicitness of his late ’80s work is often more serious in tone: a penis-shaped monolith-tombstone (“The Great White Way,” 1988), a number of frank safe-sex cartoons. “Once Upon a Time” is equally conversant in homosexual action and desire, but has a uniquely hedonistic levity that’s perhaps explained by its context: the men’s bathroom of what was then the Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center, a place that needed no grim reminders of gay reality.

Keith Haring, “World Trade Center,” from ‘Manhattan Penis Drawings for Ken Hicks’ (1978)
Keith Haring, “World Trade Center,” from ‘Manhattan Penis Drawings for Ken Hicks’ (1978) (image courtesy Nieves Books, © Keith Haring Foundation)

A new book of Haring’s work, published recently by Nieves Books, reveals this side of Haring. Titled Manhattan Penis Drawings for Ken Hicks, it’s more or less what it sounds like: a collection of roughly sketched penises, phallus-ified depictions of Manhattan landmarks, abstract fields of penises flying across the page, and a few phallic self-portraits. Many of the drawings in the book aren’t so visually different from what you might find scribbled in the stall of a dive bar bathroom, but even the most rudimentary have a curiosity and intentionality to them that reveals the hand of the artist, rather than the puerile shock value of less purposeful hands.

The drawings were made in the late 1970s, when Haring was in his early 20s. Who Ken Hicks was or is I haven’t managed to uncover, but presumably he was someone who might have appreciated such an array of citified penises, built out of skyscrapers and fire hydrants and streaking like driving rain.

Keith Haring, “Drawing Penises In Front of Tiffany’s,” from ‘Manhattan Penis Drawings for Ken Hicks’ (1978)
Keith Haring, “Drawing Penises in Front of Tiffany’s,” from ‘Manhattan Penis Drawings for Ken Hicks’ (1978) (image courtesy Nieves Books, © Keith Haring Foundation)

A group labeled “Drawing Penises in Front of Tiffanys’ [sic]” is typical of the collection: an image that appears dashed off but is in fact imbued with a sense of place, an inward-facing geography of queer space. The setting of Tiffany’s, visible nowhere but in the title, locates the penises in a field of queer significance: Truman Capote’s 1958 novella Breakfast at Tiffany’s, whose protagonist has been read as homosexual, and the 1961 Audrey Hepburn film of the same title. Holly Golightly wasn’t shopping at Tiffany’s; she was eating a croissant and drinking a coffee on the sidewalk outside, peering in the windows at the unattainable wonders. Keith Haring, on the same sidewalk almost 20 years later, doesn’t wonder at jewelry but at cock. He dreams of dozens of penises, there at the center of his own queer New York City. (It’s worth noting that today one of the most blatant and self-important urban penises is just next door to Tiffany’s: Trump Tower.)

Other site-specific phalluses are found at 53rd and Fifth, the 50th St subway station, 207 W 10th St, Seventh Ave and Bleecker, Bleecker and Thompson, and the intersection of Christopher and Hudson Streets, which he declares “THE BEST PLACE TO DRAW PENISES.” Haring’s New York was a city of penises, a fact Manhattan Penis Drawings makes explicit in a manner and to an extent rarely seen in considerations of his work. Haring’s homosexuality is accepted as a biographical detail that informed his activism and his social milieu, but can go under-discussed as a feature of his art.

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Keith Haring shows up in the oddest places. #NewNewWilliamsburg

A photo posted by Hrag Vartanian (@hragv) on

Haring’s sexuality is as inextricable from his work as it was from his life and the circumstances of his death. But his status as a household name has resulted in — or perhaps resulted from — a strange erasure of his sexually explicit work, ironically some of the very work that makes him such an important artist.

Many homosexual artists of the 20th century dealt explicitly with male sexual attraction in their work, but often mainstream fame has had a sanitizing effect, sidelining explicitly sexual pieces in favor of canonizing ones more suited to a museumgoing family. How many fans of Mapplethorpe’s flowers would readily recognize “Man in a Polyester Suit” (1980) as his? Or admit to admiring “Self Portrait with Whip” (1978)? Likewise, mainstream Warhol exists in silk-screened Marilyns and Sienna Miller in Factory Girl (2006), not the porny indulgence of “Blow Job” (1964).

Haring, Warhol, and Mapplethorpe may be among the most famous, and certainly the most famously gay, artists of the past half-century — more widely known than David Wojnarowicz or Félix González-Torres or Peter Hujar, all of whom died of AIDS — but the greater their fame, the more it manages to be selectively biographical. People can encounter an artist’s work without needing or caring to know much more about them, but the extent to which this elision of identity has occurred for these three is shocking. Wojnarowicz’s photographic series Arthur Rimbaud in New York is an apt example: certain images from it are commonly reproduced on postcards — Wojnarowicz-as-Rimbaud at Coney Island, on the subway, in a diner — while others — Wojnarowicz-as-Rimbaud under the piers, in bed with a man, urinating into a dingy toilet, and masturbating — are not. Fame and canonization have defanged these artists’ explicit homosexuality and have made it possible to both know and not know them and their work. Some of their most challenging pieces have been relegated to biographical footnotes.

Robert Mapplethorpe, “Joe, N.Y.C.” (1978), gelatin silver print, 7 11/16 x 7 5/8 inches, jointly acquired by the J. Paul Getty Trust and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Partial gift of the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation; partial purchase with funds by the J. Paul Getty Trust and the David Geffen Foundation (© Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation)
Robert Mapplethorpe, “Joe, N.Y.C.” (1978), gelatin silver print, 7 11/16 x 7 5/8 inches, jointly acquired by the J. Paul Getty Trust and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Partial gift of the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation; partial purchase with funds by the J. Paul Getty Trust and the David Geffen Foundation (© Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation)

In a recent New York Times review titled “Why Mapplethorpe Still Matters,” on the occasion of a joint Robert Mapplethorpe retrospective at the Getty Center and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art this past summer, Holland Cotter writes, “An artist once reviled as a pariah and embraced as a martyr has been thoroughly absorbed into mainstream. … The question is, how does the work, cleaned of the grit of controversy, hold up?” Beyond his famous florals, many of Mapplethorpe’s classic images, and many featured in the exhibition, are unprintable in the Times — itself an answer to the question of Why Mapplethorpe Still Matters.

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If you type the words “was Keith Haring” into Google, the first suggested search is the phrase “was Keith Haring married.” It’s confounding, as far as suggested searches go, and it’s hard to say which would be more troubling: that a sufficient number of Googlers don’t know Keith Haring was homosexual, or that a sufficient number of Googlers don’t know that same-sex marriage has only existed in America since 2004, 24 years after Keith Haring died of AIDS-related complications, which were themselves a result of his homosexuality.

To anyone familiar with Haring’s larger body of work — beyond Uniqlo’s ersatz Pop Shop, Sesame Street, and generally misplaced 1980s New York nostalgia — the question “Was Keith Haring married?” or even “Was Keith Haring gay?” are like that old line about the religion of the pope. But the fact that any such question might be asked on the internet in 2016 speaks to the disconnect between the mainstream popularity of gay artists like Warhol and Haring — whose images hang in college dorm rooms as much as in museums — and their explicit identification as gay artists. The same marriage question comes up for Andy Warhol, as well as “Is Andy Warhol dead?” Mapplethorpe’s suggested search is simply “Who was Robert Mapplethorpe?”

Keith Haring, “Madison & 52nd,” from ‘Manhattan Penis Drawings for Ken Hicks’ (1978)
Keith Haring, “Madison & 52nd,” from ‘Manhattan Penis Drawings for Ken Hicks’ (1978) (image courtesy Nieves Books, © Keith Haring Foundation)

It may seem unusual to uphold a book of penis drawings as a significant art-historical moment, but Manhattan Penis Drawings for Ken Hicks creates an unignorable link between Haring’s early work and his homosexuality. The drawings are lightheartedly homosexual in a way not possible since the discovery of “gay-related immune deficiency” (GRID) in 1982. In light of the forceful politics of Haring’s later work, his penis drawings are, in a sense, the least complicated of his phallocentric art. They have no social message to impart, no silent president to shock into action. Keith Haring just really liked penises.

Keith Haring’s Manhattan Penis Drawings for Ken Hicks is published by Nieves Books and available from Amazon and other online booksellers.

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