KUTZTOWN, Penn. — There are the homes we are born into, and the homes that we adopt. For late Pop artist Keith Haring, the former was Kutztown; the latter was New York City.
Haring and New York were a 1980s love affair canonized by art history. Some of his best-known projects — his subway chalk drawings, Times Square billboard, and Soho Pop Shop — are decidedly New York, impossible to duplicate elsewhere in quite the same way. In turn, New York has feted this artist with numerous exhibitions and well-preserved murals.
“Obviously, the only place to go was New York,” Haring told his biographer, John Gruen, of his decision to leave commercial art school in Pittsburgh for the east coast art capital. “It was the only place where I would find the intensity I needed and wanted. I wanted intensity for my art and I wanted intensity for my life.”
But Haring was not always a New Yorker (though he spent 12 of his short 31 years there, before dying of AIDS-related complications in 1990). During his tenure as a star of Manhattan’s downtown scene, he never forgot or tried to disguise his small-town Pennsylvanian origins. In fact, he had a habit of introducing himself as ‘Keith from Kutztown.’
“For some reason, Keith told everyone he was born in Kutztown, the Pennsylvania Dutch farm community some 120 miles from New York City, where his family had been settled for many years,” Gruen wrote in Keith Haring: The Authorized Biography (1992).
Describing Kutztown in a 1989 interview with Rolling Stone, Haring called it “a little, conservative town. You grew up there, went to high school there, stayed there, married someone from there, had kids there, and your kids stayed, too.”
That is certainly true for the Harings, who dominate the Kutztown White Pages to this day. The artist’s parents, still Kutztown residents, met in high school; at least one of his three sisters also lives in town.
Though he ultimately left Pennsylvania’s flat farmlands and stone houses for the hip and noisy environs of New York’s West Village, Haring wrote in his posthumously published diaries, Keith Haring: Journals (2010), that “Kutztown has its good points. Excessive amounts of love and sanity. Precise order. Fresh air. A different background noise … still a hum but a softer, more natural buzz. Time to contemplate, time to reflect and dream.”
And time to create, apparently, as shown by the artistic traces Haring left around town. In honor of what would have been the 60th birthday of the iconic radiant baby’s creator, on May 4, here’s your guide to finding Keith in Kutztown.
New Arts Program
Haring first met James Carroll, the founder of this local art nonprofit and a Kutztown University professor, as a child when they were both congregants of St. John’s United Church of Christ (one block away). Carroll remembers the boy as quiet, not particularly standing out one way or the other.
But over the years he came to know the bespectacled artist better. When Haring hit his artistic stride in New York, Carroll invited him back to exhibit at the New Arts Program on the ground floor of a two-story brick building on West Main Street.
Haring had a solo exhibition there in the fall of 1987, and drove a truckload of artwork over from New York with his partner. After installing the pieces, though, he turned to Carroll and said: “Something’s missing.” Haring infamously painted the walls, ceilings, and floors of the gallery spaces, branding entire rooms with his characteristic black-outlined figures.
Local lore is divided on what happened next: either the artist asked Carroll for permission, or surreptitiously headed to the hardware store, bought a can of black latex paint, and surprised Carroll with a mural on the space’s hardwood floor. Regardless of how Haring’s underfoot shapes and figures came into being, Carroll has since polyurethaned them twice for preservation.
“I’ve known many artists,” Carroll told Hyperallergic, “but I never knew one who was more accessible to everyone. If you called him, he picked up the phone. He was exceptionally generous.”
New Arts Program, 173 West Main Street, Kutztown, Pennsylvania; open Friday–Sunday 11am–3pm, and by appointment.
St. John’s United Church of Christ
Haring was baptized at St. John’s United Church of Christ on December 28, 1958, by Reverend Bruce D. Hatt. Though organized religion wasn’t a part of Haring’s adult life, he maintained a relationship with the church, gifting a 1984 drawing of a nativity scene during his lifetime. He also donated funds to support the church’s music and art programs in 1989.
As a fellow congregant, James Carroll of the New Arts Program helped install Haring’s drawing on a prominent brick wall in the church.
St. John’s United Church of Christ, 257 West Walnut Street, Kutztown, Pennsylvania.
Kutztown Area Historical Society
Haring’s childhood home was next-door to Kutztown Junior High, making his commute to the 7th and 8th grades a matter of a few steps. Thankfully for him, the school didn’t relocate until after he graduated, at which point the towering Victorian building was acquired by the Kutztown Area Historical Society. The architecturally impressive landmark is now on the National Register of Historic Places.
On a Thanksgiving visit home in 1982, Haring had the distinct pleasure of being asked to do something that was probably forbidden during his time there as a student: he was asked to draw on the chalkboards.
Surviving today behind protective plexiglass, “the work is drawn on the original blackboards in one of the classrooms in the building,” Karen DeLong, the artist’s sister, wrote to Hyperallergic. “It was done by Keith at the request of one of our board members at the time. She had heard that he was home for Thanksgiving and asked if he would come and do a drawing to be on display at their upcoming holiday festival. Keith was always happy to give his time and art to anyone who would ask.”
The ephemeral medium had made Haring famous by that point. His chalk drawings on black panels of empty advertisement space in New York subway stations were widely recognized by the commuting masses. He’d even been arrested for these drawings, attracting more attention to the artist (while simultaneously embarrassing his mother). And so, despite their admittedly different frames — Victorian wooden moldings as opposed to subway tile — the Kutztown and New York drawings look quite similar.
Haring’s Kutztown Junior High teachers might have also had something to do with launching his later success. Lucy de Matteo, his art teacher there, recalled in Keith Haring: The Authorized Biography: “I encouraged him, hoping his talent wouldn’t be lost. I felt that with him, it was an inborn thing. His father was artistic, but Keith had the goods to go out and do something about it. I used to say to Keith, ‘There’s a place for you in the art world. I don’t know where and I don’t know what, but you’ll find it.’”
Kutztown Area Historical Society, corner of Normal Avenue and Whiteoak Street, Kutztown, Pennsylvania; open on May 13 from 1–3pm; otherwise open by appointment, and on Sundays between November and February.
Kutztown Middle School
There used to be quite a few original Haring artworks lingering around Kutztown’s schools. The high school’s English department had books doodled on by Keith (as he is commonly known in town). There were desks that he drew on — probably much to the chagrin of his teachers then, and the delight of whomever has absconded with an early Haring now.
“They’ve all, sort of, disappeared,” says James Brown, principal of Kutztown Area Middle School.
But that doesn’t mean that the schools are devoid of Haring. The hallways of the middle school are teeming with his images, produced annually in art teacher Kris Tuerk’s 6th grade class. The learning unit focuses on Haring’s support of anti-drug and other issues, encouraging students to use his characteristic style to advocate for causes of their own. (The Haring connection is personal for Tuerk, who hung out with Keith’s closest Kutztown friends in college and met the artist a few times.)
Even outside of 6th grade art, though, there are glass display cases dedicated to Keith’s alumnus status. One at the school’s main entrance has a colorful drawstring backpack from the artist’s Pop Shop. Another near the auditorium displays old yearbook photos of Keith alongside testimonials from his former teachers.
Though his laminated life story is carefully encased behind glass, the general attitude toward Haring doesn’t seem devotional. “Keith Haring is a big deal,” Brown told Hyperallergic. “But to us, he’s just normal. He’s one of us. It’s like, ‘there’s his mom.’” (Joan Haring, the artist’s mother, has been known to voluntarily attend school board meetings from time to time.)
Haring is currently being celebrated as one of two 2018 Distinguished Alumni of the Year, by the Kutztown Area School District.
Two years after the artist’s death, the Keith Haring Foundation and Tony Shafrazi Gallery (which gave Haring his first New York solo exhibition in 1982) gifted “Untitled (Figure Balancing on Dog)” (1986) to Kutztown Park. A plaque at the base of the vibrant red steel sculpture identifies the artist as: “Keith Haring, Kutztown Native.”
Perched on a hilltop between the baseball diamond and playground, it is visible to the many children who use the park. And they may see different things, depending on the angle they view the sculpture from: Haring’s iconic open-mouthed dog, a solitary figure with arms outstretched skywards, or both figures intertwined.
Kutztown Park, 439 East Main Street, Kutztown, Pennsylvania.
Allentown Art Museum
The museum in nearby Allentown (a half-hour drive from Kutztown) has nine Haring works in its permanent collection, one gifted during the artist’s lifetime in 1986. A few were donated by the artist’s sisters. A “Kutztown Connection” poster, created by Haring at James Carroll’s request to benefit the New Arts Program, is also in the collection.
Allentown Art Museum, 31 North 5th Street, Allentown, Pennsylvania; open Wednesday–Saturday, 11am–4pm, every third Thursday 11am–8pm, Sunday 12pm–4pm.
Reading Public Museum
Two Haring artworks are generally on permanent view at the Reading Public Museum (also a short drive from Kutztown). One of them, a painting titled “Untitled (Purple Heart),” is on long-term loan from Kay Haring, the artist’s sister, who published a children’s book about Haring last year titled The Boy Who Just Kept Drawing (2017).
A recently closed exhibition at the museum, Keith Haring: Symbolic Gestures, displayed some of the artist’s very early works. It included, of course, Haring’s very first street tag from circa 1980 and his most famous symbol – the Radiant Baby. Seen in Haring’s actual birthplace (Kutztown didn’t have a hospital when he was born, on this day in 1958), his characteristic baby takes on a different meaning. It is not only the iconic image that birthed the career of this world-renowned artist. It is Haring himself — where he came from and all that he emanated, from Kutztown to New York, and beyond.
Reading Public Museum, 500 Museum Road, Reading, Pennsylvania; open 11am–5pm daily.
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