In Keith Haring’s Line: Race and the Performance of Desire (Duke University Press), Ricardo Montez illustrates the interconnectedness between the artist’s images and conceptions of the racialized bodies around him. Montez’s own lines are layered, not linear, going beyond initial readings of exploitation and utilizing close-readings to refuse clean conclusions. 

The text  opens in 1983 with photographer Tseng Kwong Chi and filmmaker Arnie Zane capturing Haring painting the body of dancer Bill T. Jones. This act of Haring applying white paint on Jones’s Black skin is imaged on the book’s cover, setting the stage for Montez’s descriptions of the scene’s many gazes. Though capturing a collaboration, this image and the moment documented, is situated within power structures benefitting Haring. Montez, drawing upon the work of anthropologist George Marcus, complicates the framework of collaboration by pointing to issues of complicity tied to broader (raced, gendered, queered, and colonial) histories, a useful model beyond Haring, and one which frames his broader analysis, in which the artist’s mark-making repeatedly signifies both appropriation and kinetic virtuosity.  

Keith Haring painting Grace Jones at Paradise Garage, New York City (1985), (photo by Tseng Kwong Chi © Muna Tseng Dance Projects, Inc., art by Keith Haring © Keith Haring Foundation)

Another figure Montez conjures is Haring’s partner Juan Dubose. Positioned between “sexual object” and “domestic caretaker,” Montez writes that “precisely as a fetish, Dubose’s place in Haring’s life seems overly narratable, even tritely predictable.” As with the Joneses (both Bill T. and later Grace), Montez comments that Dubose “cannot be rescued from the scripts of race and power that frame his story.” Indeed, the monograph  is not interested in rescue. Montez instead places his attention on the “unknowability” of his subjects, describing experiences like holding Warhol’s Polaroids of Haring and Dubose as fueling his own  deep desire for material traces of Haring’s life and the potential of such archives. 

Haring’s desires, meanwhile, manifest intertextually, in lines of drawings and of poetry. He writes in 1979 that he has “fallen into poetry,” “swallowed” by it, populating his journal pages with lists of ideas, texts, moments, and people illuminating the backdrop of the city and his network of influences. These reproduced pages, some labeled “THE CHUNK CALLED POETRY,” underscore the web of Haring’s world. His liquid handwriting is striking, with uppercase and script letters bobbing above and between the thin blue lines and red margins of each page. 

Keith Haring drawing in New York City subway (1981) (photo by Tseng Kwong Chi © Muna Tseng Dance Projects, Inc., art by Keith Haring © Keith Haring Foundation).

Montez refuses a singular reading of Haring’s texts or of his relationships, returning to the framing of complicity when referring to his collaboration with the (younger, straight) graffiti artist LA II, a symbol of Haring’s cross-racial desire and attraction to “otherness.” Montez writes that he “thinks through LA II’s position as “trade” — a gay-slang term I take here to designate a relationship of power and of exchange: a mobile, animated energy […] complicity,” analyzing their relationship through the lens of commodification. Their exchange is positioned as one that contains a radiance — not a sentimental one, but one that pulsed with the tensions of unequal power and desire. 

Keith Haring’s Line exudes political and aesthetic friction, impressively threading many entry points and tactics. Following in the legacy of his late mentor José Esteban Muñoz (to whom the book is dedicated), Montez brings deliberate specificity to the ubiquitous figure of Haring. By exposing and avoiding the trappings of linearity, singularity, and script, Montez is instead able to present vulnerability, fluidity, and flesh. 

Keith Haring’s Line: Race and the Performance of Desire (Duke University Press, 2020), by Ricardo Montez, is now available on Bookshop

danilo machado is a poet, curator, and critic on occupied land interested in art and language’s potential for revealing tenderness, erasure, and relationships to power. They are working to show up with...