Susan Shapiro reviews Keith Haring's book "Journals".

Published July 6, 1996 7:00PM (EDT)

Talking about art is never as interesting as the art itself.

Keith Haring's journals begin in 1977, when he was in high school in Pittsburgh, excited that he bought tickets for a Grateful Dead concert for $5.50 each. The last entry is from 1989, right before he died of AIDS at the age of 31, by which time he had become a world-famous artist. In between there are poems, photographs, letters, dreams, critiques of other artists, insecurities, unpublished drawings from his notebooks, lists, calendars, quotes from Graham Nash, John Keats and Walt Whitman, mentions of sex and AIDS and such philosophical babble as "The freedom of the artist is symbolic of the human spirit in all mankind."

Haring's journals are more introspective, analytic and soulful than his mentor Andy Warhol's superficial, celebrity-studded diaries. Fans of Haring's works, the best-known of which feature colorful primitive figures dancing, will no doubt enjoy reading about his world travels, his public and private shows, and his intimate connections with Warhol, Timothy Leary and William Burroughs. Yet Haring was a visual artist, not a writer, and making paintings is not an inherently exciting topic. ("Fill in color inside the black shapes -- one color at a time. Very 'Cobra' brushwork and very drippy. Finish around 9:30 with back hurting and smelling bad ...") It's ironic that, for someone whose work seemed so free and spontaneous, the journals reveal the intensive planning, toil and clear agenda that went into Haring's work and image.

Although Robert Ferris Thompson's introduction is well-written and informative, one wishes for more linear biographical information. Thompson quotes a friend who said that Haring was "the nicest person he ever met in his life," and indeed it's refreshing to find an artist who talks of his love of children, concern for humanity and donations to charity. Haring comes off as vulnerable and human. In his brief but poignant preface, the artist David Hockney perhaps sums up Haring best when he writes, "He left his mark everywhere. A very generous life."

By Susan Shapiro

Writing professor Susan Shapiro is the bestselling author/coauthor of “Unhooked,” “Lighting Up,” and most recently "American Shield." She’s working on a new essay collection about sex, love and addiction.

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