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Keith Haring

Haring recognised at last, climbing from subway to museum

On the one hand, official recognition, on the other, the problem of fakes

The art of Keith Haring is a marketer’s dream: a facile, recognisable style; an innocent wholesome charm; graffiti images transferable to almost any surface, and a biography of street smartness and AIDS martyrdom in 1990.

The first Manhattan museum exhibition of Haring’s work, more than 130 objects, is now on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art until 21 September. Simultaneously, thirteen Haring sculptures have been erected in public spaces until October in the gardens down the middle of Park Avenue, far from the subways and grimy East Village Streets frequented by the artist.

The official explanation for giving Haring a Manhattan show is that institutions have been reluctant to recognize Haring’s talents.

Privately, dealers and museum directors explain that Haring was tainted by his relationship with the dealer Tony Shafrazi, who spray-painted Picasso’s “Guernica” at the Museum of Modern Art in the 1970s and represented Haring from the early 1980s.

According to one dealer active in secondary-market Harings, “Keith could not get a show because Tony Shafrazi had alienated the art world by spraypainting Guernica years ago. It was a bone of contention between Shafrazi and the museums, and they would not expand Keith’s market because he was represented by Tony Shafrazi.”

The attitude of museums toward Haring changed some three years ago, when the Haring Estate switched representation from Shafrazi to the Andre Emmerich Gallery, known for its excellent relationships with museums.

According to Donald McKinney of Emmerich, the Haring Estate’s relationship with the gallery should enable Haring works to achieve major museum collection status. Many of the works now held by the Haring Estate (which shares this privilege with the Keith Haring Foundation) are large pieces that are unsaleable to most private collectors.

Another element of the new Emmerich relationship could enhance the value of Haring’s work. Emmerich was acquired by Sotheby’s last year and while the auction house played no role in selecting works of art for the Whitney exhibition, said Mr McKinney, nor does it own work in the show other dealers predict a close future relationship.

It is the proliferation of Haring fakes that could keep prices down. Since the early 1980s, forgeries of Haring’s work have distorted the market, say dealers. “The truth is that Keith’s work happens to be very easy to fake,” said Andrew Terner. In fact, in 1989 Haring closed down his Pop Shop that he had started in Tokyo a year earlier to sell licensed merchandise, partly because the store’s presence fuelled a boom in fakes. Even the subway drawings—“unsaleable” large wall pieces created by Haring as an affront to the market—were forged routinely. One artist colleague was famed for covering vacant subway advertising panels with high quality black paper, on which an unsuspecting Haring drew his signature dogs and humanoids, which then got spirited off to dealers (where the drawings were often retraced and reproduced) once Haring had moved on to another panel.

In fact, the Keith Haring Foundation, which authenticates much of the artist’s work, does not issue rulings on subway drawings as a matter of principle, according to Julia Gruen, the estate’s co-executor who directs the philanthropic activities of the foundation. The Foundation’s assets, in some 2000 works from Haring’s estate, are valued at around $25 million. Licensed Haring merchandise generates under $1 million a year in income.

“The way he thought about the subway drawings—it’s hard to conceive of this now—was that they were done more or less anonymously, site specific, not signed, and in the complete spirit of their ephemeral placement,” said Gruen.

That fake problem will not affect the exhibition, stresses David Ross, director of the Whitney Museum, “there is plenty of work that is clearly Keith’s, and we’re really not dealing with the kind of issues of signature and signature value that we would be if this were the Rembrandt show at the Met. We are talking about somebody who was pushing at the edges of authorship. Of course, the estate and those dealers probably have a different attitude about that because they want to sell authentic work that’s clearly by Keith, and of course we want to show that as well. But this was never a major issue for Keith. The issue for Keith was getting the work out, getting it into the world, and having it generate a level of energy that would communicate very clearly what his intentions were,” said Mr Ross.

Dealers say that the estate is hoping the Whitney exhibition will duplicate the record crowds that Haring exhibitions in Europe have drawn and give Haring’s prices the kind of boost that most of his 1980s colleagues have lacked in this decade. Two dealers, Jeffrey Deitch and Robert Pincus-Witten, have even contributed essays to the Whitney catalogue. Haring’s highest price at auction came in October 1989, when “Amphora,” a cookie jar once owned by Robert Mapplethorpe, sold for $231,000.

In the hope of higher prices, dealers themselves report that they are holding Harings back from the market until the exhibition has closed.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Haring—from subway to museum at last'