NewFest 2020 Film Review: Keith Haring: Street Art Boy ★★★★

Despite its relatively short running time of just 53 minutes, or perhaps because of it, director Ben Anthony’s made-for-television documentary Keith Haring: Street Art Boy, which premiered at NewFest, manages to cover a lot of ground. In fact a parallel emerges of a prolific artist with an intense creative drive, and the film’s style which, energetically edited by Paul van Dyck, moves fast without sacrificing any depth.

A young Keith Haring in Kutztown, Pennsylvania. © Keith Haring Foundation.

Through intimate around-the-kitchen-table interviews with Haring’s unassuming parents Joan and Allen, as well as a look at family photographs and even some childhood artwork and writing (stating his ambition to make his living as an artist), we’re introduced to the young Keith who grew up in Kutztown, Pennsylvania. As we follow Haring to New York in 1978, Anthony establishes the vibe of the alternative downtown Manhattan creative scene of that era, contrasting it with the explicitly commercial and exclusionary uptown art world. Haring quickly became a key figure of the East Village’s legendary events hub Club 57, and there’s some great archive footage that immediately gives us a flavour of the place. We’re also immersed into the then cash-strapped city’s vibrant street art scene, and offered an insight into the sensitivity that Haring felt as a white artist working in a predominantly African American form as he began to tag NYC both above ground and below, bringing art to the people on their subway commutes with his distinctive white chalk drawings on the MTA’s unused advertising panels. The existence of so much video and photographic documentation of Haring at work and talking about the evolution of his style, and the creation of the “baby” and “dog” motifs, is largely thanks to the artist’s own foresight. Similarly the previously unheard audio of Haring himself, which allows him to be the lead narrator of his own story in this documentary, is taken from a series of interviews that he did over five days with the writer and art critic John Gruen, whom Keith commissioned to write his biography following his HIV positive diagnosis in 1988.

Keith Haring. Courtesy of Gil Vazquez Collection/The Keith Haring Foundation.

As Street Art Boy charts Haring’s rise to international prominence we hear succinct insights from a wealth of commentators including fellow artists like Kenny Scharf, legendary hip hop pioneer Fab 5 Freddy, and the colourful gallery owner and art dealer Tony Shafrazi, who insists on the exact camera angle that his interview is shot from. Keith’s former personal assistant and studio manager, now executive director of the Keith Haring Foundation, Julia Gruen, along with the Foundation’s Board President Gil Vazquez, are particularly perceptive with their observations about him as a friend as well as an artist. In one moving sequence, that illustrates the power of democratising art that Haring believed in, there’s a present day interview with a man who was among the hundreds of children who in 1986 added their contributions to Haring’s largest work, the City Kids Speak on Liberty banner. He talks about the sense of purpose and of being seen that that opportunity gave him, as he looks over the work to find his own writing about what liberty meant to him.

Haring’s increased success and recognition led to the opening of his Pop Shop in SoHo to sell branded merchandise, and Anthony leaves room to explore whether this commercialisation was about expanding his mission to open art up to the people, so anyone could own something by him, or whether it was more about selling out and cashing in, influenced by his freindship with fellow pop artist Andy Warhol. It’s a question that’s allowed to linger.

As the film makes clear, Haring was a dedicated activist, evidenced by the social justice and political messages expressed in his art, by showing up to protests—and by giving wads of cash to help the efforts of organisations like ACT UP, as HIV/AIDS and LGBTQ+ activist Peter Staley recalls—while since his death, millions of dollars have been donated to charity through the Keith Haring Foundation which the artist set up himself in 1989.

ACT UP FOR LIFE!! (1989). © Keith Haring Foundation.
Ignorance = Fear / Silence = Death (1989). © Keith Haring Foundation.

Haring was also dedicated to the city’s DJ-focused vibrant night club scene. It was something that was so important to him that when he had to leave New York he’d book flights that would ensure he wouldn’t miss a Saturday night at the hugely influential Paradise Garage discotheque, where his friend Madonna once performed, apparently to some reservations from the club’s predominantly gay Black male clientele. Again, with some atmospheric archive images and inspired music choices, the film gives us a visceral sense of what it would’ve been like to have danced the night away at Paradise Garage with Haring and his famous pals, or allows you to go on a nostalgia trip if you were lucky enough to have been there. It’s typical of Street Art Boy’s time capsule quality that results in a film that’s not just a fitting tribute to one of New York’s most iconic queer artists, but also to the city itself, a city which fed his creativity and allowed him to thrive. Watching the film as part of this year’s virtual NewFest from my apartment in the East Village, just a few blocks away from the Houston/Bowery street art wall which Haring’s mural once adorned, I found myself mourning the loss the work he might have filled the city with this summer when so many of Manhattan’s storefronts were boarded up, creating an explosion of Black Lives Matter inspired protest art. Tragically, Haring’s life was cut short by AIDS related complications in 1990 when he was just 31 years-old. His art and legacy though continue to burn bright and this exceptional, lovingly-crafted documentary makes clear why while also giving us a real sense of the man behind the work.

Keith Haring: Street Art Boy premiered at NewFest the New York LGBTQ+ Film Festival and will begin streaming in the US on December 4th 2020 as part of PBS’ American Masters series.

First broadcast in the UK on BBC 2 in July, the film is available to stream in the UK via the BBC iPlayer.

For more on Keith Haring head to the official Keith Haring Foundation website.

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