Review: Keith Haring: The Authorized Biography by John Gruen

I’ve been on a modern art trip lately, trying to learn more about art and artists. I never learned anything in school about art, and other than maybe Jackson Pollock and a bit of Damien Hirst, I don’t know anything.  But I enjoy modern art in the sense that I want to figure out how the artists get famous, how their personas develop, and how they go from throwing paint at a wall to being a part of history.

I recently read Keith Haring: The Authorized Biography, which I picked up used for a couple of bucks on Amazon.  I know next to nothing about Haring, but I found the book fascinating.  First, it was a real slice-of-life thing, because the book came out I think in 1991, but right after Haring died.  It’s got that 1991 feel to it, the cover and design that makes it look like a rushed-to-print book by a division of MTV made to cash in on the GenX craze, or maybe a Douglas Coupland cash grab of a bunch of Polaroids (I guess he really did do that, though.)  I’m not saying the book was bad from that aspect; it’s just very interesting how book design can become extremely dated, and looking at a book from 1991 or 1992 can immediately pull you back to that era.

My big takeaway from the book was the vision of late 1970s New York.  I’ve discussed this before, but living in Indiana with no connections to NYC meant I had a very specific and jaded view of the city.  When I finally visited for the first time in 1998, it completely changed that vision for me, but I was never sure if this was the Giuliani cleaned-up-Manhattan image and I missed that old New York, or if my vision of the city was completely wrong.  (It’s probably a bit of both.)  Either way, this mythical city still knocks around in my brain, an island sculpted in my head from images in Ghostbusters and Taxi Driver, peppered with horror stories from my stepmother, who grew up there.  I envisioned a post-apocalyptic city with burned-out buildings, crazed murderers high on PCP roaming the subways, and mad Wall Street executives always wearing suits and making millions.

When I moved to New York in 1999, it was completely different, but little things reminded me of this alternate universe. Like I’d be in a subway, and find an old sign in a forgotten passageway that hadn’t been changed, one of the white background ceramic signs with the old school font in black letters, and it would make me think of the French Connection-era BMT tunnels, the low-rise turnstiles that people jumped over when they didn’t have a token.  Or they’d tear down a storefront in Times Square to install some new Disney-Time-Warner-Viacom monstrosity, and for a brief period, the ancient, worn signage from the 60s or the 40s would appear, a labelscar of the long-missing sign for an automat that later became a heroin dealer mecca, and then got boarded up and later turned into a place that sold Statue of Liberty t-shirts.  Even on a hot summer day, when the smell of an ancient New York would waft up from a broken underground transformer or air shaft, I’d briefly get transported to this ancient Manhattan in my mind, the city of The Ramones and Son of Sam and Bernard Goetz.

Haring’s book reminded me of this from his beginning, the guerrilla art projects where he used chalk to draw murals on the subways, in those black portals set in the ceramic-tiled walls, the place where they normally pasted up ads.  He’d get out of a train, rush to one of those, and draw an intricate image, something he could dash off quickly, but that looked so right in the train tunnel, the images of UFOs and babies and dogs.  I love those old drawings of his, but even more, I love the mental image of the old graffiti-covered trains pulling into the station, the ones with real straps to hang onto, and Haring jumping out with a stick of chalk to swim through the river of New Yorkers and etch out the image.

Another thing I liked was that Haring, right when he appeared in NY for art school, stumbled upon William S. Burroughs and his Nova Express conference.  He attended, and later befriended Burroughs.  But one of his big takeaways from the conference was the memetic quality of cut-ups, and that’s when he started using common, repetitive imagery in his street art.  He came up with the baby and the dog, and repeated these symbols, much in the same way Burroughs did with images within his cut-up trilogy.

I also like how Haring would often get approached in the subways when drawing, by people wondering if he worked for the MTA, or had an art grant, or if the drawings were ads for something.  And to cement that artist-patron relationship, and take the memetic thing a step further, he got some buttons made of the little baby drawing, and later the dog, and when someone stopped to talk to him, he’d give them a button.  These became extremely collectible in the art world, a badge proving a meeting with the artist.  It makes me think I really need to print up some buttons.

The end of the book, and the death of Haring, was sad.  But it was a fun read, and still has me thinking of that old New York.


The Burroughs house

I am back. I am sick. I could barely talk today, and felt like crawling under my desk and dying all day. But I have a deadline this Friday, and I had 248 mail messages waiting for me at work, so I had to get there. Plus I woke up at 6am when the Nyquil wore off, and I had nothing better to do. Actually, I had a lot of better things to do, but I chose to go to work instead of calling in. Maybe tomorrow.

New York was cool, although I was too sick to do much. It was good to see Marie for a couple of days, and hang out with my two feline friends Mungo and Henrey. We did go out a few times, to a Ukranian deli, to the village to look at CDs, and to Tower. I bought two new prerecorded MiniDiscs (Ozzy and Pink Floyd) and I saw the lab which was used as an exterior in Seinfeld when they went to get the frozen yogurt tested for fat content. So that was my big brush with fame for the trip.

Actually, on Saturday, we went to a big party at this giant three-story house. It turns out that the place used to be divvied up into tiny apartments, and in 1943 and 1944, William S. Burroughs lived there. Kerouac and Ginsberg visited there a lot, and it’s the place where Lucien Carr visited the morning after killing David Kamerrer and showed Burroughs the pack of bloody cigarettes he lifted from the body. It’s a flat with some real history to it.

Of course, when we were there, all of that was gone. The building was converted into one giant house long ago. Burroughs’ old residence is now a kids’ bedroom, full of toy cars. On the top floor, there was a bathroom that was seriously as big as my entire fucking apartment, with a sauna, giant bathtub, fireplace, everything. And the whole house was wired for audio and TV, so you could listen to music all over or divide it up to certain rooms. Later, we were trying to guess how much the place would sell for – at least in the seven digit range.

So here I am, sick. I better stop my whining and get some rest and a few good belts of the Robitussen. Maybe tomorrow…


persona, content

I’ve been thinking more about content, which I babbled on about yesterday. There are a few conflicts involved in all of this, so bear with me.

Yesterday, I talked about content and method versus character and setting and plot. It might be helpful if you read yesterday’s entry, but for now, I’m going to ignore everything but content. A typical, writing 101 short story or Hollywood screenplay contains content – a protagonist, an antagonist, a dark and stormy night, a football player and the cheerleadr who loves him, and so on. The distinction that I would make between a typical story and something experimental or literary is that the purpose of the content is different, so the content is different. For example, the purpose of Dr. Benway in a William S. Burroughs book is different than the purpose of Dr. Niles Crane on the TV show Frazier. The former can develop in different ways because he’s not supporting this typical entourage of characters in the typical plot A/plot B sitcom script. More focus can be put on the characters (or the settings or objects) because they aren’t simple plug-ins to a prefab storyline. I think that’s the big distinction in literary fiction, and it’s what differentiates something like The Subterraneans and Weekend at Bernie’s.

So where do these heightened characters and places and objects come from? Writers write what they know, for the most part. This has been the major stumbling block for me and my writing career. I’ve read books by Bukowski, about his years of drinking, meeting different women, betting on the horses, living with almost no money and writing for an underground newspaper, living in roominghouses. I’ve read Burroughs, the trips into the jungle to find Yage, the travel all over the world, the Beat Hotel and Tangiers. And I’ve even been jealous of Henry Rollins, sleeping in the back of a U-Haul, a different city every day on the road with Black Flag. All of these people lived adventurous lives, while I haven’t. The closest I’ve been to being on the edge was maybe in college, but that’s nothing like On the Road. So part of my muse has been telling me that I need to go out and live to collect this content – to do like Hemmingway and fight in wars and fight bulls and drink 20 shots of whiskey for breakfast and everything else. And granted, if I could play the guitar or I found some gig that got me out of the house and all around the country, maybe I’d try it. But I’ve thought that the collection of content was a major deterrant in my writing career. I wrote one book called Summer Rain based on a summer in Bloomington, and it was fun to write (well, it’s still not done yet…) but I realized that there would never be a second book after this one, because if I stuck to this genre of autobiographical fiction, every book I wrote would be another Summer Rain.

But you don’t need to live it to write it, do you? Several of my favorite writers, most notably Mark Leyner, write stuff that never really happened. It’s all based on a mix of research, pop culture, current events, and sheer insanity. Someone like Leyner is pulling his content from the air, and it’s commendable work. When I mess with this, I find that the fictional content you create is only as good as the random junk floating in your head. I took a few weird college courses on music theory, cancer, third world politics, and astronomy, and I have a weird laundry list of interest and topics I like to read about, too. But when I do my best work on Rumored to Exist is when I do my best homework. I pick things up from other people, from newsgroups, from websites, from odd shows on the Discovery channel. And when everything works good, and when I’m saturated with this useless knowledge, the content flows. But other times, it doesn’t. And that’s what I’m trying to improve.

I just got interrupted, so I lost my train of thought. But what I think I was going to say is that I feel a need to research and challenge myself to look at new things and ideas, specifically for Rumored to Exist. I find that I need to look for a starting point for new and weird topics, and once that happens, everything snowballs and I’m doing plenty of good writing. My friend and fellow writer Michael Stutz recommended Robert Anton Wilson’s book Everything is Under Control, so I ran and got a copy of last night. He was 100% right – it’s this encyclopedia of weird conspiracy theories and secret societies that’s somewhat tongue in cheek and probably not even 10% correct, but it’s an excellent read. And now I’m thinking about Freemasons, Men in Black (not Will Smith), word virus theories, germ warfare, and a ton of other cool stuff. I have enough research material to keep me busy for a while.

The application of this material is the second part of what I talked about yesterday, the method. I don’t think I am going to be able to crack out a good explanation of this, since I haven’t even begun to think about it. But that’s a good discussion for later.

As always, I’m really looking for comments about this babble, especially since this self-discussion is becoming somewhat important to me. So please email me if you have any thoughts on the subject.



I’m at the point in my writing cycle where I’m overanalyzing how writing works. I often need to break apart stories and books and try to find what makes them readable, desirable, and functional. Although I feel that Rumored to Exist is a good book in many places, I don’t know how it will stand as a complete book, and I don’t know how I will come up with the ideas to finish it. Because it is so loose and free-form, there’s no cohesive story to follow, which puts me in the danger of never finishing. I’ve been hacking at Rumored for a little over two years, and I’m barely halfway done. Another round of edits could put me well below the halfway bar, if I start chopping the pieces I absolutely hate.

This means I start thinking about the theory of plot and structure of story. It also means I think about my interests and try to find new topics to research, combine, and twist into new ideas. It’s a nervous prospect, since I have absolutely no attention span right now, and I can never apply myself to projects like this. It’s the reason I could never learn a foreign language, or pull a decent GPA in largely scantron courses like psychology or sociology. So I might be off this kick before too long.

The perfect starting point and example is, of course, William S. Burroughs. He lived a life of ecclectic and bizarre connections: heroin, South America, homosexuality, classical literature, psychology, technology, and travel. He worked jobs just to find out what it was like, as a private detetective or exterminator, and took a strange path, studying at Harvard, going to Vienna for medical school, living in the middle of nowhere in Texas, and then going across the globe: Mexico, South America, Tangiers, Paris, Austria, New York, Kansas. His life provided the raw material to produce his books. He often went on about different topics, such as the Mayans, time travel, scientology, the corruption of a Christian society, drug dealers, and more. But he didn’t write straightforward narratives about his experiences, like Charles Bukowski or Henry Miller or something. It was more veiled in complicated structures; cutups, fragments, dreams and chaos used to frame the pieces of his stories.

If I wanted to rip off Burroughs entirely, the two basic pieces to investigate could then be defined as the content and the method. This sounds pretty arbitrary, but it’s an important distinction, because I think in most of your writing 101 classes, the division of story would be something like plot and character. I don’t think plot is required, because it’s really a part of method. The method of a story, especially something nonlinear, doesn’t have to include plot. It could use any mechanism that would pull the reader through the story. A book like Naked Lunch is not plot-driven. (The well-versed Burroughs scholar could argue that it is, but the first-time reader would disagree, so let’s stick with that.) And character is somewhat of a division of content. Although characters are important in WSB’s work, he doesn’t rely on a top-down cast like a Hollywood movie. And it isn’t a typical first-person narrative like so many literary works.

I don’t know where to start, and I don’t think I can investigate both of these today, but the easiest way for me to begin would be with content. I always try to find new, cool things to discuss in Rumored, be it designer drugs, high-tech weaponry, pop-culture icons, or obscure history references. I’m not always 100% happy with some of these things, and many have been cut or toned down as the editing of Rumored continues. I need to think of new topics, but I need to think about how they are discussed or applied, and that’s where it gets even more complicated.

Back to Burroughs – a lot of his work has a mystical, investigative approach. He talks about the Mayans and Ah Pook the Destroyer and all of that, with a spiritual approach. I don’t mean that he is a religious writer; it’s that the characters and reference – the content – relies on a religious framework to interact through his books. When he talks about heroin, it isn’t a Trainspotting sort of Calvin Klein ad for junk; he talks about it in a spiritual sense. He has created a culture which has its own minor morality plays based on the unique aspects of drug use and addiction. It’s not like a Hollywood movie where the use of drugs pushes one of the characters in the stereotypical inventory of characters through the stock five plot movements, i.e. I’m a high school cheerleader and I have a football player boyfriend; Someone offers me drugs and I try them so I can be pretty/popular/better; antics ensue; I weigh 500 pounds and smoke a pound of hash a day; I learn to love god. moral: don’t do drugs, kids! Burroughs seems to walk far outside of this, because he isn’t pushing a plot like they are. He might have some plot elements to keep the pages turning, but it’s not all designed to be a 2 hour movie of the week.

Although I haven’t read his stuff in years, I was thinking of Asimov as another example. He wrote all of these books about robots, but the books aren’t really about big aluminum men running around killing people or whatever. He took the angle of social commentary and engineered it around the limitations and issues of robotics. Asimov wasn’t a religious guy (If I remember correctly, he’s a Humanist, which is probably my closest fit, religion-wise) and his books aren’t knit together with a spiritual overtone. He takes his unique topics and works together the content with the political or sociological consequenses. Other writers would have a plot-driven theme about robots, but he uses a light plot to drive home the unique circumstanses of man creating artificial “life.”

So my homework for tonight is to come up with a laundry list of topics I could further explore and research for the universe created within Rumored to Exist. There are tons of things there, but many of them are free-floating. Someone might be injecting some cloning serum in his arm, but the purpose and placement of clones in the book is somewhat secondary. I think if I picked apart some of the topics I’ve discussed and brainstormed further mutations of them, there would be more coross-pollination of weird stuff and more ideas for new pieces.

And maybe tomorrow I can talk about method. Or maybe I’ll still be babbling about this.