A Tale of Two Artists’s Careers
Keith Haring (1958-1990) and Jeff Koons (1955-) were born in Pennsylvania and grew up in middle-class families. Their careers as artists took off in the 1980s, at a time when contemporary art was just beginning to be looked at seriously. It was an exciting moment. The late Marcia Tucker was fired when, as a curator at the Whitney, she exhibited Minimalist artists like Richard Tuttle. One of his works consisted of a few inches of rope tacked to the wall of the gallery. With backing by a handful of courageous patrons from the Whitney, Tucker founded The New Museum of Contemporary Art in 1977. In 1987, to celebrate its first ten years, Tucker recalled,
In 1977, contemporary art was altogether out of favor, and most of the major museums in the country had all but ceased innovative programming in that area. It was a time when alternative spaces and institutes of contemporary art flourished: without them, the art of our time might have remained invisible in the not-for-profit cultural arena. . . . We do things that no other museum does. We raise real issues through our exhibitions that concern the society we live in, our role in it, the function and meaning of the work of art, the role of the artist, the critic, the viewer.
The works of Haring and Koons were shown at The New Museum in several exhibitions between 1980 and 1986 (though not together). So much has changed since the 1980s—it’s hard to imagine this time when artists were wildly experimenting with new media without the pressures of the present burgeoning market. As some people in the art world have observed with dismay, contemporary art now sells for stratospheric prices. The careers of Haring and Koons are telling examples of how artists responded to expanding fields for artists.
Curiously, one can easily observe this at the intersection of Astor Place and Cooper Square in Manhattan. It’s a corner or really a block in the shape of a triangle that borders St. Mark’s Place (entrance to the East Village) and the Bowery in front of the historic Cooper Union Library. For some people—this is the center of the world (or it was). A new building was recently completed in the triangular space. It is the home of IBM Watson‘s new global headquarters, which is now part of New York City’s so-called Silicon Alley.
Inside the lobby of IBM Watson sits a Jeff Koons Balloon Rabbit sculpture—of red stainless steel polished to perfection and off-limits to any interaction with passersby. On a weekend, the doorman/guard refuses to allow entrance to view or photograph the sculpture. One can only take photos from outside. The lovable bunny in all its pristine glory and worth many millions of those is protected by, of course, bullet-proof glass. To support himself as an artist in the early 1980s, Koons sold mutual funds and became a commodities broker. A lot has been made about his Wall Street beginnings and not without irony.
Around the corner a sculpture by Keith Haring, called Self-Portrait, is permanently installed outside and in front of the entrance for St. John’s University in the same building. Haring was a social activist from the start of his career, and, unfortunately, he was caught in the midst of the AIDS crisis of the 1980s and early 90s, before antiretroviral medication became viable. He is known for his interventionist art work in public places—like subways and billboards. He understood the power of hieroglyphic signs that everyone can understand. His famous billboard at 128th Street and Second Avenue and visible from the Harlem River Drive—Crack is Wack—has been taken over by the City Department of Parks and lovingly protected. When diagnosed with AIDS in 1988, he participated in activist art to bring attention to the silence and discrimination that surrounded so many.
The Haring Self-Portrait exudes an energy and excitement as if alive and about to jump off its platform into the milieu with the crowd. One can walk around it and experience it from different angles at one of the busiest corners in the city. From each viewpoint, Self-Portrait, becomes an active participant in the scene. Unlike the stationary Rabbit, protected in its sterile corporate space, Haring’s sculpture is a welcoming sign of the sheer joy of being in this vital neighborhood. Every time I see it, I smile and feel uplifted, but I also want to cry.
— Gayle Rodda Kurtz, Contributor
Keith Haring, Self-Portrait, 1989.
Jeff Koons, Balloon Rabbit, 2006-10, high chromium stainless steel with transparent color coating, 168 x 81″.
Marcia Tucker’s quote from The New Museum of Contemporary Art Tenth Anniversary, 1977-1987, booklet, researched and edited by Gayle Rodda Kurtz. The New Museum, 1987.
Photos by the author.