Keith Haring’s Line: Race and the Performance of Desire
Duke University Press
Keith Haring’s Line is the third book about Haring that I have reviewed in these pages. The other two—The Boy Who Kept on Drawing [A&U, April 2017] and Writing on Walls [A&U, August 2020]—are delightfully written and illustration children’s books meant to introduce kiddies to the genius of Keith Haring.
Keith Haring’s Line is definitely not a children’s book. Instead, it is a scholarly examination of some of Haring’s work by Ricardo Montez, an Associate Professor of Performance Studies, Schools of Public Engagement, The New School. Montez approaches these works through the lens of Haring’s sexual attraction to Black and brown men and sees implicit racism and exploitation.
Montez focuses his critique primarily on two collaborative performance pieces involving, in one, the dancer and choreographer Bill T. Jones and, the other, singer and icon Grace Jones. In both pieces, Haring painted his signature primitive lines on the naked Black bodies of the two performers, transforming both into neo-primitive warriors. Photographer Tseng Kwong Chi captured the performances in still photographs.
Here is where things get complicated and, frankly, difficult to understand. Montez is obviously an intelligent, well educated man, but his writing is unnecessarily complex. In sentences like this one—”Echoing Amber Jamilla Musser’s privileging of complicity over subversion in her recent analysis of scenes of masochistic play, I understand Haring’s neoprimitive line as a graphic enactment, a visual-aesthetic performative, that conjures and draws subjects into a field of negotiations in which the outcome of participation and the agential terms of the subject cannot be forecast according to a perceived power imbalance or structural inequality”—Montez seems to trip and stumble over his own erudition and lingo-heavy academese as he forces Haring’s work through the meat-grinder of “radical queer Black theory.” I spent a long time re-reading some of his sentences over and over to grasp some semblance of their meaning. But if I’ve read him correctly, his conclusions are more disturbing than enlightening.
In Montez’s view, Haring’s sexual attraction to Black and brown men, particularly Black and brown men of a lower social and economic stratum, evidences a “plantation mentality” toward those men. He finds this mentality in Haring’s relationship with Juan Dubose and with the graffiti artist LA 2 (Angel Ortiz), who, Montez asserts, never received proper credit for the works on which he collaborated with Haring.
Discussing the performance pieces involving Bill T. Jones and Grace Jones, Montez sees the pieces as acts of Haring’s attempting to take possession of the two performers, marking them as his property, reducing them to stereotypes of primitive Blackness. Instead of seeing the two Joneses as mature artists eagerly collaborating with another acclaimed artist in the creation of a unique art piece, he sees them as unwitting victims of Haring’s (and the photographer Tseng’s) sexual/artistic fantasies or, worse, as Vichy-style collaborators in Haring’s objectification of the Black body, complicit in Haring’s “performance of desire.”
Since Keith Haring’s Line is one of the first book-length studies of Haring’s art, I suspect it will assume a position as a noteworthy addition to those studies. Personally, I prefer the children’s books.
Hank Trout, Senior Editor, edited Drummer, Malebox, and Folsom magazines in the early 1980s. A long-term survivor of HIV/AIDS (diagnosed in 1989), he is a forty-year resident of San Francisco, where he lives with his husband Rick.