Simon Doonan on the 80's: an exotic garden of florescent delights

Haring poses on top of one of his painted metal sculptures outside the United Nations building in New York, 1986. Nick Elgar/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images.

When people talk smack about the 80’s it makes my hackles rise, I bare my fangs and ready myself to defend this glorious decade, to the death. The 80’s was a non-stop series of cultural collisions and contradictions, high-brow, low-brow and sometimes no-brow. (Pluck your eyebrows, and there is no guarantee they will grow back.) We are, after all, talking about the era which gave us everything from break-dancing to Bananarama. We are talking about Boy George, Basquiat, New Wave, New Romantic, Lee Bowery, Hair Metal, Hip-Hop, Joy Division, Graffiti and Thriller, and, and, and… To live through the 80’s was to spend an entire decade trapped in an exotic garden of florescent delights in which everything – art, fashion, music, politics, street-style – began to cross-pollinate. My mission is always to capture the bonkers creative energy of this epoch and to pay it forward.

Haring paints a 350-foot mural on the Berlin Wall, 1986. Photo by Stiebing/ullstein bild via Getty Images.

In the late 70’s and early 80’s, small-town hopefuls with few dollars and zero connections flocked to the big city seeking recognition and glamour.  Examples? How about Madonna and – drumroll - Keith Haring, defacer, artist, masher-up of culture, mentor of kids, rake, pilgrim, punk, white banji-boy, boulevardier, enfant terrible and grand seigneur? Haring lived his short action-packed decade-defining life at warp speed.   

Before researching and writing this book, I very much took Keith Haring for granted. I lived in New York during his rise and fall and became almost overly familiar with his oeuvre and the impact thereof. After digging into the details of his life, I have become a true fan-girl. Haring was a flawed dude, but he was also curious, kind, idiosyncratic and uncomplaining. He earned his success, though hard work and intense focus. When opportunities presented themselves Haring grabbed them. His favorite quotation came from Louis Pasteur: Chance favors the prepared mind. Most of all Haring was a model of resilience. When crappy stuff happened to him, he rose above it. Even AIDS. The great paradox of the 80’s is that all of this cultural mashing and crashing took place against a back-drop of overwhelming misery, the plague of the century.

Keith Haring sits on a ladder, in front of the bright orange undercoat on which he will shortly paint his mural Crack is Wack. New York Park Commissioner Stern holds the umbrella. (Photo by Owen Franken/Corbis via Getty Images)

I lived through the AIDS epidemic and survived. Many, including Haring, were not so lucky. What was it like?  Imagine watching your best most creative, most beautiful pals being struck down, disfigured, tortured and humiliated and abandoned. It was truly f-d up. Rather than let the scourge of AIDS defeat him, brave Keith became even more unstoppable, creative and daring. Will Covid produce a new generation of Harings and Madonnas? I am optimistic. Why not? Optimism costs nothing. It is a very Keith Haring-ish kind of a thing.

American artist and social activist Keith Haring (1958 - 1990) at his 2nd annual 'Party of Life' at the Palladium, New York City, 22nd January 1985. (Photo by Barbara Alper/Getty Images)

Get a copy of Simon Doonan's latest book 'Keith Haring: Lives of the Artists' here.


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