In 1984, Julia Gruen answered a classified ad that turned into her life's work—first assisting Keith Haring, and now running his foundation. Interview by Ally Mullen
INTRODUCE YOURSELF! My name is Julia Gruen. I was born to artist parents in Manhattan's East Village, and have lived and worked in the arts in New York City all my life.
HOW DID YOU BECOME KEITH'S ASSISTANT? It was pretty prosaic. In the spring of 1984, I was looking for a new job, so I checked the The New York Times classified listings. A prominent SoHo gallery had placed an ad for two positions: a gallery assistant and an artist assistant. I applied for the position at the gallery, but after the interview, the gallery suggested I might be suited to be the assistant to one of their artists. That artist turned out to be Keith Haring. The way that I got the job and met Keith was very ordinary, yet there was some sort of kismet in play. Although I couldn't have known it at the time (who could have?), the job I accepted turned into my life's work.
ASIDE FROM THE DAY-TO-DAY WORK, DID YOU EVER HELP HIM WITH HIS ART? I think it might interest young people in the 21st century to know that Keith made all of his own art. Sometimes he intentionally collaborated with other artists or children, but as far as his paintings, drawings, and subway work, he created those all by himself.
HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE HIS STYLE OF ART? When Keith first began making his chalk drawings in the subway stations, it was called graffiti art. In his case, that categorization was more about the context than the content, but resulted in his work being grouped with the graffiti of the time. However, Keith didn't consider himself a graffiti artist or compare himself to other graffiti artists. Instead, as he often said, their work and skill inspired him; he was influenced by them and admired them enormously. Keith's style isn't in a category all its own—you might say that his style is Pop—inspired and graffiti-influenced contemporary art—he doesn't fit into any one category.
HOW WAS HE INSPIRED BY POP ART? Pop Art was an art movement that flowered in the U.S. in the 1960s. It was so called because many of the artists working in that genre incorporated and manipulated images and objects from popular or mass culture. Keith's work might be said to have the same transgressive spirit as Pop Art, but the content is entirely different. Keith employed universal symbols, such as animals, crosses, angels, pyramids, UFOs, and generic human figures, rather than the Pop artists' vocabulary of appropriating and manipulating images from advertising, comics, everyday products or people. Keith took universal symbols and distilled them down to their most basic forms, creating his own visual vocabulary.
WHY DO YOU THINK SO MANY PEOPLE RELATE TO HIS ART? I think the most obvious reason is that his work is accessible and his visual language is at some level universal. His line is very strong and graphic, and often his work is very colorful. It has the virtue of appearing to be very simple, because he uses a very straightforward linear style, and it's very direct. But that simplicity can be deceptive, and people relate to his art not only because of this approachable style, but also because of the messages the work contains.
WHAT ARE SOME OF THE MESSAGES HE EXPRESSED THROUGH HIS ART? Keith was an exceptionally socially conscientious artist. He was a lifelong activist, and used his art to promote awareness of many of the social problems that we faced in the '70s, '80s, and '90s, and which, unfortunately, we are still facing today. This is yet another reason why Keith's work is still relevant, meaningful and popular today.
HOW INFLUENTIAL WAS NEW YORK TO KEITH IN TERMS OF HIS ART? New York City made an enormous impact on Keith. As an aspiring artist, New York was where he had to be. Equally as important, as a gay man, it was, for him, the only place to be. New York in the '70s had all the grime, crime and danger, but it also had the energy of a thriving and ethnically spanerse community of artists. There was much cross-pollination between music and the visual arts, dance, poetry, club culture and fashion. Graffiti was everywhere—on the streets, on the trains, in the tunnels—and Keith was completely blown away by it. He found this proliferation of art in, under and on the streets enormously inspiring. In 1978, upon his arrival in New York City to attend the School of Visual Arts, he realized he had found the place he belonged. He quickly became friends with a tightly knit group of aspiring artists, musicians, designers, dancers and others, with whom he would remain close until the end of his life. Furthermore, Keith embraced and was embraced by the gay community and he reveled in the club scene and nightlife of the time—these were the pre-AIDS years. All of us want to belong to something, somewhere, somehow, at some point, but until coming to New York City, Keith did not feel like he fit in anywhere. Beginning in 1978, New York City became both his physical and spiritual home, and this was an incredibly validating, liberating and inspiring experience for him.
THESE DAYS, WE'RE VERY USED TO 'STREET ART' AND THE CROSSOVER BETWEEN THAT AND GALLERIES, BUT IN KEITH'S TIME, IT WAS PRETTY REVOLUTIONARY. COULD YOU TALK ABOUT HOW KEITH HELPED PAVE THE WAY FOR SEVERAL ARTISTS AFTER HIM? Many people would say that Keith broke so many rules in so many different areas that he paved the way for the explosive growth and acceptance of street art and graffiti today. He is certainly looked upon by the younger generation of artists as a kind of godfather of the movement. But of equal importance was his decision to further disseminate his imagery by opening a retail store, the Pop Shop, which sold apparel and other merchandise imprinted with his own images and images by several of his contemporaries, including Basquiat, Warhol, Scharf, Futura, LA II, Haze, Stephen Sprouse, and others. This concept was extremely controversial and deeply upset the art world status quo, but Keith considered the dissemination of imagery in this manner to be a legitimate extension of his artistic practice and philosophy.
WHAT IS YOUR PERSONAL FAVORITE PIECE HE WORKED ON? I can't name just one. When Keith started out, he, like many artists, was dirt poor. Among the cheapest materials to work with at the time were paper, marker, or liquid ink. I believe that some of the freshest, most spontaneous and ecstatic works he ever made were many of his early works on paper. Those works are, to me, the purest essence of Keith Haring.
KEITH SEEMS TO HAVE HAD A VERY GOOD SENSE OF HUMOR ABOUT HIMSELF AND ART IN GENERAL. IS THIS TRUE? He had an incredible sense of humor, he was very funny, he loved to laugh, he loved to giggle, and he loved to be silly. We all adored that about him and had a great deal of fun together.
CAN YOU TELL US WHAT THE KEITH HARING FOUNDATION DOES, AND WHAT ITS MISSION IS? By virtue of Keith's background, upbringing, and character, he was an extremely generous soul. He always held out his hand to people with less. The birth of his youngest sister, when Keith was 10, inspired in him the desire to mentor, and this early relationship cultivated in him an enduring love for and connection to kids. He therefore knew that one of the things he wanted his foundation to do was to help kids in need. By the late '80s, Keith had been diagnosed as HIV-positive and when he developed AIDS, he decided that another mission of his foundation would be to provide support for AIDS and HIV organizations. A third aspect of the Keith Haring Foundation's mission is the care, maintenance and perpetuation of Keith's artistic legacy.