Books: Sidewalk chic

Michael Arditti reads the diaries of a modern primitive
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The Independent Culture
Journals by Keith Haring, Fourth Estate, pounds 20

England and America are two countries divided not merely by a common language but by an attitude to graffiti. In London, we have "Kilroy woz ere" and the scrawled sidings at Ladbroke Grove, whereas, in New York, work by artists such as David Wojnarowicz and Keith Haring which began on subways and sidewalks has ended up on museum walls.

Haring is the archetypal Eighties artist - chic and slick, sexy and superficial. He painted fast, declaring that it was impossible in the modern age "to paint a consistent composition over the period of more than one session", thereby marking the contrast with earlier painters who strove over endless sessions to create the illusion of a moment of light. Speed became a part not just of the manner but of the meaning of his work.

As his fame grew, speed - both chemically induced and jet- propelled - fuelled his life. Long before he received his Aids diagnosis, he seemed to be fighting against time. Many of his later journal entries were written at airports or on board planes as he crossed the globe on the way to another exhibition or site-specific work. From his mentor, Andy Warhol, he took the idea that art can be mass-produced and he worked in a variety of media. Early worries about the respective merits of canvas and paper were forgotten as he painted on acryllic and vinyl, terracotta vases and fairground carousels, windsurfers' boards and Grace Jones's body.

The naivety of Haring's images - the contemporary hieroglyphs of people, dogs and dolphins, the black Leger-like lines and bold planes of colour - helped to create the legend of the artist as a young primitive. But although he painted on the streets, he was not of them. Notwithstanding his cry that "I'm sure inside I'm not white", he came from a middle-class home in small-town Pennsylvania. Even in his teens, he was highly articulate about the nature of his art.

These early entries constitute an artistic credo. Like many young artists, he is exploring the nature of his relationship both with his material and his public. He is particularly keen to involve an "audience that is being ignored" but which is "not necessarily ignorant" and to take art into public places. Once he has become successful, however, his concerns change. Having established an artistic position, he sees no need to question it but simply describes projects and products. The journals become a record rather than a blueprint.

Art apart, the journals are a mixed bag. Complex intellectual analysis is interspersed with cringe-making Michael Jacksonisms about his special relationship with children. Too many of the later entries show the influence of Warhol, not in his role of "the first real modern artist" but as confidant to the rich and fatuous. So he writes of Princess Caroline, to whom he gives tee-shirts, Princess Stephanie with whom he does coke, Claude and Sydney Picasso, Jeff Koons and yet says nothing of interest about any of them. It is telling that one of the final entries is the laconic "met several important people". He does not even state their names.

Gaps of all sorts occur throughout the journals - there are merely three entries for the four years 1982-85 during which he was consolidating his success. More damaging is the complete lack of editing. It is often difficult, and sometimes impossible, to work out the nature either of his personal or professional relationships. Key information about his family is gleaned only in passing fron a letter to Timothy Leary. He mentions that he has many detractors while saying nothing of them; an alert editor could have added much to aid those unfamiliar with the details and dramatis personae of the New York art world.

These gaps become even more frustrating in the case of his final illness. He states in 1987 that he is quite aware of "the chance that I have or will have Aids", but then, apart from noting the deaths of several friends, the next reference is the matter-of-fact one that he is taking his AZT two years later. Vital elements of his emotional life go not only unrecorded but unelucidated. This gives the - surely erroneous - impression that, in person, he was far more reticent than in his work.

In the light of his early death, it is particularly poignant to read an entry written when he was only 20, saying that "it seems that artists are never ready to die. Their lives are stopped before their ideas are completed." He is one of the roster of creative talents ravaged by Aids. It is hard to know how he would have developed or, indeed, whether the paintings he described as poems will ultimately be viewed as little more than doodles or limericks. One thing is, however, certain; in his espousal of art as merchandise and culture as concession, he embodied, as few others, the spirit of the age.