Straight Talk on Gay Art

The late Keith Haring was anything but secretive about his homosexuality. During the mid-'80s, when AIDS was still considered a "gay" disease, the popular New York City artist was one of the first to address the issue in his work, and graphically so.

A cartoonish, two-panel Haring piece from the time depicted a skeleton with an erect penis. In the first frame, the bony guy is seen masturbating over a flower; in the next, the flower grows luxuriantly.

"At the time the semen of gay men was associated with death," notes art historian Jonathan D. Katz. "Gay men were killing each other and everyone around them by ejaculating."

At least that was the public perception. "Haring was well aware of that sort of homophobic assumption," Katz says, "and did what he could in his work to fight it."

As forthright as Haring was, however, a recent PBS documentary about his life failed to mention his sexuality. Katz is used to such intentional oversights but finds them troubling.

"It's money," explains Katz, who in the early '90s wrote one of the earliest dissertations on homosexual artists. "You can talk about a poet's sexuality all you want, because no one cares. But with a big-name artist like Haring, you inevitably have some conservative social forces in play. It's not just stuffy individuals but museum boards of directors who get nervous when sexuality comes up."

Apparently no one is nervous at the Museum of Art in Fort Lauderdale, where Katz will talk about money, politics, and artists in "Keith Haring and a Queer Postmodernism" April 2. Katz is chairman of the Department of Gay and Lesbian Studies at City College of San Francisco, and his lecture coincides with the show "Herb Ritts: Work," an exhibit of photographs by Ritts, a gay artist who collaborated with Haring.

"The leading American artists in the postwar period, down the line, have been gay men, but we still don't talk about that," says Katz. He names as examples Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Cy Twombly, and Haring, who died from AIDS in 1990.

"Because he died of AIDS," Katz says of Haring, "there was a deeply troubling, deeply homophobic reaction to his death in the art world."

Even without such a stigma, he adds, the sexuality of artists is often suppressed in order to keep from shocking conservative arts patrons. "It's time that that voice be heard," Katz says. "Not because of the gossip value, but because it's important to the constitution of their work."

-- John Ferri

"Keith Haring and a Queer Postmodernism" will be presented at 6 p.m. Friday, April 2, at the Museum of Art, 1 E. Las Olas Blvd., Fort Lauderdale. Admission ranges from $5 to $10; reservations are required. Call 954-525-5500 for reservations or more information.

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John Ferri