Books In Conversation
RICARDO MONTEZ with Theodore Kerr
Keith Haring's Line: Race and the Performance of Desire
(Duke University Press, 2020)
From sneakers to murals to AIDS activist posters, you have seen Keith Haring’s artwork. It is loud, inviting, and at this point, almost ubiquitous within the overlapping worlds of art, commerce, and street culture. Key to Haring’s impact is his line, the bold gesture that gives shape to his radiant babies, barking dogs, dancing people, and other elements within his frenetic world. But how much have you considered the line? If you are Ricardo Montez, Associate Professor of Performance Studies at The New School, the answer is: a lot. Since first reading Haring’s journals, and seeing an early retrospective of the artist’s work in 1997, Montez has been wrestling with the line, considering its implications within culture, for himself, and as it relates to the artist himself, who died in 1990 due to complications related to AIDS. The result is Keith Haring's Line: Race and the Performance of Desire (Duke University Press, 2020). In generous and accessible prose, across four chapters and an introduction, Montez explores Haring’s line across the artist’s career and through time, exposing the form as a rhizome, alive with gossip, performance, politics, memory, bias, and history.
In the interview below, Montez speaks about the book and Haring’s line, with writer and organizer Theodore (ted) Kerr, a former student of Montez’s at The New School. Over the course of the conversation, the two dive into the intricacies of Montez’s thinking, with a focus on race, queerness, and influence. Emerging from the conversation is one of Montez’s most important offerings from the book: exploration through multiple points of view—including one’s own desires—better enables us to work within the complexity of reality, rather than submitting ourselves to a flattened idea of right or wrong. Montez exemplifies this throughout his book as he considers Haring’s relationship to whiteness, and the way it relates to his meaningful relationship with Black and brown people.
While the book is an enjoyable read for a general audience, Montez is clear about his hopes for the book, when he says: “We know that there will be many Keith Haring exhibitions in the future and it would be great if people picked up this book, and thought a little bit about the racial dynamics of the work. I have yet to see a show that does any justice to questions of race when dealing with Haring. Even when they have tried, the topic has been relegated to the race section of the show, but it is never woven-in or really complicated at all.”
Undergirding Montez and Kerr’s conversation is the notion of lineage: how do we know what we know about ourselves, and each other? What are the foundations of our desire? What do our individual and collective compulsions and aesthetics tell us about ourselves and the worlds we live in? Threading throughout their text, of course, is Haring’s line, a dynamic life-force that continues to inspire, influence, and—through Montez’s scholarship—invite us to reconsider our responses to Haring’s art, and the stories we tell within pop culture and art history about the artist, his world, and the line he used to make work and that continues to inspire diverse audiences.
Theodore Kerr (Rail): Near the end of the book, you have this phrase about how you have been thinking about Keith Haring's life, “right, now for a period almost as long as that life lasted.” Let’s start with your earliest memories of Keith Haring's work.
Ricardo Montez: I was an 18-year-old, a freshman in college, and I wanted a tattoo. My friend was like, “You should get a Keith Haring tattoo, his art is perfect for one,” and I was like, "Who is Keith Haring?” My friend showed me his work, and I went, "Oh, I know Keith Haring, he is on everything.” I had seen his work on the cover of Red Hot + Dance, a cassette tape that I listened to quite a bit, and I had seen his figures in different commercial fundraising contexts, like the logo for the non-profit, Best Buddies.
Rail: What did it mean for you to have Haring’s line on your body?
Montez: It was in an expression of independence, a trite act of getting a tattoo and not telling my parents. But in that, by inscribing his line into my flesh there was an underlying desire to announce something else about myself, which is that I identified with gay culture. What version of gay culture, and whether or not I admitted my reasons at the time are another issue.
But I want to say, while that was my first introduction to Haring, I did not think too much about him until I read a review of the Keith Haring Journals in 1997, and picked them up. Then I really got absorbed in his life. He was a fascinating figure, much more so in the pages of the journals than I had realized from the imagery that I had seen.
Rail: 1997 is also the year you see Keith Haring: Retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art, which as you write about in the book, had an impact on you.
Montez: It was a very dramatic moment for me. I cannot underscore how excited I was about this person after reading the journals; seeing somebody think through art and what it meant to be an artist, and what it meant to be an artist with sexual desire in New York City. It was such an exciting movement through an urban landscape that would soon be my home. And, let us just put it out there, I was really, really horny, and excited for New York City, that Keith Haring experience.
Rail: How did the exhibition fit into these feelings?
Montez: It was thrilling to see large-scale works for the first time in person, having that immediate reaction of being in relation to art that I had flipped through in reproduction. And that line, Keith Haring’s line that I have since thought so much about, actually became something else in that moment. I began to think about him physically producing the line. In the book, I describe the way I felt something like his actual body ghosting the works as I was encountering them. There was something about the biographical layout of the exhibit, the retrospective format, that provoked this feeling. The exhibition went from his childhood to his life in New York City, ending with his activist work around HIV and, ultimately, his death. So his body was present in this really upsetting and exciting ghost way. I could not help but think about his presence in relation to that kind of residue he was leaving behind. It was emotional.
Rail: It was intimate?
Montez: It was this kind of performance of intimacy; or rather, I was feeling intimacy because of the way that the work was laid out and the access museum goers had to his private ephemera. To be in close relation to the journal pages that he actually wrote on, seeing his handwriting in real life, was very moving to me.
Rail: But that is not the end of the story.
Montez: No. Because I left the show, which ended with this dark passageway where a 1988 untitled drawing of a devil sperm hung isolated. It was so upsetting to me to end this amazing and dynamic life in this closed down way. It devastated me. That is how I started thinking about an academic project that would address the exhibition in its creation of a story around HIV/AIDS. I was interested in the ways we often violate human experience by the stories we produce about these lives lost to AIDS.
Rail: Was that something you were already thinking about before the exhibition?
Montez: I had studied issues concerning the representation of AIDS when I was an undergraduate. During that time I was reading Douglas Crimp, Simon Watney, Paula Treichler, and Cindy Patton. These activist scholars were very critical of popular media and helped me understand the staging of illness and the production of ideological world views. So, yes, I had already come to Keith Haring with that perspective, and was able to see the ideological work being done in the structure of the museum exhibit.
Rail: I am moved by your idea of the ghost in the exhibition. Does the ghost bring the body closer for you?
Montez: Closer in the sense that when one acknowledges a ghost, or for me when I am acknowledging the ghost—and I am saying I am feeling the ghost of Keith Haring—there is something about my own body that is desiring to experience the absent person. I am talking about how the ghost is near me or I am feeling close to some kind of energy. In that sense, yes, closer because I felt closer to the traces of his life.
Rail: As someone who has known you now for almost 10 years, the book reads as personal, and I wonder if that will be true for other readers?
Montez: I am curious how people are going to respond to this mode of scholarship. I think in performance studies, a lot of us do this work where we position ourselves in relation to the material that we are experiencing. It is a method of marking the ways that an artist or work has an effect on us, so we narrate those effects in order to think about them within a cultural situation, or to think about the way that the body perceives things to open a field of critical analysis. For me, I wanted to make it clear that this is a project about my own emotional investment, and I am figuring out this complicated, frustrating, and exciting person's life. I was not going to give anyone the equivalent to the Whitney retrospective of the artist's life in any book I would write. I was also not invested in producing some kind of ultimate truth about the way the artist lived his life. That means I had to lean into my own narcissistic attachments and share them with the reader.
Rail: I think some of your most effective moments in the book come when you are working through your frustrations, sometimes with Haring, but often with institutions like the Whitney, or writers like Samuel Delaney or Katherine Dieckman. This makes me wonder, what is the role of frustration and anger for you as it relates to cultural knowledge?
Montez: I joke that chapter two is my angry grad student essay. It is about the artist LA II and Haring’s relationship to him as a young graffiti artist. Specifically I write about the fact that, since Haring’s death, LA II has not received monetary rewards for collaborative works that continued to sell. I perform all kinds of criticisms of power and explain how LA II is being exploited and neglected by the foundation Haring established before he died. It is a simple story if told one way: the foundation has money, they are not giving it to him, and this is tragic. In writing that anger out, I also try to give some nuance to it, to soften the criticism, to not let that be the dominant way that we make sense of what is happening between these two artists. It is unfair to Keith Haring to close the story down to this kind of simple appropriation narrative. It is unfair to LA II because it does not give him any kind of animating potential in that exchange between them. And, as much as I have been critical of the foundation, I also learned to think about the foundation in very different ways over the course of writing this book.
Rail: Say more about that.
Montez: There was this moment when I was listening to Julia Gruen speak that shifted things for me. She was Haring’s assistant when he died and has been the executive director of his foundation since it was founded. I teach this class on Keith Haring, and Julia very graciously allowed my students into the foundation offices, which are located in Haring’s former studio. In her remarks to my students, she shared what it meant to have made a commitment to Haring when he was dying, to really protect his legacy. I heard the enormity of that responsibility, and I was deeply moved in that moment. So, I started to challenge myself a little bit and soften a lot around my frustrations and the ideas I had about the controlling nature of the foundation.
Rail: You worked through anger.
Montez: But not only to leave it behind. I want my anger to be my anger in the book, so that it can be named as my own projections and my own frustrations, and not just a truth regarding the way Haring’s art circulates. Working on the book included a process of complicating my initial, negative, and angry reactions as I encountered accounts from other individuals that necessarily challenged me, and I tried to keep that process present in my writing.
Rail: I found that to be such a generous mode of writing. It reminds the reader to consider the long moment of cultural production and that the result can be both a deliverable, and a process. Have you thought about your book as a model?
Montez: Not intentionally. I wanted to have a multiplicity of feelings and excitements and energies come off these different ways of experiencing Keith Haring. I am producing a critical line forward from chapter to chapter, but I want that line to be really messy, and really turn on itself in different ways that challenge the reader. I also do not want the reader to necessarily always understand where I am in relation to my criticism or my love of Keith Haring.
Rail: I hear what you are saying about following the line, but for me, the method of your book seems rooted in networks.
Montez: What I noticed when reading Haring’s journals was that the line for him was something without a clear start and end. It is something that sparks different kinds of movement. In the dissertation version of what became this book, I was pursuing a more Deluzian project. I took out a lot of that mess when I wrote the object before you, but all of that is to say, I was engaging with a rhizomatic idea of the line, or what you, Ted, are calling a network. That is what I tried to produce in my own writing, a way to work with what is being manufactured for me continually in Haring's art: a line that differentiates between brown and Black and white. That line continues to spark all sorts of energies and directions and movements in terms of how Haring is negotiating that in relation to his desire; and how other people who come in contact with Haring are negotiating the excitement of working with him and taking on that line in really interesting ways.
Rail: In the book you write, “Haring produces sign systems that are seen as utterly human in their ability to communicate to even the most quote-unquote uncivilized viewers.” Can you say more about this?
Montez: The different ways that people talk about Keith Haring's line—whether it be how it evokes the primitive, or something about how it is universal in its communicative capacity—are for me ways of citing something that is about race. Additionally, people often say, “Well but his figures have no race, so what are you talking about? They are just a universal human form.” These are all insidiously racist discourses or insidiously racist ways of thinking about the primitive versus the civilized. There are racial connotations in these comments. What I have tried to do is think about the larger history of this graphic line. The history of the West’s relationship to primitive art objects, the appropriation of those art objects, and how we understand those primitive art objects produces a racial discourse. It is connected to this idea that when we are more civilized, we have to return to the primitive to enliven ourselves, to reintroduce ourselves to our truest nature.
Rail: Maybe part of writing a book is caring about something and extending your thoughts around that thing, as a form of attention, or seeing. I was wondering if there was any idea, or mindset, or argument that you had to work through in order to finish this book?
Montez: In general, I had to deal with what it meant to produce a book about race, a book about Keith Haring that dealt explicitly with race. What did it mean to commit to that project? In some ways, in today's terms of critical analysis, one could argue that I center a white artist to talk about people of color. Why do I do that? This was actually something that I had to think about the entire time that I was writing this. Part of what I am trying to work through is how I project my own brownness onto the brown people that Haring is in relation to—like Juan Dubose, a person who plays such an important role in Haring’s life, and whose first-person account of their time together is hard to find. In these moments, when I am frustrated at a political condition that I see in Haring’s race relations, I have to ask myself, “How much of my own felt experience of being a racialized brown subject am I projecting onto this past, and wanting it to be the truth of these other people?” I came to understand that as something I had to work through; you cannot do that, you do not get to have that.
Rail: You do not get to “have” what?
Montez: You do not get to own another person’s experience because you are projecting your own sense of violation onto the past, which is not to say that I could not see things or I could not relate to things, or could not understand something that maybe somebody else could not. I have to negotiate what I want these brown people to do for me. I had to constantly call myself out in fetishizing them too. It would be very easy for me to call Keith Haring a fetishist and then not address my own fetishization of Juan Dubose or Grace Jones. If I want these figures to do a certain kind of work, I have to be attentive to them in a different way than I was at different moments in this project. It is about challenging myself in that way too.
Also, I tried to inscribe my own cross racial desires into the project. I think if anyone's paying attention, one will see how I am negotiating myself as the brown person desiring the white person and the complications that arise in that as an academic, and as someone who is trying to do historical analysis where I am also fetishizing Keith Haring. How much of that is my own brown desire for whiteness?
Rail: It is helpful here to think of a word you use a lot in your book: complicity, especially as it relates to the work of Amber Jamilla Musser. I wonder if you want to give your reading of what she means by complicity and how it works in the book for you
Montez: Yes, right. I am making myself complicit in a scene of interpretation. I am also theorizing what it means to be complicit in scenes of cross-racial or interracial art-making. Amber Jamilla Musser works through the concept of complicity in a really interesting way in her book, Sensational Flesh, where she is trying to elaborate what is being negotiated in scenes of masochistic fantasy or masochistic play—these scenes where people might be performing their objectification. One is purposely entering into a scene in which one is getting excited by the act of being objectified. There is something about this act that is also provoking an awareness of their subjectivity. One is complicit in one's objectification, and one is also announcing one’s potential capacity to be a subject at the same time. This is what I see happening in the interactive relations that Grace Jones enters into when dealing with Jean-Paul Goude, which I hope we talk about more, and a bit with the iconic dancer and choreographer Bill T. Jones as well. He is on the cover of the book with Haring, and the book opens with the scene of that photography session. I am interested in the relationship of complicity that includes everyone there that day: Haring, Jones, the photographer Tseng Kwong Chi, and choreographer Arnie Zane, Jones’s companion and collaborator who videotaped the event.
Rail: Talking about negotiating complicity. I want to talk about John Giorno. In the book you recount his story about a hook up he had with Haring in a subway men’s toilet. I am pro-sex, I am pro-public sex, I am pro-gossip, and with all that in mind, I hate the story that Giorno tells. It makes me think about privacy, and how important negotiating it has been for queer people’s lives, and in ways I am not clear about, it makes me wonder, what do we owe the dead? What privacy do we owe that moment between John and Keith in 1982? Do you know what I am getting at?
Montez: Yes, why did John Giorno write that and then publish it? It is funny because I have a lot of hesitation about my own reading of that. Am I being critical of John Giorno because of the way that he excludes Juan Dubose and inadvertently diminishes the role he played in Haring’s life? Or is it Giorno’s catty tone? Or is it how HIV-phobic his account is, specifically the comment about he found it was miraculous that he did not get HIV?
Rail: I have a lot of the same questions. But on the last item, isn't it possible that Giorno did not know the details of HIV transmission? I am not trying to let him off the hook, or excuse AIDS-phobia, but I also want to make space for ignorance.
Montez: He wrote this story in 1993; and I think that those who were sexually active at that time knew something about risk and would not call a lack of HIV transmission miraculous. It is so surprising that he would take the posture: I miraculously survived. But in terms of what we owe the dead …
Rail: I mean maybe that part of my question is too serious. For me, the problem with the story was that it was broadcasting a private moment. To make it personal for a moment: I am fine with people talking about sex we had, or even gossiping about me. But to publicly share specific details during a moment that was by its nature both intimate and anonymous seems, I dunno, tacky? Shitty? On the wrong side of betrayal?
Montez: The little details of intimacy.
Montez: I think the tone of it is so self-aggrandizing that as a reader I don’t think Giorno is really saying anything about Haring in that moment. I feel he is just trying to top him in memory.
Rail: I like that, “trying to top him in memory.” If it was just about famous personalities having sex, I think I would care less, but there is something about the context of HIV, and intergenerational communicatiuon that changes the stakes for me. Earlier in this conversation, you alluded to the impact that HIV has had on our lives, and I wonder if you want to talk about the relationship that HIV had on your formation as a scholar, as a person, as a sexual person? But let the record show I have mixed feelings about asking this question. It is of course appropriate given the nature of your book, of my work, of our relationship, but I also begrude the way this is often a pre-text for understanding queer culture, but rarely a means of understanding US, or world culture, more broadly.
Montez: I think that my relationship to HIV has its roots in the psychic wound that happened with sex education in Texas. I remember as a middle schooler, some of the first lessons around sex and the ways that people talked about AIDS. Basically, I heard, “If you are gay, you are going to get AIDS and die.” The two were one and the same. If one had any impulse to act on gay desire, it felt too terrifying to do so, and so one becomes over identified with the thing that one is denied through this violent framework.
It is something that I was thinking about when I encountered Haring’s devil's sperm image at the Whitney. It’s what drew me to Crimp and the other writers I mentioned earlier, all of whom were offering amazing critical analysis related to my traumatic sex education. Their work motivated me because of its relation to a developing idea of my own sexuality, but also in the ways that it was addressing this primary wound that happened in the violence of national media attention to AIDS. I think all of that has guided my sensitivity to these issues as I further develop as a scholar and a researcher, and I fixate on AIDS and morality. I mean we can consider my fetishization of Haring as something fueled by that historical moment of being wounded as an adolescent.
Rail: I think a lot about that for my own work: if I ever get over that wound, who will I be?
Montez: It is also why I have so much ambivalence, hostility/ambivalence, towards PrEP (Pre-exposure prophylaxis, a pharmaceutical form of HIV prevention) and the ways that people have so easily incorporated PrEP into their lives and are no longer attentive, I feel, in the way that they should be about HIV and the kind of problems that continue.
Rail: I think a lot about this too. Last week a bunch of us were on the end of Pier 45 to celebrate the life of activist Elizabeth Owens, also known as Velvet, who was a leader at VOCAL-NY, a grassroots organization in Brooklyn of people with various experiences of drugs, HIV, and incarceration against poverty and homelessness. We were a diverse crowd: old, middle-aged, and young; Black, brown, and white; broke, middle class, and wealthy; dressed in exuberant frocks, sober in our etire, dressed merely because we were outside. We were a testament to her reach and community. Right up on the edge of where we were, was a small gaggle of relatively young gay white men, shirtless, fit. After the memorial broke up, and we all were just talking, almost everyone felt the need to comment on the relationship between all of us and the nearby gaggle. It was interesting to us how AIDS united us, but that a relationship to the virus is also what made our differences so noteworthy, inexplicable, and of many of us, frustrating. We were a group of people gathered in the name of a woman living with HIV who worked hard to support other people living with HIV, rooted in an understanding the ongoing AIDS crisis is not only the virus, but the systems that mark some people for premature death, and others for survival. The group of gay guys, a demographic who have had AIDS prevention solutions marketed to them so that they can—in some collective way—forget about AIDS, unnerved us. Needless to say, to your early admissions, there was a lot of projecting happening on our part. We really had no idea what their relationship to HIV was.
Montez: Why did you share that?
Rail: It’s a good question. I guess in part to speak on the idea of wounds that you mentioned, to honor Elizabeth because she is on my mind, and lastly, to share a story that I think gets at the rich and complex ways you explore Haring and race in the book. I mean, something that dawns on me now, is that Haring is a figure that does move between our funeral, and the gay men on the pier, and part of that is because of the relationship the public has in relation to Haring and race, and—as I think you are suggesting in the book—that Haring has with race himself. This is not something you shy away from. You provide what some might call a third rail quote from his journals when he says: “My spirit and soul is much closer to the spirit and soul of people of color.”
Montez: The first time I read it I was like, "Wow, that is really fucked up." In that same entry he describes sexual intimacy as a means to become fully integrated with another person, and he’s talking about Juan Dubose. That is how it works, right? That is how white people think they own everything. They even own other people, so much they can just pull them into themselves and be that person. But then I was also interested in that psychic structure as telling a story about the ways we think about race in general. This idea that there is a kind of internal and external, what are these concepts and how is this driving desire for Keith Haring? I really wanted to think about that, not just to dismiss it, because I understand that, yes it is really violent, racist appropriative logic, but also it is stimulating. What if we sit with the kind of problem that Keith’s fantasy registers instead of just closing it down immediately and dismissing it in its violent capacity? Because what is also happening is that there are Black and brown people who are very excited about engaging in this relational fantasy with him. Again, the scene of complicity is a scene of erotic unfolding, that is clearly a draw for many people.
Rail: And it is not just between two people. I think that the chapter on Grace Jones shows the erotic power as spectacle, and as much as I or you as fans might be drawn in, there is life happening before we ever enter the scene, and it can draw us in.
Montez: I will say, in some ways, Grace Jones started to take over the entire book. Maybe this is because of how fucking amazing she is or how I perceive her. She is one of the most brilliant performers that one can encounter and those images of her with Keith Haring at the Paradise Garage are some of the most iconic images of his line that circulate. So, of course, she had to be part of this book, but that chapter was difficult and went through many different forms. Part of the struggle is that I find Jean Paul Goude's book Jungle Fever utterly repulsive. He might be co-responsible with Jones for some of her most iconic imagery, but I cannot engage with the ways that he aestheticizes race as an excuse to be a racist and misogynist person. The challenge for me is not how Jones feels. This is another example where I have to open myself up to some other kinds of possibility in this scene of what I see as a violent negotiation of difference. I have to be present for what Jones articulates as an amazing potential and possibility in the ways that she volunteered for the project with Goude. That’s how she describes it in her memoirs. When working with Goude, she knew what she was taking on and she knew that it would give her an opportunity to explore something in the ways that he would image her and work her blackness, but she was also going to work that imagery to other kinds of ends as well. We see that in her relationship to Haring too. His line, the line, is this animating force. It is not just turning her into some primitive spectacle. She is playing with the registers of primitivism that happen when that paint hits her flesh and she gets on the stage at the Paradise Garage.
Rail: Well, let’s wrap up by talking about space between people then. At least three times in the book you use the phrase, “the Magic Between Us.” I wonder if you want to share what it means for you?
Montez: There is a passage from Keith Haring's journals, and it has always been one of the most moving and difficult moments in the journals for me, where he is in Madrid and he is in a hotel room with Gil Vasquez, the current interim director of the Keith Haring Foundation. Juan Dubose has just passed away, and he is listening to a tape that Juan Dubose recorded for him. Haring is thinking about how Dubose is present as a DJ on the tape, and he is talking about these kinds of magical moments that get interrupted when he has to be reminded to take his medication every four hours. What is the magic in between—those moments of sensation, the possibility of desire, and this bracketing of the harsh reality of the world? I want to theorize that in a larger way, in the kind of magic happening between bodies, the difference that can never be resolved. There is something animating, enlivening, and magical about the fact that one cannot dissolve the boundary between oneself and the other: there’s a charge there that’s magic, let us say, between two figures.
Rail: So, the difference that can not be resolved, is that desire?
Rail: Which then brings us back to the limits and possibility of fetish, and complicity.
Montez: But not only. At the end of a public conversation I had with Bill T. Jones last month, he asked, "Can we have these certain kinds of fetishes? Can we be excited by certain things? Can we fetishize something about somebody and still love that person? Can we have these things at the same time?" These are profound questions. And they are ones that I am pursuing in the book
Rail: What are your answers?
Montez: Yes to both fetishization and love as simultaneous possibilities, but I think we also need to understand that these are open questions.
Rail: For the times when the answer is no.