Keith Haring was diagnosed with AIDS in 1988. The AIDS epidemic, first reported on in the US in June 1981, spread swiftly in New York City, across the country and around the world, devastating the lives of those who contracted it. By the time of his diagnosis, Haring had accepted that he was likely to contract AIDS, given that so many of his friends, partners, and collaborators had succumbed to the disease already. He openly shared his diagnosis in a candid and poignant interview in Rolling Stone magazine in 1989:
“No matter how long you work, it’s always going to end sometime. And there’s always going to be things left undone. And it wouldn’t matter if you lived until you were seventy-five. There would still be new ideas. There would still be things that you wished you would have accomplished. You could work for several lifetimes….Part of the reason that I’m not having trouble facing the reality of death is that it’s not a limitation, in a way. It could have happened any time, and it is going to happen sometime. If you live your life according to that, death is irrelevant. Everything I’m doing right now is exactly what I want to do.”
It’s hard not to see a parallel between the AIDS epidemic that took Haring’s life and the lives of countless others, and the corona-virus pandemic that has defined the last year for the entire world – loss, grief, uncertainty, and fear. Resonances with the 1980s abound, and Haring’s own words, again, offer a clarion call for how to respond to such devastating events:
“.. it’s like you know it’s out there. You know, it’s just being in the wrong place at the wrong time. In ten years it will be a whole different situation. Inevitably, in the beginning, they’re not going to know how to deal with any new disease. And it was just bad timing in getting it, too. We got infected because we didn’t even know the thing existed. When people started getting sick, they had no idea where it was coming from, had no idea that it was out there, so you didn’t know how to be protective and prevent it. Now people have no excuse. Now you’re responsible for what happens to you because you have the ability to protect yourself.”
In 1989, he established the Keith Haring Foundation with a mandate to provide funding and visual material to AIDS organizations and children’s programs. Haring used his imagery during the last years of his life to speak about his own illness and support activism and awareness of the AIDS epidemic.
“All of the things that you make are a kind of quest for immortality. Because you’re making these things that you know have a different kind of life. They don’t depend on breathing, so they’ll last longer than any of us will. Which is sort of an interesting idea, that it’s sort of extending your life to some degree.”