Keith Haring's Club 57 Era: Modern Performance Art

Installation View of MoMA's Club 57 retrospective. Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat can be seen in the top left corner, while Keith Haring is seen performing in the centre right.Youtube © April Palmieri / Installation View of MoMA's Club 57 retrospective. Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat can be seen in the top left corner, while Keith Haring is seen performing in the centre right.
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Keith Haring

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Most people familiar with the 1980s artistic scene of New York know about Studio 54, made famous by its illustrious clientele, including Andy Warhol. Less widely known is Club 57, which was open for only a few years between the late seventies and early eighties, and was equally vital in shaping the city's cultural landscape, especially in the realms of music, art and performance. Artists such as Jean-Michel Basquiat, Kenny Scharf and Keith Haring were regulars at the club, with the latter playing a particularly significant role in the establishment.

“At any given time, the club was a dance hall, a screening room, a watering hole, a theater lab, an art gallery, or a self-styled ‘let it all hang out’ encounter group. Sometimes it was all those things at once.”
Ann Magnuson
Facebook © The Museum of Modern Art / Club 57: Keith Haring

The Emergence of Keith Haring: A New Artistic Voice

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the New York art scene witnessed the emergence of Haring, an artist who would soon become a defining voice of his generation. Haring's artistic journey began in earnest in the bustling subway stations of New York City where, amidst the chaos and clutter of urban life, he found his canvas on the unused advertising panels covered with black matte paper. Armed with white chalk, Haring began creating his now-iconic line drawings, a form of public art that was both accessible and enigmatic. His bold lines and vivid figures quickly captured the city’s attention, turning the subway platforms into impromptu galleries where art met the everyday commuter.

Haring's work was an explicit manifestation of his beliefs and observations, as he tackled subjects ranging from social justice and political issues to sexuality and the AIDS epidemic – themes that were deeply personal and reflective of the era’s cultural and political climate. His art became a unifying force, transcending the conventional boundaries of the art world and reaching people from all walks of life. His art was both a reflection of and a reaction to the times, a vibrant mix of street culture, activism and artistic innovation. As he gained recognition, his work found its way into galleries and museums, but he remained committed to keeping his art accessible to all.

This universality was excellently showcased in his involvement with Club 57, located in the East Village. Haring's work there, often involving live performances and collaborative pieces, pushed the limits of conventional art and performance, blending them into an immersive experience.

Youtube © TRT World /Club 57 inside the Museum of Modern Art

Club 57: The Epicentre of New York's Avant-Garde Scene

Club 57, located in the basement of a Polish Church at 57 St. Mark's Place in the East Village of Manhattan, was a significant epicentre of New York's underground art scene during its active years. Founded in 1979 by Stanley Strychacki, Club 57 quickly became a haven for artists, musicians and performers who were experimenting with new and unconventional forms of expression. It was known for its lack of commercial motivation, which allowed for a freer, more creative environment compared to other mainstream venues such as Studio 54. This freedom fostered an atmosphere of artistic experimentation and collaboration, which Haring particularly enjoyed. Club 57 was renowned for its themed parties, film screenings and live performances. The club embraced the DIY ethos of the punk movement, with a distinct nod to the camp and kitsch of earlier decades. Its events often featured new wave music, underground movies and avant-garde art performances, reflecting the diverse and eclectic tastes of its patrons. Other artists of note who frequented or performed at the venue include Madonna, Cyndi Lauper, Frank Holliday, Brooke Shields, The B-52s and RuPaul.

The influence of Club 57 on the New York art scene and beyond was profound. It provided a space where the underground could flourish away from commercial pressures, nurturing talents who would go on to have significant impacts in their respective fields. The club's unique blend of art, music and performance left a lasting mark on the culture of the city. Despite its relatively short life span—it closed around 1983—Club 57 remains a symbol of a time when creativity and community intersected in the most vibrant and dynamic of ways.

Haring’s Involvement and Performances at Club 57: An Overview

Haring was one of the most notable figures associated with Club 57. He found it to be a perfect platform for his unique style of visual art and performance, and had his first exhibition there in 1978. In the summer of 1979, he began holding weekly poetry readings at the club, writing in his diary that he had “fallen into poetry and it has swallowed [him] up.” His poetry was different from the rest: he often performed from inside a fake television set and, in one instance, he just repeated the words “Fat, Boy, Lick” in different combinations long enough for people to heckle and throw beer at him. He eventually transformed the Neo-Dada poem into a video performance.

Haring eventually began hosting a series of performance nights he called Acts of Live Art. He was very interested in dance and movement, which he brought to his performances. Many of these were never documented, and some were completely lost to art historians. In order to attract crowds to these performances, Haring often created invites and brochures for the club, which were xeroxed and widely distributed. Beyond just creating and promoting his own art, Haring occupied a crucial role as exhibitions organiser; he guest curated shows, including some on Xerox and erotic and pornographic art and created flyers inviting artists to submit their works for display. This is further evidence of Haring’s democratising attitude to art, as his friend and Club 57 manager Ann Magnuson recalled that Keith told her: “‘I want you to give me a piece of art,’ and when I said I wasn’t an artist, he responded without hesitation, ‘Yes you are.’ And that’s Keith in a nutshell. Even if you didn’t think you could do something, he believed you could, and then you did.”

Youtube © CBS Sunday Morning / From 1982: Keith Haring

Exploring the Intersection of Graffiti and Performance in Haring's Work

Haring's work is a fascinating study in the intersection of graffiti and performance art, two forms that fundamentally reshaped the art world in the late 20th century which Haring managed to blend into a unique style that was accessible and profoundly meaningful. Graffiti – often seen as an act of rebellion and a form of street art – was central to Haring's artistic language. He started drawing in public spaces, and his signature style, easily recognisable due to its fluid, bold lines and bright, simplistic figures was eye-catching and stood out in the urban landscape. This public aspect of his art was crucial; for Haring, graffiti was not just about the act of painting, but also about engaging with a wider audience, outside the traditional confines of galleries and museums.

Performance art was another key element in Haring's work, and he relished the process and experience of art-making, not just the end product. Haring's work in public spaces was itself a kind of performance, with the artist often drawing in front of an audience. This performative aspect was heightened in his organised shows and exhibitions, where he sometimes painted live, transforming the act of art-making into a public spectacle. The fusion of graffiti and performance in Haring's work broke down barriers between the artist and the audience. His art was interactive and communal, inviting viewers to not just observe but actively participate in the artistic process. This approach was radical at the time and helped redefine the role of the artist in society. Haring believed art should be for everyone, and his work was a direct challenge to the exclusivity of the art world.

“The importance of movement is intensified when a painting becomes a performance. The performance (the act of painting) becomes as important as the resulting painting. Movement as painting. Painting as movement. Moving toward a work of art that encompasses music, performance, movement, concept, craft and a reality record in the event in the form of a painting.”
Keith Haring, in his diaries, 1978
Youtube © The Museum of Modern Art / Club 57: Film, Performance, and Art in the East Village, 1978–1983 | MoMA LIVE

Preserving the Legacy: Exhibitions and Collections Celebrating Haring’s Club 57 Era

Preserving and celebrating the legacy of Keith Haring's influential period at Club 57 was largely neglected, until the Museum of Modern Art's (MoMA) exhibition titled "Club 57: Film, Performance, and Art in the East Village, 1978–1983." This exhibition, which ran from October 31, 2017 to April 8, 2018, offered a comprehensive look at the unique cultural phenomenon that was Club 57. It focused on the interdisciplinary works that emerged from this hub of artistic activity, including film, performance, visual art and music. The exhibition featured Haring's works alongside those of his contemporaries, illustrating how Club 57 served as a melting pot for various forms of creative expression. It highlighted how the club was a space where artists like Haring could experiment freely with new forms of art, which played a crucial role in their artistic development and in shaping the broader art movement of that time. Haring's designs for that time period also remain popular, as evidenced by their inclusion in the Uniqlo x Keith Haring 2019 collection.

Another important aspect of preserving Haring's legacy is the continued work of his contemporaries, such as Scharf: the two shared an apartment during their Club 57 days, and Scharf has continued to create and evolve the Cosmic Closets/Caves series, which began in the 1980s. These immersive installations reflect the playful, colourful and psychedelic themes that were prevalent in the art and culture of the East Village scene. Scharf's ongoing dedication to this style demonstrates the lasting influence of Club 57's creative environment on the artists who were part of it and ensures that the legacy of this pivotal moment in New York's art history continues to inspire and influence contemporary art and culture.

The spirit of experimentation, collaboration, and social engagement that defined Club 57 remains relevant. The rock band Bastille recently paid homage to the club and Haring in one of their latest songs. Haring's legacy is a testament to the power of art in public spaces and his ability to connect, provoke and inspire across different communities and generations.

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