- Coming DownA review of Ricardo Montez, Keith Haring’s Line: Race and the Performance of Desire
I keep thinking about Juan Dubose crashing in the hallway while his boyfriend, artist Keith Haring, soldiers through a dinner at the poet John Giorno’s house in January 1985. The event, peopled with gay stars of the art world, was in honor of William Burroughs. The couple had been partying the night before at the Paradise Garage, the iconic club at 84 King Street in SoHo. Dubose spent the evening at Giorno’s on the hallway stairs, reportedly with his head in his hands. For all their interest in queer nightlife as utopian possibility and the sexy hedonism of Paradise Garage, where legendary DJ Larry Levan turned vinyl into magic, students of queer culture have paid little attention to the “come down”—that treacherous, often shameful journey when the drugs wear off. “Shattered,” as I’ve heard some Brits describe these states of extreme fatigue or excessive partying, always strikes me as a perfect encapsulation of that fragile, queasy undoing. In his revelatory Keith Haring’s Line: Race and the Performance of Desire, Ricardo Montez keeps company with Dubose in the hall. Quiet companionship, in fact, is often what we need when we’re coming down from the party. Montez is the sort of thoughtful critic who gives theoretical weight and respect to those too undone from the night before to endure the dinner party banter. Returning to Giorno’s self-satisfying account of sex with Haring in the Prince Street toilets in his collection You Got to Burn to Shine (1994), Montez questions the way Dubose is both hailed and marginalized in most accounts of Haring’s cross-race desires, energies that profoundly shape both his life and art:
Giorno’s deployment and disregard of Dubose echo many of the ways in which Dubose exists as a defining and necessary figure in the romantic view of Haring as transcendent interracial lover, while being ignored and somewhat disposable in the setting of valued exchange between those in an esteemed gay artistic circle.(52)
As Montez demonstrates persuasively in Keith Haring’s Line, the “deployment and disregard” of racial difference are central features of Haring’s creative practice. His relationships and artistic collaborations are marked by both a still-rare self-critique of whiteness, and an obliviousness to—if not a downright dismissal of—the exploitative power dynamics within these cross-racial encounters.
My own return to Dubose in the hall admittedly risks sliding into the sentimental mythmaking and sloppy identification with blackness by white gay men that Montez interrogates. Dubose has become “a brown and black sign that is an amalgamation of projections” (16), not only in Giorno’s account of the dinner party, but in much of the scholarship on Haring’s art. A DJ and car-radio installer, Dubose was the first of several Black and Latino men with whom Haring was romantically and artistically involved. The thorniness of these relationships, in all their ethical and aesthetic complexity, is central to Montez’s book. Some will recognize Dubose from Polaroids taken by Andy Warhol in 1983—the source material for the ghostly silkscreens of varying hues that he made of Dubose and Haring. Montez confronts the material complexity of these images in the archive to see them differently. Now alight with intimacy, the images of Haring and Dubose intertwined refuse “narrative coherence” (18); they are what Montez calls “temporal freezes that index Haring’s notion of becoming other,” a fantasy of racial erasure that Haring believes interracial relationships might make possible (16). In returning to the archives to see what’s been missed or misread, Montez is not interested in historical rescue or corrective. In fact, he says such a project would be impossible in the case of Dubose, for whom no self-composed counternarrative exists. Rather, the book interrogates the ways in which narratives—particularly heteroheroic accounts of Haring’s life—invoke cross-racial desires but avoid any meaningful discussion of the very real humans hailed within these gestures...