Risky Business

Andrew Hultkrans on Guest of Cindy Sherman and The Universe of Keith Haring

New York

Left: Film still from Guest of Cindy Sherman. (Photo: Spencer Tunick) Right: Gabriella Kessler, filmmaker Paul H-O, and Serena Merriman. (Photo: David Velasco)

The first thing to say about the “Red Carpet Arrivals” screenings at the Tribeca Film Festival is that there were no red carpets. Or star arrivals. Or maybe just not for art-world documentaries. Well, huffle-doody-doo. But there were long lines for “eligible badge holders,” “rush” ticketees, and regular paying punters. My press badge was apparently so eligible that I didn’t have to wait at all, which made up for the lack of processional glamour. I was prepared to get all Joan Rivers on these people, but maybe we should all be thankful I didn’t have the chance. What do I know about shoes anyway? What I do know something about is professional jealousy, which turned out to be the subject of Guest of Cindy Sherman, Paul H-O and Tom Donahue’s art-world-as-domestic-drama doc.

Paul H-O is an affable surfer dude–cum–art nut who for years, starting in 1993, shot with future Artnet.com editor in chief Walter Robinson a public-access video show called Gallery Beat, which could just as easily have been titled Paul and Walter’s Excellent Art-World Adventure. If October occupies one end of the art-critical spectrum, then Gallery Beat resided on the other. In their heyday, Paul, Robinson, and their pals would cruise SoHo openings, mug for the camera, get up in famous artists’ grills, and generally make a low-wattage nuisance of themselves. Some artists wouldn’t talk to them. Others they actively pissed off. One of the early highlights of Guest is a younger Julian Schnabel telling the Gallery Beaters, with a straight face, that their efforts are “masturbatory.” Oh, the ironic ’90s.

Sherman, already a sensation due to her “Untitled Film Stills,” happened to enjoy watching Gallery Beat, and while everyone in the haute art world clamored for interviews with her, she decided she’d prefer to talk to Paul H-O. This was like Nicole Kidman granting exclusive access to a pimply teenage blogger from some godforsaken dungeon in Secaucus. Over the course of several videotaped studio visits, a romance developed between the unlikely pair, and Paul, fleeing an eviction lawsuit in Brooklyn, moved in with Cindy.

Everything is hunky-dory for a few years, until Paul’s new Web venture Artlike fails as Cindy’s star continues to rise. He starts taking antidepressants, shooting surf videos on Long Island, and musing bitterly about how easy things come for Cindy. Attending galas and openings with his celebrity girlfriend, Paul finds himself cut out of paparazzi photos and shunted to remote tables with GUEST OF CINDY SHERMAN place cards. They go to couples therapy, and Cindy steals Paul’s shrink. He does an interview on cult radio station WFMU about the situation. Finally, the inevitable breakup. Paul is shown inflating a blow-up mattress in a one-room apartment. The above unfolds as a radically truncated story drawn from endless hours of video footage from Paul’s archive—starting with Gallery Beat, he made of his life a reality-TV show—with his own voice-over narration.

Throughout this entertaining, incestuous film, art-world personalities and assorted stars appear as talking heads. Eric Bogosian says, with conviction, “The art world is such bullshit.” John Waters sneers, “I’m glad the art world is elitist. I think art for the people is a terrible idea.” Elton John’s young husband sympathizes with Paul’s plight, recounting how he once threw a hissy fit at a gala that got Uma Thurman ejected from her spot next to Captain Fantastic. Molly Ringwald’s husband, Panio Gianopoulos, also acknowledges occasional discomfort with his Mr. Man role.

After the screening, Paul and codirector Donahue took questions. Artnet’s Charlie Finch loudly brayed that Cindy should be “hung from the rafters” for “censoring” parts of the film (the artist had final-cut approval but still ended up disowning the project). Paper’s Carlo McCormick, sitting nearby, told him to shut up. Finch: “Don’t ever tell me to shut up, Carlo!” This felt like a real-life coda to the film. I said it was incestuous.

Left: Film still from Universe of Keith Haring. Right: Filmmaker Christina Clausen. (Photo: David Velasco)

If Guest was a ’90s-to-’00s affair, with dated but recognizable fashions and the interview subjects in attendance only slightly aged, The Universe of Keith Haring was a galaxy far, far away. Even for someone who was in high school during the era, the early ’80s appeared impossibly, remotely exotic. Directed by German documentarian Christina Clausen, Universe traces the meteoric rise of the geeky kid from Kutztown, Pennsylvania, who entered the School of Visual Arts during the rapturous gutter-glitter years of late-’70s and early-’80s New York, inhaled disco, hip-hop, and the Mudd Club, then exhaled his Pop graphomania worldwide for a decade, until his untimely AIDS-related death. Whatever one thinks of Haring’s art, the film is undeniably moving. In Clausen’s sensitive portrait, laced with Haring’s student films and candid interviews with Kenny Scharf, Tony Shafrazi, Fab 5 Freddy, Bill T. Jones, Yoko Ono, and the artist’s family and friends, Haring emerges as an irrepressible creator and extraordinarily generous soul who simply loved life too much.

Encouraged as a child by his father, a gifted draftsman, to learn to draw with his eyes closed and to invent cartoon characters, Haring “probably was smoking pot,” as his mother endearingly says, when he decamped to Pittsburgh and then New York as a young man. At SVA, Devo, the B-52s, and semiotics were formative influences, as was the “gay paradise” of the St. Marks Baths. His early, more crowded work owed a slight debt to R. Crumb and featured oodles of penises. As hip-hop swept the city, Haring admired subway graffiti artists, falling in with Fab 5 Freddy, LA2, and Samo (the young Jean-Michel Basquiat). He painted his iconographs on blank ad spaces in subway stations, occasionally getting arrested, and gave out buttons to riders in order to “bring the museum to the people.” Before he had representation, he sold his own artwork. By the time he was picked up by Shafrazi, he began making work that, as his mother says, “people could actually put in their homes.”

The rest is pop history. He became world-famous very quickly, at the center of a scene that included the aging Warhol and the emerging Madonna, and eventually took Andy as his date to the Madonna–Sean Penn wedding. The Paradise Garage was his living room, Grace Jones’s body his canvas. He kept his homosexuality from his sweet but conservative family, bringing boyfriends home for Christmas as “bodyguards.” He painted murals in cities around the globe, including one on the Berlin Wall, and designed iconic anti-Apartheid imagery. Then came AIDS, or “gay cancer” as it was first known. One of its most famous early victims, Haring asked a friend to inform his parents but later came out in Rolling Stone to raise awareness. The party invitations stopped arriving. Already a manic personality, Haring’s last months found him visiting every museum he could find, advocating for ACT-UP, making more public art, setting up a foundation, and telling friends, “I have so much to do.” Scharf cries as he tells of his old friend’s last moments. Ono claims Haring spoke to her afterward, telling her to place a piece of one of his bones at the obelisk in the Place Vendôme in Paris.

When the lights came up, several of Haring’s friends and colleagues warmly complimented the filmmaker on her work. I went outside, and as I wandered through the financial district, I began see urban microgeometries in a new, playful way. Haring’s style became so commonplace during his life, but it still has the power to change your point of view, which is perhaps what he was after the whole time.