Art's Forgotten Widow

When legendary queer artist Keith Haring died, he left behind his longtime partner Juanito (Xtravaganza) Rivera, cutting him out of his will and leaving him to obscurity.

BY Charlie Vazquez

January 16 2009 12:00 AM ET

Juan Rivera and Keith Haring gallery announcement odd size (Courtesy) | Advocate.com
 

You come across as "the chosen one" to write and
organize this testimonial, since you’re alive and
breathing in the text, you’re part of the
story. Would you have written this book had you
not met Juanito Rivera before he moved to New York City
and met Keith Haring?
Had I met Juan at any point and had he trusted
me enough to confide in me his tale or tales of
arriving in New York City at a time when the city and
especially its Latino and minority neighborhoods were
undergoing a contradictory and brutal process of
gentrification, I would have found his story
compelling and poignant enough to feel that someone, if not
me, should write it down. Juan would eventually meet
1980s pop icon Keith Haring at the Paradise Garage,
that legendary underground disco where black and
Latino gay youth, vogueing drag queen divas, and homeless
kids sweated and swirled with music business insiders
and up-and-coming media celebrities, and that part of
his story, his relationship with Haring, also seemed
compelling to me. It seemed to shed so much unconventional
light on the desiring, conflicted, complicated, and
downright messy relationship or romance between
popular street culture and high art during the 1980s.
In addition, Juan’s story spoke movingly to me as a
migrant, a gay Puerto Rican migrant, for yes, as you say, I
am also part of the tale. It was fortuitous to have
met Juan before he moved to New York, and that
established a bond of trust between us that would allow me
to enter his life. But what would truly compel me to listen
to Juan’s story first and then write it down
was his voice, a sort of ethical command in his voice.

You discuss how mid-20th-century TV and cinema
perpetuated Puerto Ricans as erotic objects to the
mainstream “white” eye. When Keith
Haring moved to New York City, he discovered an infinite
landscape of dark boys, alongside hip-hop and graffiti
-- his admitted obsessions. What do you suspect
Juanito possessed (other than his obvious beauty)
that compelled Haring to keep him by his side longer
than his other lovers, even though he was omitted
from the will?
It is true that I discuss the sexualization of
Puerto Ricans in New York City. But I also point to
the traps that responding to that sexualization hold
for Puerto Rican and Latino authors who feel the pressure to
confront it by presenting themselves as fully scrubbed
“decent” “representative”
ethnic subjects. It is about the entangled, complicated
relationships of desire across race and class that we are
all inextricably implicated in. Interestingly enough,
in his interviews Juan resists seeing himself as a
victim. Instead, he prefers to spin more and more
complicated tales that leave some room for maneuver. That
said, there is no doubt that Haring had a voracious
appetite for difference, for otherness, and an
insatiable -- almost blinding -- need to see himself
precisely in that different other’s validating eyes.
This is quite evident in Haring’s posthumously
published Journals where Juan appears first as one of
those special people in whose eyes Haring is able to
recognize and see his own difference. But as their
relationship develops and Juan becomes more demanding
about being more than a mirror for Haring’s
difference, about being seen, their relationship begins to
falter, and Haring will search elsewhere to regain that
initial look of recognition across differences that
fueled his art. 

Haring thrived amidst the gay avant-garde East
Village underground 1980s art scene that you chronicle
vividly in the book, but he also went on to become
a very wealthy, international pop art icon. Had
this already happened when Juanito met him?
By the time Haring and Juan met in 1986 Haring
was internationally famous. He had managed to
transform his street, graffiti-inspired, cutting-edge
art into both gallery art and media-and-market phenomenon.
Especially in Japan, where he was treated with all the
fanfare of a rock star, his art would be endlessly
copied and commodified. And his Pop Shop in New York
and Tokyo, which some have seen as a sign of his
capitulation to commerce, may be seen in this light
instead as his frustrating attempts to control that
increasing commodification. In my book, I am in no way
proposing that Haring owes his career to Juan, although Juan
was very supportive of him during this crucial period
in his life. However it is clear that Haring, like so
many other great artists, was not some independent
genius whose artistic project existed in his mind as in a
kernel from his childhood in Kutztown, Penn., as some have
proposed. The brilliance of Haring’s art is a
testament to his intense dialogue with the popular
cultures of New York, and his limitations are as well a
reflection of the conflicts and limitations of that
long-standing dialogue between high art and popular
cultures. For all art, as Haring himself knew, is
dialogue, conversation. 

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