The Little-Known Gay Artist Who Helped Make Keith Haring Famous

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Above: Tseng Kwong Chi, New York, 1979 From the “East Meets West” Self-portrait Series 1979-1989. Photograph: Tseng Kwong Chi. © Muna Tseng Dance Projects Inc., New York.

Whole books, giant tomes even, have been written about the impact of Keith Haring, and the legendary artist’s colorful pop art still garners new fans 26 years after his death. This year’s Keith Haring: The Boy Who Just Kept Drawing, by his sister Kay Haring and illustrator Robert Neubecker, is aimed at children, so it uses “alternative” in place of queer, but it doesn’t shy away from Haring’s death from AIDS complications. Haring was prolific and known for making art accessible by chalk-painting sidewalks and subways, hand-painting walls next to Dumpsters. His work fetches top dollar (in 2014, his untitled black-and-white dystopian painting sold for nearly $4.9 milliion at Sotheby’s New York.)

Haring died in 1990, as did his friend and contemporary, the gay Hong Kong-born photographer Tseng Kwong Chi (pictured above). Tseng's most famous series, “Expeditionary,” featured him posing in Chinese Communist uniforms next to American architecture wearing a tag that read “SlutforArt.”

“He’s in drag,” his friend Bill T. Jones told us back in 2002, when a retrospective of his work was shown in Philadelphia. “We’re looking through the deadpan eye of an outsider but with great wit and levity. It shows the silliness of identity and cuts to the heart of American iconography.”

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Tseng didn’t focus on sexuality as much as he did dissecting what it means to be Asian in America. Though his profile is sadly much lower than his contemporaries' — racism in arts may have played a role — it can be argued that Haring would not be the star he is today without his partnership with Tseng. 

Tseng always had a camera on hand, so he photographed everything, which meant he photographed Haring as he worked. Because Haring was an opportunistic artist who painted walls and sidewalks and even people, much of his work was ephemeral. Today, a great deal of his work exists only in one of Tseng’s photographs.

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