Full Frontal Art: A Q&A With Choreographer Bill T. Jones About Working With Keith Haring

Full Frontal Art: A Q&A With Choreographer Bill T. Jones About Working With Keith Haring
In 1982, artists Keith Haring and Bill T. Jones crossed paths and together produced a series of unique collaborations in performance and drawing. Some of the fruits of this encounter are currently on view at Gladstone Gallery, May 4 through July 1 — the first exhibition of Haring's works to appear at that space. Recently, Jones sat down with ARTINFO to talk about his memories of working with Haring, the origins of the collaboration, and what it was like to be body painted from head to toe.

Can you speak about how your collaboration with Haring?


Well, Keith was at that point the "it" boy. He was on the cover of every art magazine — I remember passing a newsstand and seeing at least 3 or 4 that he was on the cover of. Keith was a relatively new friend. It was almost one of those things that was ordained by the stars, because my companion and collaborator Arnie Zane and I had been invited to the avant-garde performance series at Kutztown, which as you know was Keith's hometown. There was a man there named James Carroll, who mentioned this young artist named Keith Haring who was making it big in New York. Carroll mentioned him, and then I met Kermit Oswald, who was Keith's best friend. He showed me some of Keith's work. Kind of Mickey Mouse drawing, Sumi ink and so on.


It was around the same time that a good friend of mine, an art-world denizen named Bill Katz, watched a rehearsal that Arnie and I were doing of a piece called "Social Intercourse" that was a kind of crazy abstract piece with lots of wild partnering and all — we held our arms in this flattened out cookie-cutter shape, and we moved around. Bill said, "You know, the choreography reminds me of this artist — his name is Keith Haring." He said, "You should meet him." And so, with those two endorsements banging into each other, I contacted Keith. I came to his studio and I told him I wanted him to do a drawing for our poster. And so he did three Sumi ink drawings of his figures, and he dedicated them to me and I think he might have even mentioned the piece "Social Intercourse," and we used at least one of them on the poster. It was very generous and typical of Keith and he and I became friends.


He would take these cheap polyurethane garden vases and he would paint and decorate them, and there was an Italian magazine that he showed me. On the cover there was an Italian athlete or model, standing in one of these vases, painted from the waist up. Body painting is something we all knew from the 60s. But there was a difference because it was so expert and done in black and white, the graphics were so extreme, and it was so meticulous. He said he'd like to try it again, and that he wanted to do a full body. And somehow or other he asked me, and I said yes.

He was going to be having a major show at the Robert Fraser gallery in London, and he asked if we'd like to do the painting there. So we met on a Saturday morning in a gallery, and we proceeded to do what I think was the most elaborate body drawing he had done to that time, from head to toe. And when it was all over he gave me a mischievous look, he looked up at me, as if to say "shall we?" And he hit three or four marks on my dick. Bing, bing, bing, bing! You know, that was our intimacy. It was a very playful, innocent moment. It took about four-and-a-half hours, and the top part began to flake before he finished the lower part, so it was itching, all this white paint hanging off — but it still looked good. Then somewhere he mentioned, "Oh by the way, the press is going to come in and photograph it." [Photographer] Kwong Chi was always documenting everything, but I didn't know they were going to bring all the tabloid press. The doors opened and suddenly they all come in. They're wise-cracking and I'm standing stark naked in front of all these British journalists. Such was my trust for Keith, or my brazenness, whatever you want to call it. Meanwhile, Kwong Chi acted as a kind of stylist or art director, because he was the one that said "when you make the shapes for the photographs, make sure they're very flattened out so you show all the drawings front and back," and that's why the hands are splayed the way they are, that's why it's so hieroglyphic-like. All that's because of Kwong Chi, who did a beautiful set of pictures.

You mentioned that other people had come to you and said that Haring's work might really lend itself to yours and vice versa. How do you feel about that collaboration and the combination of your work and his?

Well, it was the time we were in. It made sense to me. I liked the man. I like that I'd never seen drawings like this. They looked like maybe mezo-American, and they looked African, they looked like expressionism. There was this kind of neo-primitivism in the air, but Keith's was a little bit more — his radiating baby and all. His style was particularly American. He told me once that his idols were Walt Disney and Andy Warhol — I think this might have been just before he started his friendship with Andy Warhol — and I could feel what he was going for. He wanted to be a household name.

Arnie Zane and I were also very interested in getting out of the avant-garde ghetto. Haring had found a way by going into another ghetto, which was the Spanish and black ghetto, oftentimes the gay ghetto. I really loved the fact that he was a tag artist, and that he could go in and out of that milieu. And I saw at least a feeling, if not exactly a one-to-one corollary, between what Arnie and I were trying to do and our critique of high and low, and Keith's modus operandi, which very much moved from the art gallery to the streets. I identified with that. And he was young and vibrant, very sexy, and we felt very much embraced by him. The art world in Lower Manhattan was very cool and he was not. And we didn't feel cool, we felt hot as well — engaged and ambitious. We wanted everything, as did he.

I also noticed, in looking at your repertory of works, that you have collaborated with other visual artists as well. How do you feel about collaborations between the visual arts and dance?

Well, first of all, we never defined ourselves truly as "dance." We just weren't dancerly enough; we were making it up as we went along. We were very much about Art with a capital A and Arnie was a very good photographer; we made films, we wrote, I wrote poetry. I say we were art groupies, visual arts groupies. We were very inspired by that period of the Allan Kaprow happenings. Jim Dine, Allan Kaprow, those early Judson Church days when there were collaborations with Robert Rauschenberg and Cunnigham or Trisha Brown. There are even other, stranger ones as well that were messy, where you couldn't tell if it was a dance performance or if it was a visual arts performance. The visual artists were paying so much abeyance to dance artists because they found something liberating in the post-abstract expressionist engagement and full body engagement in art. I think that's what it was, what the allure was. Being led by people, where the paint brush had become the body. The body had become the sculpture. And the visual artists were really enjoying learning with that generation, so that's who we were. We were very drawn to that, and that made it very easy for us to say that we were members of the art world as opposed to the dance world. We didn't feel particularly accepted by the dance world — we were just much too fuzzily defined. Maybe that's a battle that's still being fought now as a matter of fact, but that's good, that's where this stuff comes from.

With Haring's show at Gladstone, and the piece that you did together, do you feel this work has left a lasting legacy?

That's something that you guys are supposed to answer, and answer in 20 years. Personally, I think that the work is really good. It vindicates the fact that yes he was extremely popular, trendy even. We were called trendy as well. But when the dust begins to settle and time has its way, some works will come back. I think in some ways there's a quality of sophistication and naivety, spontaneity, availability, energy, that was Keith's that evokes and defines that era, which was not that long ago. I'm very pleased to look at the body painting, that collaboration, and the way those glyphs work on my body, my black body, shaped as it's shaped; my penchant for posing and making two-dimensional shapes, which I was doing before I met Keith. That is a very successful collaboration that transcends — it's greater than the sum of its parts. And I think that will endure. Kwong Chi is part of that. He was there with the intelligence to capture those moments, and make it something real and beautiful. They are beautiful, they really hold up as images, art images.