Volume 75, Number 12 | August 10 - 16, 2005

Photo by Charles Dolfi-Michels

Artist Keith Haring in his Pop Shop on Lafayette St., with its black-and-white “all-over” mural, which he painted.

After a good run, Keith Haring’s Pop Shop goes pop

By Ellen Keohane

This spring, when the Keith Haring Foundation announced it would be closing its Soho Pop Shop on Aug. 28, some Haring fans took the news pretty hard.

“It is sad… it’s almost like a good friend is dying,” posted Philip Bodifée on the Foundation’s Web site. “I cried when I got the e-mail saying that it was closing,” wrote another.

“It’s an end of an era and we’re all really sad to see it go,” said Matthew Barolo, operations manager at the foundation, which runs the store located at 292 Lafayette St. “We had been thinking about closing the shop for a while,” he said. With the store’s lease expiring in September and the rent increasing, committing to another 10 years seemed financially irresponsible, he said. The Foundation has always paid market rate for the space.

For years the store broke even, but never made much money, Barolo said. “It’s sad, but after 20 years, it’s run its course,” he said. “We felt the resources would be better spent for other projects.” Established in 1989, a year before Haring’s death, the Keith Haring Foundation assists AIDS-related organizations and children’s charities, and also helps organize exhibitions of Haring’s work.

Artist Keith Haring first opened the Pop Shop in New York in 1986 with the goal of making art accessible to everyone. With the price of Haring’s work becoming more and more cost prohibitive due to his growing popularity, the Pop Shop allowed the general public to still have a piece of it, even if it was on a T-shirt, said Julia Gruen, who worked for six years as Haring’s administrative assistant, and is now the foundation’s executive director.

At the time, the “explosion” of the museum store concept hadn’t happened yet, Gruen said. “You were happy if you could get a postcard or a bookmark at a museum shop,” she said.

Haring’s simple and iconic images of dancing people, three-eyed faces, barking dogs and radiant babies are instantly recognizable and demand for his work has always been steady, Barolo said. In his art, Haring often combined these humorous and fun images with social and political messages.

First known for his white chalk drawings on the empty black panels in New York’s subway, Haring gained international recognition after a solo exhibition at Tony Shafrazi Gallery in 1982. During his brief but prolific career, Haring exhibited his work in more than 100 solo and group shows. In 1990, Haring died of AIDS-related complications at the age of 31.

The initial reaction to the Pop Shop was mixed when it first opened in 1986, Gruen said. Some people saw the shop as an extension of Haring’s philosophy, while others felt it was crass and too commercial. “Which was ironic, because Keith got his start with his drawings in the subway,” she said. “He was already bypassing the more conventional ideas about art.”

In 1988, Haring also opened a Pop Shop in Tokyo, but it closed after one year. “It was difficult for [Haring] to have such an outpost with his name on it where he wasn’t in control. I think the financial issues and the cultural differences resulted in him becoming rather quickly frustrated with how to keep it going — and still enjoy himself,” Gruen said.

The Pop Shop’s most unique characteristic is its black-and-white “all-over” mural, originally painted by Haring, which covers the store’s walls and ceiling. The floor used to be painted as well, but it became so filthy, it was replaced around 10 years ago, explained Borolo. Over the years, most of the mural has been repainted. Now, only the ceiling is original. It will be removed in pieces and stored when the shop closes, he said.

On a recent Thursday afternoon at the Pop Shop, stacks of neatly folded T-shirts — many promoting safe sex — lined the store’s shelves. Colorful skateboard decks decorated the walls. In a small container on one shelf, “Debbie Dick for President/More Balls Than Bush!” pins were on sale for 99 cents each.

Jane Park, 22, paused at the display of pins and patches, and carefully selected a few favorites. “My teacher told me to come. He wants me to buy him a patch,” said Park, an art critic major at Hong-ik University in Seoul, South Korea.

Park, who was in New York for two weeks, had already visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney and the Frick. It was her first visit to the Pop Shop. “It’s pretty sad that this shop is going to close,” she said.

The foundation’s primary source of income never came from the shop, but from licensing Haring products, said Barolo. “Most Keith Haring product you see that’s not from the Pop Shop is licensed,” he said, while pointing to an umbrella resting on the floor of the foundation’s offices. Located at 676 Broadway, the office used to be Haring’s studio and still has paint splattered across its hardwood floors.

“Emotionally, it is extremely difficult to make this decision,” Gruen said. However, if Haring were still alive, she believes the shop might not have stayed open for 20 years. “I believe he would have been on to the next thing,” she said.

For now, Pop Shop fans can try to cheer themselves up with some discount shopping. There’s a storewide sale at the shop, running through Aug. 28. This week, everything is discounted by 50 percent, next week everything will be 60 percent off and the following week, everything will be 70 percent off or more.

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