Keith Haring’s Silent Partner


In the summer of 1980, a little-known 22-year-old artist named Keith Haring was painting a mural in a Lower East Side schoolyard when he was approached by a 13-year-old boy named Angel Ortiz. The youth identified himself as LA II, a graffiti artist about whom Haring had been curious. At first, Haring could hardly believe that the work he’d admired had been created by a teenager, but after watching Ortiz scrawl his tag, the older artist was convinced. That evening, Ortiz helped Haring carry a ladder back to his studio on Broome Street, near the Bowery. A few days later the two collaborated there on a piece of art, combining their signature styles on a yellow metal panel that had once been part of a taxi. When a collector paid $1400 for the piece, Haring gave half the money to Ortiz.

It was the beginning of a partnership that would last six years, produce hundreds of pieces of art, and include joint shows in New York, Tokyo, and Europe. But while Haring went on to wide acclaim, the years following the collaborations were not as kind to Ortiz. His current exhibit, at the Clayton Patterson Gallery on Essex Street through the end of the month, is his first since a 1984 show with Haring in Milan. For most of the intervening years, Ortiz says, the Haring Foundation, which was created shortly before the artist died and now exhibits his work, has largely ignored Ortiz’s part in Haring’s history, sometimes allowing works he helped create to be exhibited without crediting him, and selling work he alone created without permission. Even more painful, he feels he has been denied attention.

“Why are they turning their back on me?” the 35-year-old artist asked recently, sitting on the floor of the Patterson Gallery. “It isn’t right.”

From 1980 until 1986, Haring and Ortiz met often in the Broome Street studio, painting and drawing for up to 15 hours at a stretch on both canvas and urban detritus like statues, urns, and pieces of metal. The partnership was recognized by both artists to be an equal one, Ortiz says, because their artistic styles complemented each other. Ortiz’s calligraphic, interlocking lines vitalized and filled out negative space between Haring’s cleanly drawn shapes. And while Haring was older and far cannier, the energy of Ortiz’s graffiti-like markings brought freshness and street credibility to his work.

The association was important personally as well as artistically, particularly to Ortiz, who had never experienced life outside the Lower East Side before meeting Haring. He left school at the age of 16 to create art full-time and was thrilled to receive attention from artists and collectors around the world. The two formed a strong relationship, which Haring likened to that of an older and younger brother. Haring invited Ortiz to clubs like Roxy and the Pyramid, where the young artist met Andy Warhol and Boy George. Ortiz took Haring to a Brooklyn train yard where they spray-painted subway cars. Even after the collaboration ended, as Haring’s increasing renown led him to concentrate on solo work, the two remained friendly.

By the time of his death, in 1990, Keith Haring had become one of the most famous artists of his generation. His work had been bought by numerous collectors and included in permanent collections at the Whitney Museum and the Museum of Modern Art. Haring had also become rich. But during the 1990s, as the Haring Foundation amassed millions more from the sale and licensing of Haring’s work, Angel Ortiz went through difficult times. Socially unsophisticated, and lacking a fine arts education, he could not navigate the art world alone. While continuing to paint and draw, he slept on couches on the Lower East Side and supported himself by working as a bicycle messenger and in a pizzeria.

Ortiz said that Haring occasionally gave him sums ranging from a few hundred dollars to $5000, while promising that other money owed to him from the sale of collaborations was being placed in a fund. But after Haring’s death, foundation officials told Ortiz such a fund didn’t exist.

During those lean years, the Haring Foundation regularly put Haring’s solo work up for sale at galleries around the world, often for six-figure prices. But the foundation has yet to offer for sale any of the estimated 10 to 15 collaborations it possesses, depriving Ortiz of potential income, or so he believes. Julia Gruen, the executive director of the Haring Foundation, said that she did not know the value of the collaborations between Haring and Ortiz, and had never felt the need to offer any for sale. She added that she assumed collaborations were owned wholly by the foundation, but did not know whether Ortiz might have a valid legal claim to part ownership.

Some of those collaborations are lent to museums and appear in exhibitions around the globe, but they are not always properly identified. For example, a brochure produced by the Haring Foundation for a 1997 show depicts on its cover a vase painted in black, white, and orange credited exclusively to Haring despite the fact that it prominently features a tag used by Ortiz—LA Rock—that first attracted the attention of Keith Haring in 1980 and can still be seen today on the streets of the Lower East Side. “There were certainly incidents where oversights were committed,” said Gruen, responding to the misidentification.

Indeed. Beginning in the late 1990s the Pop Shop, on Lafayette Street, sold T-shirts and umbrellas bearing designs by Ortiz, which were identified and marketed as created by Haring. Ortiz discovered this by accident after wandering into the store. After Ortiz complained, the foundation paid Ortiz a dollar for each of 1800 T-shirts sold for between $15 and $25. The shop also paid him $182 for umbrella sales totaling $1824.

It is not only the potential loss of money, but the lack of acknowledgment that pains Ortiz. He thought of Haring not merely as a business partner, but as a trusted friend and supporter who plucked him from obscurity, encouraged him to create art, and invited him to share in an adventure. The fact that the Haring Foundation appears to prefer keeping him at arm’s length puzzles Ortiz and makes him miss all the more the reassuring presence of his former mentor.

“The foundation should’ve taken care of me, but they didn’t,” he said. “They show my pieces in museums but never invite me. They give money to charity but they ignore their own.”

Others agree. The artist Richard Hambleton, who during the 1980s toured through Europe with Haring and Jean Michel Basquiat, said that the role Ortiz played in Haring’s development deserves recognition. “Keith learned to fill in blank spaces on the canvas from LA II and that took his art to a new level,” Hambleton said. “The way LA has been treated by the foundation since Keith died is really shameful.”

Outside the Patterson Gallery it was raining. Ortiz picked up a Pop Shop umbrella featuring his work and a label bearing Haring’s name, then walked to a basement shop selling lamp shades at 325 Broome Street. It was the same spot where he had worked with Haring. Inside, drawings made by Haring, Ortiz, and others were still faintly visible on the walls, in some cases bleeding through a thin coat of primer.

“I still think about all the good times with Keith,” Ortiz said before heading back out into the rain. “If he were alive today, he wouldn’t forget about me.”

At the end of June, the opening for Ortiz’s month-long show took place. Dozens of people stood in the gallery, sipping beer and gazing at the 20-odd pieces on display, which ranged in price from $75 to $5500. Included among them were several collaborations between Ortiz and a Lower East Side artist, Marco, whose simple, pop-art line drawings elicited comparisons to Haring.

As salsa music blared from a boombox, members of the Rock Steady Crew and of TNS, a legendary Lower East Side graffiti crew, congratulated Ortiz. Ortiz used a marker to draw his tag on a piece of metal, then smiled.

“It feels real good to be here tonight,” he said. “It feels like I’m starting all over again.”