A Radiant Baby Leaves Lafayette


Like everyone else, we were very sad to learn that the latest victim of Soho’s stratospheric rents is Keith Haring’s Pop Shop, set to close at the end of this month. Forget for a moment the “Crack Is Wack” T-shirts, Debbie Dick halter dresses. What will they do with the Haring wall murals, we wonder? You can’t slap on a couple coats of Benjamin Moore and not feel like you killed someone’s (radiant) baby.

And in the beginning, that’s what the shop was to Haring. Said Julie Gruen, executive director of The Keith Haring Foundation, “The sense at the opening was that this was his own personal clubhouse. . . . The spirit there was extremely lively, an incredible mix of people—graffiti writers, collectors, their children.” The artist, who died from AIDS-related complications in 1989, opened up his store on Lafayette Street three years prior to his death as a way of peddling his own artist-approved shirts, buttons, and other paraphernalia. “At the time, there was nothing going on on Lafayette,” Gruen said. “It was light years away from West Broadway—and between the East Village and Soho, which was representative of where Keith wanted to present himself, artistically. Back then, there wasn’t this idea of branding, of logo. It was very innovative.”

In part, Haring founded Pop Shop to deal with the rampant bootlegging of his trademark images. “Instead of suing people, and saying, ‘This is mine! You can’t do this!’ ” the artist said in his authorized biography, “I decided to participate in this flow of fakes—and the way I did this was to show people the difference between the real thing and the imitation.” Haring regarded Pop Shop as another facet of his populist art—after all, the SVA grad’s career began with white-chalk drawings on subway platforms. “I wanted to continue the same sort of communication as with the subway drawings . . . to attract the same wide range of people and I wanted it to be a place where, yes, not only collectors could come, but also kids from the Bronx . . . this was still an art statement.”

If Haring’s goal was merely to rake in more cash at the cost of his own integrity—as his detractors claimed—the shop was hardly the most profitable route. “It’s never been operated as a business whose goal is to make a profit,” Gruen said. “Our intent was to go with Keith’s philosophy of making his art available. It’s a big part of how people know Keith Haring.” But, she added later, “When your core inventory is selling for no more than $35, how can you afford $10,000 a month rent?”

The foundation will host an ongoing sale of everything in the store, including the light fixtures, until the end of August. Right now, all merchandise is 40 percent off, with an additional 10 percent off each following week.