Pretty On The Inside was released on September 17, 1991.
Hole is a force to be reckoned with and always have been. Love them or hate them —specifically Courtney Love— anyone can agree on that. Most rock fans know their breakthrough and widely acclaimed album, 1994’s Live Through This, as well as the uber slick follow up, 1998’s Celebrity Skin. And everyone knows all the trials, tribulations, and drama that has encircled Love for the majority of her career. But I find that for all the lore around Love, and the opinions people have on all the drama and the later work, even some very well versed alt heads often don’t know the band’s debut album, Pretty On the Inside, and the beautiful viciousness contained within. The album is now thirty years old, and to celebrate, I asked a few musicians I know for their thoughts on the influence of Hole as a band, their take on this album, as well as their thoughts on Courtney Love and her treatment by the media. A few of the participants I have also been lucky enough to play with in a Hole cover band, Teenage Whores, on and off since 2014.
Pretty On The Inside is a markedly different body of work from their later offerings; the songs come across in an aggressive sounding feminine rage—messy, crass, chock full of discomfort and chaotic screams that really make the album feel as though it might careen violently off a cliff at any moment. The production of the album perfectly reflects the uncomfortable turmoil of the material; the words “slick” or “polished” could never be used to describe it. I also don’t believe the album would have come across so strongly had it been produced in a more glossy way, the songs needed to be heard in this way for the full impact to be felt.
“The rhythm is brutal, the guitars a slash of sonic meanness,” said Teenage Whores lead singer, Chantal Wright.
Pretty On The Inside is absolutely a more primitive and raw punk record than what was to come, but if you really listen, the groundwork for the later more polished work is laid right there in those eleven songs. Current Teenage Whores drummer Rebecca DeRosa said the album “is just so raw and visceral. I loved hearing this female rage and if you listen to the lyrics, Love has a lot to say. I don’t know if she gets enough appreciation for her lyric writing.”
For many women and nonbinary people who play music today, who were teenagers in the 90s, or even later, we can trace our roots directly back to the band. For me it was seeing Patty Schemel drumming during the band’s Saturday Night Live performance in 1994 when I was thirteen. It was like I was struck by lightning. I was transfixed by what I was seeing on the screen and knew then that was what I was meant to do; I became a drummer for life in that moment.
It’s kinda wild to directly trace my musical path back to one moment
– Shawna Potter
For original Teenage Whores drummer, Deb Sanchez, she too was inspired by Schemel, and said when she saw her play “I thought women can hit drums too [for the first time]” continuing that “seeing women rock out captured me.” For myself, when I later decided to learn to play guitar in my early 30s, I returned once again to Hole; “Doll Parts” was one of the first songs I was able to play all the way through.
War On Women frontwoman Shawna Potter had a similar “aha!” moment and can also link back her musical journey directly to Hole and specifically seeing Courtney Love on TV playing guitar. “The first time I became aware of Hole was watching the ‘Doll Parts’ video on MTV. I was around twelve years old. For some reason, it was only then that it registered with me that girls could play guitar, too. I wanted to play guitar —now. I begged my mom for a guitar and while waiting for Christmas to come, I convinced my mom to go buy me both the Live Through This and Pretty On The Inside CDs at the mall on her way home from work. I’ve been playing music, performing, and touring in bands ever since. It’s kinda wild to directly trace my musical path back to one moment.”
When asked specifically about Pretty On The Inside, Potter said “I loved that they were feminine and angry. I loved how dirty and raw [it] was. I didn’t have the language to describe music well (I still don’t), but I remember feeling that when I pressed play, I felt like the music was surrounding me. I was in the thick of it.”
It’s impossible to overstate the influence “Pretty On The Inside” had on me as a musician
– Chantal Wright
As for myself, I can recall a feeling of what the hell is happening right now? the first time I heard that album and just being absolutely pummeled with the ferocity barreling towards me from the speakers on my little childhood stereo; I had never heard anything so explosive up until that point. The album and the band absolutely clearly affected many younger women at the time and in the years to follow. For me personally, the songs from Pretty On The Inside are always my favorite to play when the cover band performs.
Wright echoed this, saying specifically about the song “Mrs Jones” (which also is a pretty blatant rip off of “Dark Entries,” by Bauhaus), “who doesn’t want to shred those four descending chords while growling ‘cry me a river baby, just take me home’?”
Wright also added very succinctly “It’s impossible to overstate the influence Pretty On The Inside had on me as a musician.” (See her full remarks and anecdotes on the album and band here.)
“Mrs Jones” live in Paris 1991
Wright and Sanchez also remarked on the double standards applied to people who are not cis men who make music, Wright saying “Courtney’s lyrics involve milk, disease, being gross, being in a weird body. I’ve heard people wonder (cruelly) what Kurt ever saw in Courtney. Have you looked at their lyrics against each other? These are two deeply weird people. Of course, when a man does it, it’s artistic and poetic.”
Hole’s early lineup featuring Jill Emery (bass) and Caroline Rue (drums) along with Eric Erlandson and Courtney Love.
Sanchez was blunt when speaking about the false assumptions about Cobain actually writing Hole’s music, baseless and snide comments of the mansplainy variety which permeated in the 90s and still unfortunately persist to this day, mincing no words she said, “What a load of crap.” You would think in 2021 that there wouldn’t still be people who think things like this, but not all that surprisingly, there are plenty who do, always waiting to emerge from under their dude bro rocks to make digs and jabs. “That’s just people who think women aren’t capable of making something that rocks,” said Sanchez. Again, the groundwork for all of Hole’s later work is laid in the first album and if you really sit and listen to it, it becomes immediately very obvious in the rhythmic patterns of the guitars and in Love’s wrenching lyrics and daring howls.
As for more of those double standards, I would be remiss not to comment on how the media has treated Courtney herself, which has oftentimes been extremely harsh and vastly unfair. Her musical accomplishments were always compared to her husband’s no matter what she did. Outside of music, everything she and Cobain did was picked apart and analyzed up to the point of them temporarily losing custody of their daughter Frances in reaction to erroneous facts about her drug use infamously reported in a September 1992 Vanity Fair article. When Cobain died, the media got 100 times worse and descended like vultures to pick her clean. Never mind the fact that she was widowed and left alone to raise a toddler who was not yet even two years old.
The death of a partner is a pain no one can imagine until you have to go through it yourself. Yet Courtney Love was expected to just carry on as if nothing was wrong, go back to work, get back on the road. All the while existing in the public eye with horrific barbs and insults being slung at her from the press and Nirvana fans the world over. Despicable jabs that somehow she had caused Kurt’s death or even worse, killed him herself via a hitman (yes, this is an actual theory). Hole bassist Kristen Pfaff also died in 1994 not long after Cobain, and still Love was expected to just “get on with it,” and go out to promote the new record (Live Through This was released on April 12, 1994, four days after the discovery of Cobain’s body).
When she did show signs of the intense pain she was surely feeling at the time, she was labeled as “crazy,” and “insane,” a wild unhinged lunatic who might snap at any moment. Any time she did act out, it was tabloid fodder and she was excoriated by the press. She was never given the benefit of being recognized as someone who was pushing their way through an unimaginable nightmare, losing the father of her child and husband along with a bandmate/friend in rapid succession, while also dealing with substance abuse and being a huge celebrity. She was also never given the option to step away from the public eye to heal and take care of her child in peace. Who would be able to get through any of those things singularly without acting out at times, never mind all of that at once?
And yes, Love has also said her fair share of things that have raised eyebrows over the years. No one ever said she was perfect and I certainly am not here to imply that either. On this Potter elaborated, saying “She is human, flawed, but no matter how imperfect she did not deserve being vilified and torn apart by the media—no one does. I get tired of people hating on her and just wish people would keep their mouths shut. I guess it’s like siblings or something? Let the actual Hole fans critique Courtney Love today, why say anything if you never listened to her in the first place?”
The Live Through This lineup of Hole circa 1993 with Kristen Pfaff and Patty Schemel (photo unknown).
Wright added, “In the days before the internet was everywhere, and we were trading bootlegs through the mail, I didn’t have every little thing she had ever said or done laid out in front of me. I had the music of a woman who had obviously Seen Some Shit and was absolutely not afraid to tell you about it, and she wasn’t going to get her point across in weeping acoustic confessionals.”
Pretty On The Inside arrived in the world at a time when women were absolutely NOT allowed to be anything but graceful and demure, clean and pure specimens for consumption by the male gaze and if they were not those things…just look at how that played out for Courtney Love. Thirty years later, sure things have improved somewhat, but by how much? The incremental improvements that have been made can be traced back to albums like this and brash and bold women like Love who gave absolutely no fucks and took complete control of her own image no matter the stakes. She was going to say and do what she wanted to express the “unclean” and “dirty” thoughts and emotions inside of her and didn’t care what anyone thought about it. That was and still is a radical act as someone who is not a cis man in the public eye or even just existing in the world. Wright summed it up best saying “In 1991, Pretty On The Inside was a revelation, and it remains so to this day.”
Julien Baker returned to New York City for the first time since the end of 2018 to play her largest headlining show here to date. The show was at Beacon Theater, a gorgeous old fashioned venue on the Upper West Side that opened as a movie palace in 1929. She may be just about the only person who can get me to venture that far uptown or to see a show in a seated venue (something I still can’t get used to), but since I’ve managed to miss every other NYC gig she’s played due to my own past touring commitments, and then you- know- what came to town, I knew there was no way I was going to miss it. This may have been my first time seeing her play but it was well worth the wait.
Mini Trees opened the show and I admit I had not previously been familiar with them at all. After unfortunate subway issues had me running late, I got in without missing all that much and got to my seat at the start of the second song to settle in. This is the project of songwriter Lexi Vega, who bills herself as “living room pop.” I got a lot of (slightly less airy/ethereal) Grouper vibes, so this is a very apt description. She has new music due out this week, Always In Motion, via Run For Cover which is her debut full length after previous EPs and singles.
I have long been a fan of the “bedroom pop” genre which I first became aware of as a very DIY thing in the 90s (think Matthew Hattie Hein, very early Mountain Goats, some choice K Records 1980s output). Those earlier offerings were often executed with crappy four tracks or Radio Shack tape recorders and released on now very hard to find limited tapes and 7inches, so I have enjoyed seeing this new crop of artists doing things in the same vein with the ability to more widely release their music easily. While I do so much love that extremely unrefined approach of the earlier era, it is nice to hear newer artists carrying the torch, but with far superior equipment. The recordings are not only much cleaner, but with the ability to add synths and other elements as prices on those have dropped drastically over the years too and computers have made things very accessible, a lot of very interesting new material is now out in the world that has much more depth and many more layers but the same overall spirit. I really heard a lot of both the older life in Mini Trees as well as the signs of the newer era.
Mini Trees at Beacon Theater.
Thao played next and I had largely (and foolishly as it turns out) been unfamiliar with her work outside of her 2011 collaboration with Mirah. From the moment her set started til the very last note, I was captivated with every single song. I realize I look at the world through a very specific lens (aka DIY punk/hardcore of the 80s/90s variety) and that that informs a lot of my thought processes and the way I perceive many things, music obviously and especially, so I may be “punk projecting” here, but I very much heard and felt a lot of elements of 90s era Dischord bands. Thao’s set was layered with complexity, intricacy, and a vibrant intensity, though with a decidedly more measured delivery than some of those earlier bands, but the spirit still felt there for me. It almost invoked shades of Fugazi’s brilliant and nuanced final album, The Argument, at times. As I’ve perused some articles since the show and talked to a few friends, I may be one of the few people who has that take, but I’m fine with that.
Her backing band was also extremely on point, locked in together for a strong groove. I was impressed in particular by her drummer Francesca (thanks to my bad hearing from being a drummer myself, I did not catch a surname), who it turns out is also a member of the Long Island band Macseal. Chops for days and some really tight grooves, I absolutely was transfixed, particularly with the “drumming with one hand/two feet, synth with the other” parts of the set. Later into the set Thao announced a limited edition tour 7inch before the band launched into the A side, “Ambition,” and as they rocked through the closing quarter note triplets of the song, I almost jumped out of my seat then and there to go buy it (I did immediately after their set). I hope I can catch a headlining show next time Thao comes to NYC because this was one of the best sets I’ve seen since the return of going to shows regularly.
Thao limited edition tour 7inch.
Julien Baker took the stage at 9:30, with her full backing band accompanying her, and they promptly launched into the opener of Little Oblivions, “Hardline.” The shocking organ blast that announces the start of the album pulsing out from the stage as the lights went up made for a dramatic and welcome entry into the set. What followed was a narrative in three arcs – the band playing several songs together, a small group of older songs performed solo, with the band then returning to finish the set. Most of the songs were from the new record but there was still a healthy sprinkling of songs from her previous two albums, as well as the 2019 Sub Pop single, “Tokyo” (see below for full set list).
In the truly delightful and affable manner that Baker has in interviews and at shows, she thanked the crowd for coming multiple times, saying that it was a little scary and the stakes “felt higher” to play such a large venue and repeating that it was an honor to be there. She also thanked everyone for being vaccinated and wearing masks so that touring life and live music can continue even as the pandemic still has not abated. Later she quipped, after thanking the crowd yet again and saying she liked when people sang along, that she was not “lying for your validation, I’m practicing my standup comedy,” which of course was met with plenty of chuckles. At one point someone also yelled out “can we stand up?” to which she responded “You’re asking me? Of course you can if you want,” before reminding the crowd to be respectful of shorter people “because I’m short,” and people who were not able to stand.
Julien Baker at Beacon Theater.
While I had not seen Baker perform live before, I’d definitely seen videos, and being there in person is something that can’t be matched. Seeing her was all I had hoped it would be and the addition of the live band really added a significant depth. This was apparent particularly in the few older songs that had previously been solo but she reworked to include the band; “Shadowboxing,” and “Appointments,” being standouts. Hearing the few solo songs too was a treat, “Sprained Ankle,” especially, but I do wish I had not missed the boat in seeing these performed earlier in a smaller setting.
The interplay with her band on stage show they are obviously a tight knit group, she didn’t just hire some touring musicians to come along for the ride, this is a group of friends doing something they love together. You could particularly see this in her interactions with drummer Matthew Gilliam, who keen observers would remember played with Baker in her very first band that she started as a teenager, The Star Killers, who later changed their name to Forrister. She has now brought him into her touring band and with every crescendo and particularly intense moment, she turned towards the drum riser to lock in with him; their bond tangible and undeniable.
Julien Baker’s setlist. I took old school notes.
Baker had a wide assortment of merch, and being that I already have two of her shirts (and about 100 more of other bands), I definitely did not need any more tees, but I still wanted to get something to support her. My eye was caught by a small book in the display case so I asked to see it. It turned out it was a zine she had made featuring writing and comics. I had previously read and enjoyed her essays for Oxford American so this was the right purchase for me. I also love that – if you know what you’re looking at – there are little clues to her DIY roots dotted all over her work and so this particularly piqued my punk nerd interest in that way too. (Again, perhaps this is me “punk projecting” in everything I see, but it’s informed decades of my life at this point so it’s a hard habit to break.)
“Loss Protocol Volume One” by Julien Baker.
After the show I sat in the park with a friend for a bit and then took a late night walk around Manhattan, something I’ve always loved doing but don’t always have the time for. This led to me having to wait longer for a train back to Queens so I sat in the station and started to flip through the zine while I waited. I was not expecting what I started to read, staggering with a distinct directness. I won’t divulge the contents here, because it is deeply personal and I don’t feel it’s my place to do so like this is a book report. But I do recommend you get a copy yourself because it was astonishing in its candid frankness – again, things I did not expect to read or even be privy to as someone who does not know her personally – a very raw insight into her experiences and emotions during 2019 and 2020. Much like her lyrics, the material doesn’t hold back, but it delves even deeper and in a much more specific way. This is not to say that is a bad thing at all, quite the contrary in fact. It was a look into her life not through a media outlet asking her the same questions a dozen others have already asked, but her tale in her words because she wanted to tell it. Much like her songs themselves, it was a startling revelation. I almost missed the train when it rolled up I was so entrenched; I later almost missed the transfer from the 2 to the 7 for the same reason.
Queer joy is something Baker has always been vocal about, and it truly is a palpable thing that we can find everywhere, in everything if we want to. Indie rock shows, personal zines, late night walks through Manhattan in the comfortable warmth of a waning summer. Just look, it’s there.
Reading “Loss Protocol” on the downtown 2 train.
Scroll down for pics of the show (photos by Kate Hoos)
Les Savy Fav played their first show back in the (semi) after times on Sunday 9/12 at Market Hotel which was also their first hometown show since early 2019. Like any LSF show, it was a doozy and came with all the crowd interaction, outfit changes and antics fans know and love from them. Lead singer Tim Harrington absolutely did not disappoint and definitely didn’t hold back, much to the delight of the fans.
The audience did lean a bit to the older side, more middle aged punk and indie heads like me than a wild young bunch, so things never got too out of hand crowd wise. People were having fun and dancing, there was a good helping of sweat and spilled beer too as one would expect, but a full on mosh pit that would have had me hiding in a corner with my camera never broke out much to my relief. This is not to say it was not an active crowd because it very much was, and I ran around a lot dodging people to get shots, but it was an overall chill vibe at the same time. It is always very nice to be able to “get into it” but also not have to worry if I’m going to get hurt or my camera mangled. I joked to my friends at the show that it was “old people rowdy” (which I can because I am old!) and I can really dig a show that is active and fun like this, but not ridiculous and unsafe for smaller folks/non men/photographers who want to be up front and enjoy.
Heavy Lag opened and walloped the crowd with their infectious raw garagey power pop, quickly and easily winning them over. The band is relatively new on the scene as a unit, but the individual members are veterans of several other Brooklyn punk bands, most notably some old friends and favorites, Ellen and the Degenerates. They may have the “new band” label, but they all bring a lot of experience to the table and have the songwriting chops to back it up. Thus far they have been busy and pushing full speed ahead, releasing a string of singles- the latest being the fuzzy bouncing “Ditch My Shadow,“- and have more shows coming up, the next being on 9/28 at Brooklyn Monarch (with Get Dead and Make War). They also have winter recording plans to get their first full length ready. I’ve really loved the two shows I’ve been at so far (see pics from a recent show here) and was really happy for them to get such a great opportunity to open for Les Savy Fav. I too am very ready for the upcoming album; this is definitely a band to keep an eye on.
Les Savy Fav started their set a few minutes late but didn’t leave fans waiting too long fortunately; Harrington arrived on stage in peak form with a broom and in an alien mask which he soon shed along with his shirt (several times over). I have been listening to them for over 15 years at this point (and even have a Frenchkiss Records logo tattoo which I showed Syd at the merch table; He very much appreciated that and very generously gave me some free swag), yet somehow this was my first time seeing them since life and other things always seemed to find ways to keep me from missing past shows.
Les Savy Fav at Market Hotel
I knew it would be a wild time as I had definitely seen videos over the years but had yet to experience it myself firsthand. That was soon put to rest as I was very quickly initiated into the fold with Harrington jumping off the stage and freak dancing with me within the first five minutes of the show (ha!). A wonderful introduction to the weird world and total experience of a Les Savy Fav show if I do say so myself! Their set list ranged throughout their catalog, and I was particularly excited getting to hear “Hold Onto Your Genre,” and “Meet Me Where the Sweat Descends,” both songs from 2004’s Inches, the singles 1995-2004 collection, which has long been one of my favorite albums.
The band was locked in super tight with each other on stage- the rhythm section pulsing, the guitars shimmering and echoing- playing almost stoically behind Harrington in their signature way while he continuously climbed on amps, poked them, jumped around and repeatedly worked the crowd; I ran from front to back of the venue more than once keeping up with him! When editing the pictures, it was hard to pare some of it down too because I captured so many antics and so many shots of him being the incredible performer that he is, how do you decide?! I didn’t even catch all of it because just so much was going on overall and I needed to take breaks at times, but still had so much to work with. All that is to say that, aside from being a great live act, they really are a dream band for a photographer; I love when it’s a push and pull and I have to work and react on a dime to things rather than just standing there pointing my camera at the stage.
It was an absolutely electrifying show and I really found myself so immersed in being in that space. And even though things were moving so quickly and the energy was so high, when they started to wind down and then finished, I was disappointed and thought to myself “wait really it’s already over?” because it felt like things were just beginning even still at the end of the night. But it was indeed the end and the band walked off stage to happy cheers and applause (they also did not return for an encore) from a crowd that was very pleased to get to have a night like this again after so long of not being able to do things like this. I am very sorry for myself that I waited so long to see them play for the first time, but I definitely will not make the mistake of not prioritizing whenever their next show is.
And very early the next morning when I got up for a freelance job that required me to leave my house before sunrise, I knew no matter what aches and pains I was feeling in that moment, I was still buzzing with excitement and had been EXACTLY where I needed to be the night before.
Scroll down for pics of the show (photos by Kate Hoos)
I’ve found myself on the rooftop of OWL a lot lately and I tell ya, its a good place to be. I was originally supposed to work on this night, but the venue I work at has had some cancelations recently (due to concerns about you know what), so I figured why not take the opportunity to head out for some fun on an unexpected free night? There were a few shows going on, but I knew Gal Fieri was playing and I loved their set the last time I saw them so it made it an easy choice where I was going to go.
They opened the show but unfortunately had to play a bit of a shorter set this time since they started a little late and the venue has a curfew for the rooftop; they seemed to be just hitting their stride when they ended. I was bummed they didn’t play longer, but they brought the big riff energy to the set regardless of length and really have a fun stage presence that makes is so easy to immediately get into their music. They are hitting the ground running and have several shows coming up (check their Instagram at the link above for dates), so I’ll have another chance soon to catch them. They have not recorded yet and from what their bassist Laura Toth told me, they are still getting their bearings as a brand new band but hope to do so in the future. I very much hope for this too!
I at first I thought I was unfamiliar with The Senior Year, but soon realized that while I apparently missed the memo on this group, I did know who most of them were outside of the project. They share two members with Mean Siders, lead guitarist Katie Ortiz and drummer Shannon Minor. I had seen Mean Siders play a few times before and while Ortiz fronts that band and plays rhythm guitar, in The Senior Year she does not sing at all and is on lead guitar; It was very cool to see her in this other role along with more of her guitar skills on display. The band also shares members with Sorry Darling, who all have different roles in that band to what they have in The Senior Year as well (singer Tasha Jokic is the drummer of Sorry Darling, rhythm guitarist Liz Wagner Biro is the bassist of Sorry Darling). I have not seen Sorry Darling in person but have seen videos so I was familiar with them and I love to see multi talented folks and them showing off different skill sets so this was very fun.
They describe themselves as “Brooklyn based British indie pop,” and I think that is an extremely good description, as I definitely heard notes of the classic C86 sound. And with a singer from the UK…it is bound to find its way in there, would be a crime not to really! There were also notes of country and even some Americana twang, particularly from Ortiz’s guitar work. They are a newer project so have not recorded yet, but I’ll be keeping my eye on them for sure.
The Unders I was totally unfamiliar with before the show but they were a nice treat and a great discovery. Surfy, poppy garage, bubble gummy punk, dash of post punk…it’s a nice melting pot of those sounds and all would be good terms to sum them up. Whatever words you want to use to describe them, they absolutely have a really fun bouncy vibe to them with catchy songs and I found myself bopping along throughout their set. At some point near the end of the set, their guitarist’s pedal chain had a patch cable fail creating a bunch of static so he was given an assist by The Rizzos bassist who held it in place before the cable could be swapped out. Go for the music, stay for the community, love to see it!
The Rizzos closed the night out and are one of those bands that I have known about forever but somehow always managed to miss play, I don’t even know how, but I did. I obviously didn’t have a chance to for the last year and half either, but this was their first full set back and now my “just missing them” streak is broken. They are full on, fun fuzzy indie rock with a healthy dose of garage and absolutely had the whole crowd moving. Their bassist has an effects heavy rig and could easily slide right into a noise rock band, pulling some DFA 1979-esque squeals from the amp several times throughout the set. He also managed to pull some blood from his finger from shredding so hard which got patched up by someone in the crowd halfway through the set, again community here! The whole band has great energy and stage presence and I do hope I don’t have another long streak of missing their shows because that would just be a damn shame.
Scroll down for pics of the show (photos by Kate Hoos).
Keith Haring is, and always has been, an icon. There is no other way to describe him. It’s hard for me to think of him at times without getting very emotional about his immense talent and life, and what the world lost when he died of AIDS related complications in 1990. It also particularly hurts because if only he’d lived just a little longer, the treatments and drug cocktails that saved so many people’s lives started to get better and more stable just a few years after he died and he might have survived had he been able to get that treatment.
While I certainly knew what AIDS was as a child in the 1980s, I knew it more as this scary nebulous monster that came to “get” people; I didn’t know that so much of what was actually “getting” people was ignorance from blatant homophobia and racism informing baseless fears and gross government and medical inaction. I was too young to fully understand what was happening during that era, but when I got older, I learned the full story and ever since my heart has remained absolutely broken for every early victim of the AIDS pandemic. So many vibrant souls who might have been saved had the medical establishment and the Reagan government valued their lives and treated them with dignity. If the people in power at the time had taken things even 10% more seriously Keith Haring, and tens of thousands of others who were not celebrities, might still be here today had they gotten the treatment and medical care they so desperately needed and deserved.
While Haring may be gone for over three decades now, he has been a constant presence in pop culture regardless, and to me at least, it feels like he never truly went away. I recognize that may also because I have been deeply connected to the queer world my entire adult life and he remains even more of an icon in that realm, an important would be elder that so many of us still acutely feel the loss of today. Along with his staying power in the queer world, he still is found all over in mainstream culture as well and his style is as fresh and familiar as it was 40 years ago when he was first bursting onto the art scene in New York City. His work still regularly adorns items from t shirts to toys, pillows to Polaroid cameras, and I often see Gen Z aged folks who were born a decade or more after his death wearing shirts and other items with his art.
That being said, I find an odd disconnect sometimes, as many people my age and older recognize Haring’s art but don’t know his name since it’s not a household name these days. And for the young adults a generation or more behind me, they recognize it too but assume it’s just a “brand” (which I suppose it is but certainly not in the 2021 context of a “brand”). The common thread is both these groups often can’t connect the art and the name when I mention Keith Haring without one of his works visible. I always respond to this with “no you KNOW him, trust me” and then Google something for them to look at. I just said this very thing to my brother when I mentioned I would be traveling to see this show with our mom; He didn’t recognize the name but he immediately recognized the work and smiled when I showed him a picture- that is the staying power Haring’s art has had on people’s psyches, you see it and just KNOW.
The whole point of this exhibit is to address this disconnect and introduce and familiarize a new generation with his work, or in the case of middle aged guys like my brother, to reacquaint them. As per the museum’s website: Fenimore Art Museum celebrates both the icon and his iconography in Keith Haring: Radiant Vision, a premier exhibition that introduces a new generation to Haring. Featuring an extensive collection of lithographs, silkscreens, drawings on paper, and posters, the exhibition describes the full arc of Haring’s short but prolific career. Visitors will instantly recognize seminal images like “Radiant Baby”—images that permeated American culture in the 1980s, became emblematic of the time, and are powerful examples of how Haring fought for change, using art as a platform for activism. The exhibition features over 100 works from a private collection working in tandem with the Fenimore as a tribute to this iconic artist and his dedication to social justice and the betterment of youth worldwide.
The exhibit was a mixture of work he personally created, as well as some silk screen prints that were dated 1990 and 1993 which while it was not made clear, I assumed were made by authorized printers instead of by Haring himself. This obviously was the case for the prints dated to 1993 but I also assume that the 1990 prints were also created in this manner as he died in February of 1990 and was in the hospital for the final weeks of his life. I was also very excited to see some of his pencil drawings and particularly one his very early subway chalk drawings which date to the early 1980s; I had never seen any of these in person before. A few of the commercial advertising pieces he did I had never seen either, such as his collaboration with Richard Avedon featuring Brooke Shields. Of course it was also a delight to see large silk screened prints of the Radiant Baby and Three Eyed Smiling Face, even if they were likely not personally printed by Haring, they are still impressive to see up close. Those images are among his very best known, iconic images of the 1980s which are such a clear memories from my childhood; I really can’t remember a time in my life when I was not conscious of them.
As mentioned, I do get very emotional at times when thinking about Keith Haring- his beautiful life and his tragic early death- and I did get a little overcome when first sitting down to type this up. But I found that when I was in the room with his work, I felt no sadness at all. Being amongst his work and his energy- because I did feel it there- I felt nothing buy joy and happiness which perhaps is the greatest gift he gave to the world, not just his art, but the joy that came with it. The staying power he has had is incredible and I hope many more generations continue to see his work and know more about his remarkable life and career. His light will always live on and radiate into the ether as long as new generations experience all he had to offer.
Keith Haring’s official website features hundreds of images of his work sorted by year from 1979-1990, as well as extensive biographical and exhibit information and Haring in his own words.
Scroll down to see photos from the exhibit (all artwork copyright The Keith Haring Foundation; included photographic images copyright the individual photographers; photos of this exhibit by Kate Hoos).