Lick Fat Boys: Keith Haring’s Cut-Up Genealogy

Still from Keith Haring's "Lick Fat Boys" (all images courtesy the Keith Haring Foundation)

Still from Keith Haring’s “Lick Fat Boys” (all images, unless otherwise noted, courtesy the Keith Haring Foundation)

Keith Haring thinks in poems
Keith Haring paints poems
Poems do not necessarily need words
Words do not necessarily make poems
–Keith Haring, October 14, 1978 journal entry

Certainly  known more for his radiant babies, barking dogs, three-eyed faces and vibrating break-dancers than linguistic subversion, Keith Haring’s art has long been understood in the context of the burgeoning bold and bright graffiti and street art scene covering the subway trains and walls in the bad old days of bankrupt and desolate 1970s New York.

However, the exhibition Keith Haring: Languagescurrently on view until February 28th at Fales Library and Special Collections at New York University, shakes up this assumed view of Haring’s artistic genealogy by focusing on his early experiments with language, putting Haring into a new, more transgressive and, yes, queerer context. Not to say there is nothing queer about graffiti, but that is a subject for another essay (and most likely, a lot of hate mail).

Curated by Andew Blackley, Keith Haring: Languages fills Fales’ exhibition space with over 130 works from drawings and exercises detailing Haring’s almost mathematical breakdown of  the cut-up technique to videos playing with semiotics and permutation poetry.

And here is the crux of the exhibition’s significance: Let me ask you, dear filthy readers, who do you think of when you see cut-ups and permutation poetry? That’s right, Mary! Our favorite filth elders William S. Burroughs and Brion Gysin.

In mid-December, the exhibition opened with a corresponding symposium on Keith Haring’s linguistic experimentations with speakers such as MoMA’s Laura Hoptman and artist Scott Treleaven, who both spoke beautifully on Haring’s relation to Burroughs and Gysin. While they covered much of the same territory I will in this essay, I think it is an important topic to continually revisit considering most art historians have refused to understand Haring’s artistic creations in this context. Sorry, art historians, you may have to do some interdisciplinary research! So sad!

Some of Keith Haring's linguistic experiments in Keith Haring: Languages

Some of Keith Haring’s linguistic experiments in Keith Haring: Languages

While Keith Haring: Languages and the symposium are both rather revolutionary, the link between Haring, Burroughs and Gysin is nothing new if you pay attention to Haring’s frequent assertions in his journals of the significance of Burroughs and Gysin to his own work. Not only were Burroughs and Gysin enormous influences on his work, but Haring became friends with both writers, seeing them as artistic mentors.

According to Haring, an important moment in the development of his art was his witnessing of the Nova Convention in 1978 as a student at the School of Visual Arts. Listening to William S. Burroughs, as well as Timothy Leary, John Giorno and others, both altered the direction of his future work and gave him context to understand his early drawings, writings  and performances.

As Haring wrote in his journal on January 11, 1979, “The major influence, although it is not the sole influence, has been the work of William S. Burroughs. His profound realizations, which I encountered in radio broadcasts of the Nova Convention, and in the book The Third Mind by Burroughs and Brion Gysin, which I have just begun to read, are beginning to tie up a lot of loose ends in my own work and thinking” (31).

Looking at the various works in Keith Haring: Languages, the sudden influence of Burroughs is unmistakable in his linguistic discoveries and recorded videos. For example, his video “Phonics,” featuring some of his now famous SVA classmates such as Kenny Scharf, is a neon-tinged ode to the cut-up technique as his friends recite random syllables to the camera.

However, my personal favorite video and series of poetic experimentations are his prolific manipulations of “Lick Fat Boys.” Explaining at length this body of work, Haring reveals, as quoted in his enormous catalogue published in 2008:

“On Canal Street I had found this little place that was selling signs and I found a stack of letters that were printed on this glossy paper. They were just large letters, one letter on each page, and there were thirteen letters in this stack. I took the thirteen letters to my apartment and started to rearrange them to make whatever words I would. Out of these thirteen letters, I came up with the phrases that became the basis for a year of work: “art art boys sin as if no if no art lick fat boys.” I started doing every permutation that I could do with those letters, and then I did kind of constructivist word pieces with typewriters. I visited Kermit Oswald in Kutztown and we did all these things on mimeograph machines where I’d type out these words and they were printing them on top of each other and all these words are getting piled up. I also did performance things like recording into tape recorders and having tape recorders playing at the same time. (36).

Particularly, Haring’s hilarious permutations of these letters via both a typewriter and the mimeograph machine, directly correspond to Brion Gysin’s own experiments with permutation poetry, as well as the mathematical process of concrete poetry. Taking phrases such as “I am that I am,” “Kick that habit man” and “Junk is no good baby,” Gysin rearranged these phrases into as many permutations as possible. Like Haring, Gysin also experimented with recording these poems.

As Gysin notes of his poems in “The Cut-Ups Self-Explained,” “The permutation poems set the words spinning off on their own; echoing out as the words of a potent phrase are permutated into an expanding ripple of meaning which they did not seem to be capable of when they were stuck into that phrase” (77).

With startling phrases like “lick fat boys,” and “art if boys lick,” Haring transforms these random letters into a homoerotic and utterly queer subversion of language, gaining a meaning, like Gysin points out, that did not seem capable previously.

After studying the works in Keith Haring: Languages, the linguistic play in Haring’s later paintings and drawings comes into focus as a similarly poetic endeavor to these videos and poems.  Using images instead of text, Haring states, “In painting, words are present in the form of images. Paintings can be poems if they are read as words instead of images” (10).

Brion Gysin, Ivy, 1959 (via

Brion Gysin, Ivy, 1959 (via

Certainly lesser known than his cut-ups, Gysin also created calligraphic paintings and drawings,  investigating and questioning language through the drawn sign. Through his own calligraphic language, resembling Arabic, Gysin’s paintings featured the almost unrecognizable letters “BG,” his initials. As Laura Hoptman explains in the catalogue Dream Machine, “Gysin was less interested in promulgating his artistic persona than in calling into question the meaning of the linguistic sign, even one as specific as a signature. Rather than promoting, his authorship, the aim of Gysin’s repetitive invocation of his name was to erase it” (63-4). Through his constant rewriting of his initials, Gysin’s paintings have been also understood as a peculiar foreshadowing of the nearly illegible graffiti tags sprayed on city walls.

Keith Haring, Untitled, 1980, black ink on poster board

Keith Haring, Untitled, 1980, black ink on poster board

Similarly, Keith Haring’s paintings and drawings reflect a similar probing of the linguistic sign. As Haring questioned in his journals, “Can imagery exist (communicate) in the form of words? Foreign languages, undeciphered alphabets can be beautiful, can express without a knowledge of the meaning of the words” (10).

By placing Haring into the context of Burroughs and Gysin, Keith Haring: Languages allows for a different, and perhaps less tired, understanding of Keith Haring’s work through the lens of poetry. Haring himself saw his friendship with Burroughs and Gysin as a part of of a lineage of a “brotherhood” of gay male artists, as well as his own artistic place in this lineage.

Haring recalls, “They initiated me, in a way, into this “brotherhood” by sharing with me some of the secrets and intimacies of their lives as young, gay artists. There is a very real historical line that can be traced all the way back. Brion knew all about this. He spoke of it very eloquently and, although thoroughly more intelligent than me, never talked down to me, but talked to me as if I were also a part of this. Through his confidence in me and his assurance and analogies to my historical counterparts, I began to accept the fact that I am part of this, whether history will accept it or not” (144).

As art critics, writers, historians or just rabid Haring super-fans, it is our duty to continue to investigate this significant and perhaps revitalizing genealogy of queer artists subverting language through a series of similar techniques.

With this oh-so-exciting opening up of possibilities for understanding Haring’s art, it only seems right to finish this essay with a few statements from Haring’s gushingly ecstatic journal entry from 1979 in Pittsburgh, PA (Yinzers represent!):

 “It started with JOHN GIORNO and BURROUGHS at the Nova Convention in December 1978. It’s reading CAGE and starting my first recording with four cassettes at SVA in February. It’s the poetries of video-tape and BARBARA BUCKNER. It’s BURROUGHS and GINSBERG and GIORNO upstairs at the MUDD CLUB. It’s living with DREW B. STRAUB who was reading BURROUGHS thoroughly…


It’s July 4 on the top of the Empire State Building after reading an ART SIN BOY mimeograph at Club 57 watching fireworks and thinking about the smile exchanged on the street and nothing but a second glance and lots of dreaming” (45).

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