Haring’s Pop Shop Fizzles Out

Photo: James Leynse

How do you preserve something that was probably never meant to be preserved in the first place? In the case of Keith Haring’s Pop Shop, the answer is to start with the ceiling and cross your fingers.

On Sunday, August 28, after almost twenty years of business, the store, on Lafayette just south of Houston, will close—a living, breathing eighties artifact that somehow couldn’t survive, even in an age of mass eighties revivalism. “When the shop opened, with Keith’s favorite dance music blaring incessantly, it felt like a private clubhouse,” recalls Julia Gruen, the Haring foundation’s executive director. But “Keith was above all practical, and sadly now the rent has increased to a point where we can no longer sell enough product to break even.” Which is a bit ironic, since Haring once said he was “scared to death” of critics attacking the project as being too commercial.

Still, it’s out of the question to vacate the place without first trying to excavate what made it so unique. The shop’s walls, floor, and ceiling are all one continuous mural that Haring painted in 1986, four years before he died of AIDS.

But the artist certainly left no instructions for its preservation. That the Pop Shop still existed in 2005 would, if anything, have amused him. “I’m almost positive he would not have kept it open as long as it was,” says his biographer, John Gruen (Julia’s father). “He would have wanted to move on to something even bigger in scope.”

“I don’t think Keith cared about forever,” says Amy Cappellazzo, co-head of contemporary art at Christie’s International. “It was about the impact of the moment, an electricity and verve that was very immediate. I don’t imagine he thought this [mural] would exist in perpetuity. If he did, he wouldn’t have made art that’s so difficult to conserve.”

Gruen’s team focused on the ceiling largely because it’s the only original portion of the mural left. (The walls had been restored and the floors were bleached over after the mural was scuffed off.)

Throughout it all, the ceiling remained in “pretty good shape.” Still, there are no guarantees that what went up will come down. “It’s plaster, I’m sure,” says Cappellazzo, “and they’ll have to do extensive work with the electrical and plumbing to make sure it’s out of harm’s way.”

It’ll cost “between $20,000 and $40,000 just to extract the ceiling,” Gruen adds. “It’ll have to be cut into many pieces simply to get it out the door.” (If all goes well, they may still decide to try to preserve the walls.)

After it’s gone, the ceiling will be stored in a warehouse, awaiting some final home that probably won’t be a Park Avenue apartment. Unlike Untitled #4, a 60-by-60-foot acrylic from 1988 that set a record for a Haring when it sold for $511,000 last year, “the market won’t treat this as something made with the intention of being a framed work on a wall,” says Cappellazzo. She dismisses the idea that it would be sold. “I hope it has a life in some place like the New-York Historical Society.

“This is such an end of an era,” she adds with a sigh. “Once you can’t walk on Lafayette and see the shop, it’s the end of personal nostalgia, and the beginning of history.”

Where You Can Still See Public Works by Haring(1) FDR Drive at 128th Street, Crack Is Wack, 1986: Only Haring could make ghoulish skulls look almost cheerful.(2) Woodhull Hospital, Brooklyn, murals, 1986: Dancing kid-like figures painted in egg tempera.(3) Battery Park City, Acrobats, 1986: One squats, the other splits. (4) Carmine Street swimming pool, mural, 1987: Man and dolphin dance! Giant fish carries another man in mouth! (5) Lever House, Figure Balancing on Dog, 1986 (plus two other “dancing” sculptures, up through June 2006). (6) Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Community Center, mural, 1989: Racy bathroom art includes Haring’s take on an actual “one-eyed monster.”

Haring’s Pop Shop Fizzles Out