Julia Gruen Finds Her Voice

The executive director of the Keith Haring Foundation
Julia Gruen spends every weekend she can at the Water Mill carriage house where she summered as a child. Morgan McGivern

It can be challenging to make a mark on the world when your parents are as accomplished as Julia Gruen’s. With a revered artist for a mother and a consummate and prolific writer and photographer for a father, it took all of her adolescence and much of her young adulthood for her to find her own identity.

Yet even now, as executive director of the Keith Haring Foundation, she finds herself speaking for and about someone else. So it was out of character for her to sit down in Haring’s former Greenwich Village studio, now the foundation’s headquarters, to chat about a subject quite near to her but also somewhat foreign, namely herself.

As well-known photographs by her father can attest, John Gruen and Jane Wilson raised their daughter in New York City and Water Mill (with regular trips to Europe), entertaining some of the most notable American artists of the 20th century. As a small child, she can be seen padding about the likes of Willem de Kooning, Larry Rivers, Fairfield Porter, Jasper Johns, and Robert Rauschenberg at her parents’ many summer drinks parties at their house and on the beach.

The couple put a down payment on their Water Mill  carriage house in 1960 after Ms. Wilson sold a work to the Museum of Modern Art. “My mother thought it was the craziest idea my father had had up to that point, but of course she loves it.” They are not there much anymore now that both are hovering around the age of 90. The property is now in Ms. Gruen’s name and she gets there when she can. “I can’t let it go for too long or I get cranky,” she said of missing the weekends she spends there.

Mr. Gruen has written throughout his life about culture for publications like New York magazine, The New York Herald Tribune, and The New York Times. Ms. Wilson’s paintings have been praised by some of the most influential writers and critics of the past century. She began showing her work in New York in the 1950s. In 1960, she painted a portrait of Andy Warhol now in the collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art. Ms. Gruen said of those earlier days, “My parents had an intense social life. They were great party givers.” Still, she does not remember much from those days aside from the pictures and the painters, composers, conductors, dancers, and other cultural figures who populated them.

At an early age she wanted nothing more than to be a classic ballerina, an art form she loved and one that was separate from her parents’ talents. At the age of 8, she began studying at the School of American Ballet after school at Hunter College Elementary. Her parents were living in the East Village at the time, on Tompkins Square. “It was a wonderful, peaceful creative community,” she recalled. By the late 1960s, however, heroin use in the park became rampant and the area went downhill quickly. The family moved uptown to an apartment her parents have to this day in the West 80s, not far from where the ballet school was before it moved to Lincoln Center.

In adolescence, Ms. Gruen’s height became an issue. In 2014, “dancers come in different sizes, they did then too, but not as extreme,” she said. “The writing was on the wall when I was 13 or 14. I didn’t need to be told, but I was told, ‘You work very hard, and you’re suited for it, but you’re not strong enough for your height.’ ”

It was devastating, yet she continued to fight for it. She graduated high school at 16 and left the School of American Ballet for a scholarship at the American Ballet Theatre School, but after a couple of years it was the same problem. “In retrospect I was a bit of a fool. I was so fixated on the New York City Ballet,” other companies or dance forms “never entered my thinking.” While there were also options in European companies for a more unusual physique and type, “I just could not be persuaded to try anything like that. I became my own worst enemy and shut down.”

Her father’s deep involvement with the New York dance community through his writing at the time contributed some added pressure. “It was my life, but it was his life, too. I had a stage father, not a stage mother.” Ms. Wilson, the pragmatist in the couple, tried to get her to refocus.

After diversions into waitressing, retail, and modeling (a two-year stint that included trips to Paris and being photographed by Richard Avedon), she eventually applied and was accepted at Columbia University at the age of 21, when most of her peers there were 18 and many were visiting New York for the first time. “I was the jaded and cynical New Yorker going to Mudd Club and Studio 54, coming from a cultured life. I didn’t have a lot of patience for them, but I loved what I studied.”

After Columbia she found a job in a gallery and then did some writing, but was still casting about when she was hired by the Tony Shafrazi Gallery in 1984 to be Keith Haring’s studio assistant. Although Ms. Gruen was aware of him, she did not know him and better yet, neither did her parents. When they met, it became clear that they shared the same wider social circle. They hit it off immediately.

She organized his work life and his social life as well. Right away she began putting together what would become a series of Parties of Life that he celebrated around his birthday. The first one was held at the Paradise Garage on King Street, Haring’s favorite club. One of her tasks was to find props for the entertainer of the evening. These included “a brass bed, ridiculously frilly sheets, and four dozen white roses.” Madonna, who came to the city and broke through about the same time as Haring, performed “Dress You Up” that night and premiered “Like a Virgin,” which would be released on an album later that year.

More parties, more artwork, projects with school kids, and the opening of the artist’s Pop Shop followed. Andy Warhol was a constant presence, and celebrities and club-going were part of the experience. Then, just as quickly as life moved in these circles, Haring was diagnosed with AIDS in 1988. Having lost a number of friends to the disease, he decided to establish a place to continue his legacy and help AIDS organizations and children’s programs. In 1989, he set up the Keith Haring Foundation and made Ms. Gruen its director. He died the following year.

Since then, Ms. Gruen said she has worked at both sides of the mission, expanding the artist’s reach and promoting his legacy through exhibitions, scholarship, and educational initiatives, including a recent iPad app that tells the story of the artist and his art. She also oversees the self-supporting foundation's grant-making activities, distributing funds which to date exceed $10 million.

The foundation also assists with preserving Haring's existing public murals around the world in places as diverse as Pisa, Paris, Melbourne and New York City, site of his still-most-visible “Crack Is Wack” mural. His Pop Shop ceiling is permanently installed over the admissions desk at the New York Historical Society and there have been recent museum exhibitions all over the world, including one at the Brooklyn Museum in 2012 devoted to his early works, which also traveled to Vienna and Cincinnati.

On view now is a show of his paintings from the 1980s at the Gladstone Gallery in New York City through June 14. Several of his sculptures are up at 17 State Street in the city as well. In November, the de Young Museum in San Francisco will open “Keith Haring: The Political Line” with works from the foundation and other important loans, which will travel to Munich and Rotterdam.

The foundation has made significant contributions to initiatives that now bear the artist’s name such as the Keith Haring Food Pantry Program of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis; the Keith Haring School at the Association to Benefit Children in New York City; The Keith Haring Foundation Exhibition Fund at The Whitney Museum of American Art; The Keith Haring Director and Curator of Public Programs, New Museum; The Keith Haring Foundation – Project Street Beat Mobile Medical Unit, Planned Parenthood of NYC; and the Keith Haring Fellowship in Art and Activism at Bard College, among others."

“Keith and Julia,” the artist’s Picasso-esque self-portrait with Ms. Gruen, in acrylic and oil on canvas, was executed on Sept. 26, 1986. Keith Haring Foundation