Many of the works in this comprehensive exhibit at the De Young Museum (San Francisco) are being publicly presented for the first time, several on loan from the Keith Haring Foundation, Brooklyn, New York, [In March 2012, a retrospective exhibit of Haring’s work, Keith Haring: 1978-1982, opened at the Brooklyn Museum in New York. See my May 2012 review ] The imagery of Haring remains vital to the universally recognized visual language of the late 20th century. His enduring vision and critique of global problems is as relevant today as it was almost a quarter of a century ago.
More than 130 works, including large-scale paintings on tarpaulins and canvases, sculptures, and a number of the artist’s subway drawings, totems, and masks yield an extraordinary display of Haring’s responses to nuclear proliferation, racism, violence, the excesses of capitalism, environmental degradation, computer ascendancy, and perhaps especially gay culture. The political is deeply personal.
Haring’s work has long been a part of San Francisco’s culture., including Untitled (Three Dancing Figures) (1989) displayed in front of the Moscone Convention Center, and The Life of Christ (1990) in the AIDS Chapel at Grace Cathedral. New York also provided Haring’s most vibrant venue for subway and mural art.
His career was brief, intense, and prolific. By the time of his death, at age 31, from AIDS he had achieved international fame and celebrity status. His last two years’ work seems to me to reflect a change: dripping paint and dots embedded like blemishes in the solid lines—ominous and heartbreaking.
In an informative video, more of a home movie, we see the artist as a young man literally painting himself into a corner as he spontaneously paints a dramatic and complex labyrinth of lines, angles, and human figures on a room-size canvas while moving on all fours. Using Japanese black sumi ink and without any drawn image as a guide, Haring paints furiously, rapidly, and confidently, never hesitating or going over previous lines no matter how complex or long. The humor is obvious, the anger also evident. His dictionary of symbols and icons is never overdone: lines and dots connecting at angles (influenced by Indonesian and Oceanic tribal art), barking dogs, cartoonish humans and babies, and penises. He also cared greatly about children’s well being, the fight against drug addiction, and bringing an end to the AIDS epidemic.
The collection includes the fiberglass Statue of Liberty, his car covered with his iconic figures and black lines, body parts both male and female, woodcuts, three-dimensional masks, and pages from sketch books and tarps. It’s almost impossible not to be swayed by the heartfelt ethos, political visualizations of injustice, and sexual identity.
See “The Political LIne” before it ends on February 16.