Keith Haring (1958-1990): The Political Line (November 8-February 16, 2015)

IMG_1552Many 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.IMG_1583

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.

IMG_1555The 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.



Keith Haring–A Shape-Changer

Last week while we were in New York City, we stopped by the Brooklyn Museum   to see a retrospective   Keith Haring: 1978–1982.

The Haring exhibit presents rarely seen archival  works, including seven videos, and artist notebooks of Haring’s evolution as an artist dating back to his time as a student at the School of Visual Arts in New York.  As an openly gay artist who died of AIDS before his 32nd birthday, Haring was just gaining momentum when his life ended.  Some of the pages from his remarkable diary/notebooks can be viewed online ( and expose the reader not only to his creative insights but also to his daily reflections–more memoir than manual.

The exuberance and childlike energy of Haring’s art reverberates loud and strong.  Dazzling, eye-catching compositions without subtlety or hesitation, are rendered in primary colors of red, blue, and yellow with a liberal use of black and white. Wriggling lines, small dots and dashes like Morse code painted with  sumi ink, charcoal, gouache and collaged newspaper headlines in mixed media compositions–all  pay tribute to the contribution Keith Haring made not only to fine art but to its cousin, graphic design.

Keith Haring’s intellect is formidable, revealing a fascination with calligraphy, hieroglyphics, and semiotics.  Almost all of his art represents an unwavering attraction to the form and meaning of text.  Linear thinking, often considered the death knell of creativity, is exploited in his art, transformed into the purest of lines, shapes, and angles not unlike letters and numbers.  The directness of line is not delicate.

The paradox of the child’s primary colors with images of babies and dogs only underscores the aggressiveness in some of the outlines, with just the slightest humor, restlessness and whimsy to intrigue and entice the onlooker. Humor and an erotic honesty (only subversively expressed prior to Haring), are displayed with a seemingly childlike obliviousness to response. His enthusiasm is contagious!

  Visit the exhibit online ( and  enjoy the geometric constellations of line, form and color in some of Keith Haring’s best work.