The Political Provocations of Keith Haring
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The Political Provocations of Keith Haring

Keith Haring, Reagan: Ready to Kill, 1980. Collection of the Keith Haring Foundation. © 2014 Keith Haring Foundation

In 1980, graffiti-inspired chalk drawings proliferated throughout New York’s underground subway. Keith Haring’s whimsical cartoonish iconography was everywhere. Zapping spaceships, pulsing TVs, barking dogs, crawling babies, flying angels, leaping porpoises, and smiling faces abounded. It was an aesthetic that, in time, would channel Haring’s activism–as a new exhibition and book demonstrate–against AIDS inaction, apartheid, and nuclear proliferation.

His tagging was quickly legitimized by the art world. His first gallery show was in 1982. One year later he was featured in biennials at the Whitney Museum and in São Paulo. Soon he was collaborating with Andy Warhol, Madonna, Grace Jones, Jenny Holzer, and Bill T. Jones in dance clubs, theaters, galleries, museums, and outdoor spaces. In 1984 he was in Minneapolis, creating a massive mural in the Walker’s concourse.

Keith Haring Mural, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, 1984

Haring’s artistic oeuvre expanded to included ink drawings, woodcut prints, paintings on tarpaulins and wood, aluminum sculptures, sets and costumes, and large-scale outdoor murals in New York, Tokyo, San Francisco, Paris, Melbourne, and on the Berlin Wall (some of which survive today). By 1986 his very own Pop Shop sold branded merchandise including pins, t-shirts, calendars, watches, magnets, and prints.

His HIV diagnosis in 1988 seemed to escalate Haring’s artistic output. He was ubiquitous, even designing a label for Absolut Vodka and a carousel for an amusement park in Hamburg. Two years later, at the age of 31, Haring died of AIDS. What he achieved in just ten years of public art making is astounding.

Keith Haring, Untitled, 1981. Private collection, courtesy of Museum der Moderne Salzburg. © 2014 Keith Haring Foundation

Since his death, there have been many museum retrospectives worldwide. His work was last seen at the Walker in the exhibition This Will Have Been: Art Love & Politics in the 1980s in 2012. The most recent display is at the de Young Museum in San Francisco (closing February 16, 2015). What is distinctive about this exhibition, Keith Haring: The Political Line, is how his effervescent candy-colored pop aesthetic is viewed through the artist’s political activism.

Even before his furtive subway chalk drawings, Haring was guerilla-style posting absurdist agitprop collages on walls and lampposts cut-up from New York Post headlines: “REAGAN’S DEATH COPS HUNT POPE.” A few of these early ironic works are featured, along with some of the subway pieces.

Keith Haring, Untitled (Apartheid), 1984. Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam. © 2014, Keith Haring Foundation

As his fame grew, Haring remained dedicated to grassroots activism, and this commitment is aptly on view. For an anti-nuke rally in 1982, he produced 20,000 copies of a poster he freely handed out. Also fierce was his commitment to anti-racism, illustrated powerfully in a 1985 poster, Free South Africa, highlighting a black-silhouetted man with a white noose around his neck trampling a smaller white figure. His outdoor mural in Manhattan, Crack is Wack (1986), powerfully remains and is now a designated city landmark.

Child well-being was another major concern of the artist. Some of the large-scale murals he created with children are featured, including the one he made with 1,000 New York City kids celebrating the Statue of Liberty in 1986. Many are still installed in the hospitals, churches, and day care centers that originally commissioned them.

Keith Haring, Silence=Death, 1988. Private collection. © 2014 Keith Haring Foundation

Haring was always out as a gay man and donated myriad designs for LGBT causes: ACT-UP, National Coming Out Day, and Day Without Art/World AIDS Day. These images are viewed in elegiac relief, of a life too soon lost. Most potent perhaps is his 1988 Silence=Death acrylic on canvas of a pink triangle filled with his schematically outlined figures covering their eyes, ears, and mouths. Notebooks of numerous penis drawings he did in front of Tiffany’s and Museum of Modern Art are fun to see as well.

Prescient was his 1985 Untitled (Self-Portrait) painting, in which he covered his face with red spots. Already having lost so many friends from AIDS, Haring is quoted as saying, “I was living as if it was a reality.”

A rawer sexual energy imbues his later works as depictions of disease and death dominate. In these, amorphous, grotesque multi-limbed monsters are being penetrated through various orifices in a frenzied kinetic energy that portends new directions never fully realized with his premature death.

John Killacky (center) with Keith Haring merchandise at the Walker Art Center, circa 1984. Photo: David Rae Morris

The exhibition’s coffee table–sized catalogue is gorgeous, beautifully reproducing more than 200 artworks. Insightful curatorial essays and interviews, contextualize this prodigious artist’s life, but also frame his body politic. While he saw himself as a provocateur, his work was never didactic. He himself best captures this aspect, “I don’t think art is propaganda; it should be something that liberates the soul, provokes the imagination and encourages people to go further.”

If Haring were still alive, he would only be 56 years old. Just imagine what his art would be telling us now.

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