Over 120 works of the iconic artist Keith Haring have been gathered together in a comprehensive and compelling exhibition organized by the Broad.
(Having finished at the Broad in Los Angeles, “Keith Haring: Art is for Everybody” opened Nov. 8 at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto and concludes at the Walker in Minneapolis in April 2024. The following is a brief and personal account of my visit to the exhibition at the Broad in early October 2023.)
Keith Haring and I go way back, at least in my childhood recollections. For ten years of my life, from kindergarten through ninth grade, I was in a suburban Connecticut carpool where the parents would drive us to and from school everyday, a 30–40 minute car ride at a minimum. In December 1987 when I was ten years old, I heard Christmas music very much unlike the English boy choirs that my father would often play at home. There was “Merry Christmas Baby” by Bruce Springsteen, “Winter Wonderland” by the Eurythmics, and “Christmas in Hollis” by Run-D.M.C. among others. All of these are now staples in the modern pop-Christmas repertoire, but at the time, they were unlike anything I had ever heard. But there was another aspect to this cassette tape that has never left me – the cover’s red background with gold line art titled “A Very Special Christmas” with a ‘radiant’ Madonna and Child pictogram. I found out from the carpool mom that the artist’s name was Keith Haring and that he was cool. He had also done the “Crack Is Wack” murals I noticed when going into the city to see the Christmas trees at Rockefeller Center in the late 1980s. His style was unmistakable and brilliantly simplified. But beyond that superficial understanding, I never bothered to learn much more about Haring.
Steeped in Art History
This first ever comprehensive traveling exhibition on the work of Keith Haring was organized by the Broad in Los Angeles, and it was well advertised on lamppost banners and billboards throughout the city.
Walking in, the first room is emblematic of Keith Haring’s most recognizable pieces, an inked-up Statue of Liberty and breakdancing figures in bold, day-glo color palettes. This street art style is an Instagram-friendly introduction to his output.
L: Untitled (Terracotta & Fiberglass pots), 1981-1985, Various Collections | R: Terracotta krater (attributed to the Hirschfeld Workshop), c. 750-735 BC, The Metropolitan Museum
Haring, like most great artists, was incredibly aware of past art and constantly made references to it. His “The Matrix” is almost a paean to the Bayeux Tapestry, swapping a sweeping historical narrative for interwoven icons of contemporary society. He also made use of non-Western cultural artifacts, like totem poles and Mesoamerican masks. This places him in the tradition of Michelangelo referring to classical antiquity, or Manet with his Japonisme, or Picasso’s flagrant use of African masks to create his Cubist masterpieces. As Picasso himself stated, “Great artists steal”, a quote now deemed problematic by critics of cultural appropriation and proponents of decolonization.
All that aside, it was striking to see fiberglass and terracotta pots obviously crafted in the vein of Greek Geometric pottery. However, no wall label discussed this connection sadly, and the connection was left to the viewer to make. At times, it seemed like the curator was downplaying Haring’s deep and informed interplay with art history in order to highlight his innovative motifs and commentary on contemporary society and its ills.
L: Everybody Knows Where Meat Comes from, It Comes from the Store, June 4, 1978, Tony Shafrazi | C: The Matrix, 1983, The Keith Haring Foundation | R: Untitled, 1983, Private Collection
For example, post-modern ironic humor that ‘meat comes from the store’, or the ubiquity of TVs and the emerging personal computer in Haring’s art begs the question of how he would have reacted to the today’s Internet and Social Media. He was certainly an artist with a political viewpoint, critical of commercialism, supportive of civil rights, gay rights, and an opponent of Apartheid in South Africa. It is his unique artistic vocabulary that allows Haring to achieve a level of directness not seen outside of agitprop materials.
L: St. Sebastian, 1984. Private collection, Courtesy Galerie Enrico Navarra | R: Giuliano Bugiardini, Saint Sebastian, c.1517-1520, New Orleans Museum of Art
However, this “power to the people” messaging is in tension with his insistence on art historical intercommunication. Is it some sort of claim to be among the great artists of the past? Possibly, but I think Haring is creating on multiple levels, speaking to the ‘streets’ while at the same time playing to elite art critics. Only those educated in Renaissance painting might make the connection to the iconography of St. Sebastian, where arrows are substituted with airplanes, and homoeroticism and a Picasso-esque face modernizes the scene.
One near-ubiquitous aspect of Keith Haring’s art is the constant tension between himself and the modern world. His aforementioned use of television and computer imagery betrays his apparent unease with technology and its possible downsides. Yet, as a type of pop artist himself, he paints and draws in a wholly contemporary manner, often in New York City subways – a pantheon to the technological achievements of urban development.
His animation that was displayed on a giant screen in Times Square embraces both the mass-consumption of media and the primitive video game graphics of that era. To our eyes, it’s hard not to see parallels between street sign stick figures and even Matt Groening’s Simpsons characters. The figures in the animation playfully obscure the dog-eat-dog storyline being portrayed.
L: Andy Mouse, 1985, Rogath Family Collection, courtesy of Prince & Wooster | R: The Pop Shop merchandise, 1985-1989
Even more conflicting are Haring’s celebratory odes to his peer artists. A painting of a pile of crowns honors his “favorite artist” Jean-Michel Basquiat after his death, but who really was the ‘legitimate’ street artist? Keith Haring near worshipped Andy Warhol as “the only true pop artist” and made it a point to befriend him before his death. Yet the conflation of the bespectacled Warhol with Mickey Mouse surrounded by dollar signs is an uneasy tribute at best. Is it merely a commentary on the commodification of Andy Warhol’s art and the use of pop culture in his works, or is it a sly attempt to show Warhol as a sell out? After all, Warhol had faded from public consciousness in the 1970s, only to reappear with a vengeance after being courted by the next generation of artists like Basquiat, Debbie Harry, and Haring himself.
In 1985 Haring eschewed his guerrilla art in the subways and on street placards and opened up The Pop Shop. This remains an early example of an artist attempting to commercialize and license their art. However, Haring’s intention was to “attract the same wide range of people [as the subway drawings], and I wanted it to be a place where, yes, not only collectors could come, but also kids from the Bronx.” He continues, “I always believed that if I maintained (and I have) my original motivation and integrity, then I could avoid being a victim and play by my own rules.” Skateboards, patches, and buttons all are reflective of the street culture and post-punk mentality that Haring embodied in his art. On the other hand, mass-production tends to dilute the brand in the eyes of critics, and the fact that his art now sells for millions of dollars and hangs in the most exclusive museums must at least prod the viewer to use a critical eye when reading his quotes. Is the message really, ‘consumerism is bad, but not if you purchase the right stuff?’
There might be some truth to that subversive reading of Haring’s contentious connections with pop culture and consumerism, but it seems overly cynical to me. Instead, look to his prolific charitable fundraising efforts for USA for Africa, Unicef, and the LGBT community/AIDS crisis for some insight into his values. These issues were often highlighted in his collaborations with musicians like Madonna, for whom he partnered with fellow artist LA II to make an outfit in order to premiere her songs “Dress You Up” and “Like a Virgin.”
In the end, the Broad exhibit served to bring some heft to my conception of Keith Haring, who was clearly a ‘serious artist.’ He intentionally placed himself in the canon of art history and all of its associated tropes while at the same time was very much grounded in the concerns and cultural issues of his day.
All photos by Nicholas Cipolla.