I knew Keith Haring’s art before I fully understood there was an artist behind it. As a teenager, I came into New York from the suburbs to drink in bars that didn’t check ID, and I’d spot chalk drawings framed in the empty ad spaces on the walls of dingy New York subway stations. They seemed to have appeared out of nowhere. New York was dirty and unpredictable then, which meant anything could happen. His drawings were just part of the magic.
Later, when I was an activist with ACT UP, Keith came to one of our crowded meetings to donate a T-shirt design (a day-glo see-no/hear-no/speak-no-evil, above the words SILENCE=DEATH). ACT UP’s mission was to end the AIDS crisis through nonviolent civil disobedience, and sales of Keith’s T-shirt would help us raise money, awareness and media attention. When the group gave him a roaring, grateful ovation, he struck me as embarrassed by the attention. He seemed like—he was—one of us.
But he was also famous—magazine-cover famous, gossip-column famous. This was the Haring who built the Pop Shop, his downtown store, which sold tourists T-shirts and bags covered in innocuous dancing people, barking dogs and radiant babies.
Within a few years he went from subway platforms to the walls of major galleries, and from there to international superstardom. He painted an optimistic mural on the Berlin Wall before it came down. He was not just Pop but popular, in great part because his most public works were easy to make your own. This Haring was like Warhol—though cuter, with better fashion—and as with Warhol, I wondered back then how seriously we were supposed to take him. How seriously did he take himself?
The fact that Keith Haring was a political subversive with a startlingly varied body of work only became clear to me recently, through the de Young Museum's major exhibition, Keith Haring: The Political Line. I’ve now visited twice, once listening to the excellent “enhanced” audio guide (full disclosure: the tour was written by my friend Christine Murray and designed by my husband, Kevin Clarke) and once without it, lingering at my own pace.
The Political Line begins with a Haring quotation on the wall: “An artist is a spokesman for society at any given point in history. His language is determined by his perception of the world we all live in. He is a medium between ‘what is’ and what could be.” This exhibition turns out to be heavier on what is—as in what’s alarmingly wrong with the world—than on a utopian vision of what the world might be. The digestible, Pop Shop Haring isn’t much in evidence here. Instead we encounter an artist distressed by oppression and willing to push his subject matter and his technique into uncomfortable territory.
The earliest works exhibited date back to 1978. Young Keith has some cheap fun collaging newspaper headlines that recast conservative politicians like Reagan into tabloid fodder. Such wry irony seems like the stance of an artist not sure yet what matters to him. But as he made more and more art, he settled into sincerity—establishing a figurative vocabulary showing how power-structures oppress ordinary people, but also how ordinary people become mesmerized by power’s apparatus.
Haring, the exhibit makes clear, saw injustice everywhere. Some of what stirred him feels fixed in time. A display case of ephemera offers a photo of Haring handing out free posters he made for an anti-nuke rally in 1982, when the proliferation of nuclear weapons was a tentpole issue for the political left. Haring’s famous anti-apartheid image is here, too—still a gorgeous, stirring call to arms thirty years later.
“The advance of technology has not advanced the plight of the average human being in proportionate degrees,” Haring wrote in his journal in 1986. Prophetic visions fill his canvases and sculptures, warning of slavish devotion to new technologies: creatures with computers for brains, figures venerating a TV screen filled with a demonic Mickey Mouse. “Eventually the only worth of man will be to serve the computer,” Haring predicted—a point driven home by visitors to the de Young, raising their camera-phones and smiling for selfies with the art as backdrop. I found myself mentally composing the tweet I’d post just as soon as I got out of the de Young’s Wi-Fi-free lower level. Today we’re all slaves to the rhythm of the internet.
The Political Line provokes unease. The outsized canvases and sculptures are often dense with images that flow like lava in every direction, indicating no safe place for your eye to rest. The feeling of obliteration—whether from nuclear proliferation or capitalistic greed—begins to dominate. There are gigantic robot-gods crushing the masses, and mushroom clouds exploding out of severed human necks. There’s a monumental pink penis covered from base to head with writhing figures that capitulate to symbols of cultural domination: crown, cross, dollar sign. Up and up these ribald, entangled beings climb, suggesting an overpopulated Tower of Babel just before it collapses under the weight of self-indulgence.
Late in the exhibition, the visitor comes upon a room filled with figures rendered in a lurid visual style unlike anything else Haring did. The shock of seeing eyes, lips, and teeth, which he rarely depicted, shifts the art into confrontation—suddenly, it gapes back at you, and you can almost smell its rotten breath. In place of his uniformly proportioned outlines, we find rippling flesh and open wounds. A bloated (capitalist) pig stuffs its mouth with hot green money. A cross-bearing creature has a mouth where its ass should be, out of which a snakelike tongue wields castrating scissors.
Another epic canvas offers a gargantuan head with a pig snout and two bloodshot, blue eyes stacked on top of each other. From its mouth it pukes up a money-green stream of technology, machinery and human skulls. The monstrous body here is made entirely of teats at which a series of wide-eyed, Pinocchio-nosed runts clamber over each other, desperate to suckle.
Were these grotesques a passing diversion that Haring lost interest in, or did they represent a direction he might have explored further had his career—his life—gone on longer? He was 31 when he died in 1990, which means he'd be just 56 today. Navigating these rooms, I was fully aware that we’d been robbed of decades of work. What else might he have taken on? What would it have looked like?
Keith Haring died from AIDS, a tragedy not glossed over by the exhibition but not quite explored either. The catastrophic effect of the plague on his community; his support of activist groups like ACT UP; and his thoughts about living with the virus in his body remain indistinct. The exhibit eases itself out with a grab bag of images that include a mammoth pink triangle—a reference to the Nazi persecution of homosexual men as well as the reclamation of that image by AIDS activists in the 1980s— presented alongside other subjects like the death of artist Jean-Michel Basquiat and the destruction of the environment. The show here, in its final room, struck me as haphazard. AIDS was in the end the defining issue of Haring’s life, but as I exited, it seemed like just one subject among many.
I left eager for more, though still not clear how to reconcile the dissident Haring evidenced everywhere at the de Young with the playful proprietor of the Pop Shop, the Warhol-protégé who appeared on magazine covers and shilled for Absolut Vodka. It's an old question, but in these galleries, it seemed worth asking again. What does it mean to create a larger-than-life cartoon of a capitalist pig while promoting yourself as a commercial art star? Was the pop(ular) stuff a bait-and-switch: lure them in for the radiant babies, then confront them with atomic radiation? Or was something in Haring inherently at odds with itself ?
“The role of the artist is to be an antagonist,” Haring said, and The Political Line proves that antagonism and subversion were part of his practice from beginning to end. Haring was a visionary—but was his a unified vision or a split one, still working through its contradictions?