Keith Haring: The Political Line

Review

Keith Haring: The Political Line

By Kara Q. Smith January 20, 2015

Keith Haring: The Political Line is a packed survey of work by the late artist—Haring passed away in 1990 from AIDS-related complications—organized by guest curator Dieter Buchhart and the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco's founding curator of photography and chief administrative curator, Julian Cox. Over one hundred works are grouped around political issues such as “Mass Media and Technology” and “Capitalism and Consumption,” pulling the viewer through the exhibition and broadly situating each room. Included, too, are various ephemera, Polaroid photographs, and drawings extracted from New York subway stations that historicize and contextualize Haring’s practice and motives, adding to the monumentality of the exhibition and demonstrating just how prolific and seemingly indefatigable Haring was in his thirty-one years of life.

Keith Haring. Untitled, October 1982; enamel and Day-Glo paint on metal; 90 1/2 x 72 3/8 in. Courtesy of de Young Museum, San Francisco. Collection of the Keith Haring Foundation. © 2014, Keith Haring Foundation.

The thematic headings are broad, and there is overlap to be found in the content and context of each cluster of works. Haring often combined themes, implying that there was nothing not political about anything he created (just peruse his journals to see that daily decisions were intensely weighed). Haring’s voice certainly resonates with our current moment, given that the exhibition comes at a time when artists and activists across the nation are showing solidarity with Palestine, protesting against police brutality and racism at home, and rallying for freedom of expression in Cuba. The exhibition also offers a genuinely exciting and unique opportunity to see Haring’s art afresh. The outlined babies, laughing dogs, and crown imagery that have become recognizable through their frequent reproduction on posters, key chains, T-shirts, buttons, and public artworks are given a richer context when viewed on large canvases, tarpaulin, or vases: that of Haring as an artist, weaving art history with politics and aesthetics within his own iconic visual lexicon.

Separate the elements and they are playful renderings; place them together and they become prognostic of a turbulent and troubling time.

Prophets of Rage (1988) is nestled in the room labeled “Racism.” In it, a white figure cut off from the torso up hangs upside down, its feet held up by a floating yellow halo, the truncated body gushing Crayola-red blood. In the center, a black figure seems to be leaping over a pyramid of golden bricks, broken shackles on his ankles and his hands held high, grasping a large crown. Included too are dice, a cross snapping in half, and a heart with a sword through it. Several of Haring’s “narrative” paintings have been included in the exhibition, but this one draws me in the most. There is something about the solid block of color provided by the middle figure that feels impenetrable, causing one to linger in front of it steadily, yielding to it, as opposed to tracing the numerous outlined figures featured in countless other pieces in the exhibition. I think of racism, of struggle and opposition, of freedom and acceptance in contemporary society (both political and social). I think of the cartoon realism of Philip Guston. Separate the elements and they are playful renderings; place them together and they become prognostic of a turbulent and troubling time. Painted the year Jean-Michel Basquiat died of a heroin overdose, this painting isn’t just about racism, it is a spiritual tribute to a lost friend.1 To the right of Prophets of Rage hangs The Great White Way (1988), a 168-inch tall Pepto-Bismol-pink canvas shaped like a penis. Tattooed on its surface are countless outline drawings of figures smashed together, shackled, falling atop each other (and some crosses, too). By size alone, its message is undeniable: Dominance over some leads to the dehumanization of all.

Keith Haring. A Pile of Crowns for Jean-Michel Basquiat, 1988; acrylic on canvas; 120 x 120 x 120 in. Courtesy of de Young Museum San Francisco. Collection of the Keith Haring Foundation. © 2014, Keith Haring Foundation.

Another exhibition room houses three works on vases by Haring, of which he made several during this career. The black ink on terra-cotta of one untitled piece from 1984 harkens back to Athenian vase painting, in which depictions of the everyday rituals of ancient Greek life were often as educational as they were decorative.  Haring’s vase features sections of imagery separated by a snake wrapping around the vessel from the bottom upward; its mouth appears to be chasing running figures. The characters on the vase are both playful and brooding. A telephone, larger than the human figures, “rings” off the hook, almost smashing the figures around it. Nearby is a menacing dog-headed figure. The composition is a swirling panorama of recurring themes in Haring’s work and a playful spin on a precious art-historical object. Further along, an entire section of the exhibition, one that contains some of Haring’s most prescient work, is dedicated to “Mass Media and Technology.” Images of televisions and computers are portrayed almost like religious icons, objects that humans are so quick to believe in, worship, and rely on. In several works, a television is merged with the figure of a human or animal, creating menacing cyborgs that emphasize the systemic power media has over society. The context of this room is confusing. Is being critical of television the same as being political? It seems making work about it may be a political action. Though in a room full of Mickey Mouse images and Haring’s iconic figures, it is difficult not to feel that Haring has succeeded in hammering his own brand of message into the American psyche.

He was political, yes, but his entrepreneurial efforts made him world renowned and recognized, for which he received criticism.

Of course, on the way out of the exhibition, there is a gift shop that I can only assume resembles Haring’s Pop Shop, in which piles of buttons, posters, and goods with his imagery abound. Haring was a visionary. His commitment to social justice and accessible art is clear throughout the works in the show, underscored by the accompanying wall text. However, the one thing Haring was not so disapproving about was fame (you can see it in his face in the Polaroid pictures of him with Warhol and Madonna). He was political, yes, but his entrepreneurial efforts made him world renowned and recognized, for which he received criticism. His fame allowed his work to spread far and wide, and Pop Shop helped him transform his art into a world-famous brand. In an exhibition that aims to emphasize Haring’s critique of capitalism and its many attendant social evils, the gift shop—that now-unavoidable exit requirement at museum exhibitions—feels like it needs further contextualization within the exhibition itself; its unremarked-upon presence weakens The Political Line’s curatorial thesis. This oversight notwithstanding, Keith Haring: The Political Line offers the chance not only to appreciate the artist’s work and iconic imagery from multiple perspectives (albeit sometimes dizzying at this scale), but most importantly the chance to bring new context to the work.

Keith Haring: The Political Line is on view at de Young Museum, in

San Francisco

, through February 16, 2015.

Notes

  1. The exhibition also contains Haring’s A Pile of Crowns for Jean-Michel Basquiat, painted in 1988.

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