Keith Haring the artist–anarchist, culture thief, populist, provocateur, successful entrepreneur, and accused sell-out–a renaissance man for the 80’s–slumps on the NYC subway with his spontaneous subway chalk art behind between graffiti and commercial advertising.
I generally approach blockbuster museum retrospectives with a right-ok-whatever cynicism, pre-judging based on a magazine photo, a street pole banner image, a newspaper review. This is not admirable. Invariably, I’m the fool and am blown away by the presentation of the artist’s lifetime of effort and growth.
Twice the fool with Haring exhibits, I had been impressed by his work in 1998 at San Francisco’s MOMA’s Keith Haring: the Public Artist, and last week squeaked in last minute to see his likable and outrageous work returned to San Francisco’s De Young for winter 2014/15, Keith Haring: the Political Line. I recall at SF MOMA being troubled by a recreation of his “Pop Store” containing Haring postcards, Haring t-shirts, Haring buttons, and Haring umbrellas plopped in the middle of the exhibit upstaging the finer art–the Pop Store crass and commercial but brilliant as a business venture and as critique of art’s pretensions and awkward financial position. Lacking the curatorial chutzpah that SFMOMA can muster, the DeYoung big box basement retrospective placed the store in its customary rear end position where crowds and commerce were predictably intense, shown below.
Along with the blockbuster retrospective’s visual depth with the layering of multiple works, walls, rooms and histories, the blockbuster crowds add a lively foreground to the art; the people watching provides the healthy perspective of the living world, adding a street life missing from art’s usual introverted soul-commune in an empty white box within the narrow boundaries of a single frame.
Consistently, Haring’s approach is light-hearted, mass-appealing, cartoonish while the subject, generally dark with Guernica inspired scenes of dismemberment, false idols, phobias, and blood disease presented in cheerful colors and vaguely symbolic figures, clear and suggestive as figures–“the dog,” the penis,” “the masses”, but ambiguous as to meaning. As Haring career explodes within the world of art and commerce, the line work and patterning becomes so dense and interwoven as to become illegible–the general intent and subject clear but the specifics garbled or like most great art–open to interpretation. To the left, a detail from “The Pink Triangle” a rethinking of the infamous Nazi emblem in day-glo colors with cartoon patterned figures in an agitated state–angry, sad, denied or liberated?
At several points the line is crossed at the exhibit into the zone of the questionable, inappropriate, poor taste, illegal–the Reagan attacks below being a serious example. Understood in context of Reagan’s silence during the AIDS epidemic in the 80’s and the homophobia and blind hypocrisy of his supporters, the Moral Majority and the Catholic Church, Haring’s audience needed little translation of the intent of his media misappropriations shown below.
The street artist’s own words are presented here below displaying his good-hearted approach to his criminal subway activity as a social experiment whose real meaning lies in public reaction.
“I bought a roll of oak-tag paper and cut it up and put it all over the floor and worked on this whole group of drawings. The first few were abstracts, but then these images started coming. They were humans and animals in different combinations. Then flying saucers were zapping the humans. I remember trying to figure out where this stuff came from, but I have no idea. It just grew into this group of drawings. I was thinking about these images as symbols, as a vocabulary of things. In one a dog’s being worshipped by these people. In another one the dog is being zapped by a flying saucer. Suddenly it made sense to draw on the street, because I had something to say.”
Below the subway art–this one vandalized–in contemplative museum setting.
“One day, riding the subway, I saw this empty black panel where an advertisement was supposed to go. I immediately realized that this was the perfect place to draw. I went back above ground to a card shop and bought a box of white chalk, went back down and did a drawing on it. It was perfect–soft black paper; chalk drew on it really easily.”
“I kept seeing more and more of these black spaces, and I drew on them whenever I saw one. Because they were so fragile, people left them alone and respected them; they didn’t rub them out or try to mess them up. It gave them this other power. It was this chalk-white fragile thing in the middle of all this power and tension and violence that the subway was. People were completely enthralled.”
“I was always totally amazed that the people I would meet while I was doing them were really, really concerned with what they meant. The first thing anyone asked me, no matter how old, no matter who they were, was what does it mean?”
“The context of where you do something is going to have an effect. The subway drawings were, as much as they were drawings, performances. It was where I learned how to draw in public. You draw in front of people. For me it was a whole sort of philosophical and sociological experiment. When I drew, I drew in the daytime which meant there were always people watching. There were always confrontations, whether it was with people that were interested in looking at it, or people that wanted to tell you you shouldn’t be drawing there…”
“I was learning, watching people’s reactions and interactions with the drawings and with me and looking at it as a phenomenon. Having this incredible feedback from people, which is one of the main things that kept me going so long, was the participation of the people that were watching me and the kinds of comments and questions and observations that were coming from every range of person you could imagine, from little kids to old ladies to art historians.”
October 23, 1986, Haring attacked the Berlin Wall with his improvised street art as a performance for the divided city as illustrated in these film clips from the exhibit.
The New York Times reports Haring saying: ”It’s a humanistic gesture, more than anything else – a political and subversive act – an attempt to psychologically destroy the wall by painting it”. Then a young Berliner: ”This is Valium, there’s no provocation in it. In every third toilet in Kreuzberg you can see the same graffiti.” Then Haring: ”It’s for people and it doesn’t matter which side of the wall they’re on. It’s about both sides coming together.”
Below Haring’s mural in a lively dialogue with other artists, perhaps 2009.
The following year, Ronald Reagan, the former President of the Screen Actors Guild, took the stage at Berlin’s wall before the Brandenberg Gate. In his greatest act of street theater and most memorable on-screen performance, President Reagan spoke out, demanding, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”