Tony Shafrazi Gallery February 13 – April 3, 2010
If Keith Haring seems more ubiquitous today than ever before, a walk through the Miami Basel art fair last December would have been proof positive. This year was considered a “safe” year for blue-chip art galleries in Miami and stashed everywhere amidst the mid-century abstractionists, early modernist masters, and more recent art stars, was Haring.
Two months later, New York’s Tony Shafrazi Gallery opened an exhibition of Keith Haring’s work on the occasion of the 20th Anniversary of the artist’s death, and it gave me an opportunity to reacquaint myself with someone who has come to be known as a master of 1980s New York style. Containing dozens of works from every stage of his mature artistic life, Haring’s unintended retrospective (there isn’t even a catalogue) at Shafrazi is well thought-out and interesting but inadvertently highlights some of the artist’s shortcomings.
Near the beginning we are lured in by some of the strongest work on display, everyday objects covered with Haring’s distinctive line and forms. Whether it is a vase he created in collaboration with graffiti artist LAII, a panel of a screen, or something that appears to have no purpose at all, the objects he chooses to paint come across with a power that give them a talismanic air. His line galvanizes the surface of each piece, and his energetic brush endows the most banal things with a sense of importance.
The same can be said of his infamous subway drawings which were taken off the walls of New York City subway stations. In the Shafrazi show there are eight large drawings (white chalk on black paper) preserved from the early 80s behind plexiglas or shadow boxed. They are arranged in one room and they appear as impressive relics of a bygone age. They feel quick and smart, oozing with energy. The exhibition’s pinnacle, they were created in situ stemming from the news of the day, their location, or the artist’s whim.
In contrast to the objects and subway drawings, Haring’s two-dimensional images are less powerful and at their worst they can feel ham-fisted. “Untitled” (c. 1980-81) is a marker and sumi ink drawing of an earless Mickey Mouse framed by swirls of ink and Haring’s little faceless men. At their best they can still entertain even if they feel over dramatized, as is the case with “Spaceship with Ray” (August 29, 1980) which depicts a UFO shooting beams at Manhattan’s CitiCorp Center. Haring’s metal sculptures have the same issues with the added misfortune of feeling even more contrived, a canned language of symbols and forms. His wooden sculptures are less stilted, saved by their layering of mysterious silhouetted forms covered with incised drawing.
What becomes evident is that the work created by Haring specifically for galleries isn’t his best. He excels when he is forced to react to something outside of himself. Given an object, like a vase, he interacts with it until he fully explores its contours; “writing” on subway ads, he riffs off the language of advertising to reveal absurd scenes and slogans — in one he writes the silly rhyme “More to See in ‘83” — yet, when he’s left to his own devices his artistic language seems to flounder. The fact that Haring’s art is essentially “social” translates in the passionate posters and graphics he created for benefits, events, and parades, or the rhapsodic murals he was commissioned to create for institutions, like the Woodhull Hospital in Bushwick, Brooklyn, or the bathroom (now meeting room) in Greenwich Village’s LGBT Center. Haring was an artist of his time and artistically he is an extrovert, at his best when reacting to the world.
His tendency to interact with his time and place is also what lends his work an archaeological air. The titles of many of his works record the date of their creation, sometimes to the day, tying the viewer’s experience of the work to a specific moment, like remembering where you were when Reagan was shot, or when the stock market crashed in 1987. Perhaps there is an element of nostalgia in Haring’s recent popularity. In one of the most impressive displays in the exhibition, “The Fertility Series” (1983), we see Haring’s futuristic forms rendered in fluorescent paint. They are on display in a blacklit room making the images glow while a small boom box plays 1980s fare. The effect was attractive and I felt like I found a cool and psychedelic corner of the city that no one else had unlocked, but it felt like entertainment only. It’s the way I often feel with Haring’s weaker pieces, and unfortunately there were many of them in Anniversary.
Haring’s talent for blending pop culture, art, and social activism made him a major figure in a decade obsessed with blurring boundaries between art and life, but there’s little in this show to suggest that this artist’s voice might transcend its era. In other words, his legacy still feels far from certain.
Hrag Vartanian is a writer, critic, and designer. He lives in Brooklyn, NY.