The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2013

All Issues
JUL-AUG 2013 Issue

KEITH HARING The political Line

On View
MusÉE D’Art Moderne De La Ville De Paris
April 19 – August 18, 2013

Nearly 30 years after the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris introduced Keith Haring in Figuration Libre: France/USA (1984) alongside Jean-Michel Basquiat, Robert Combas, Hervé Di Rosa, and Kenny Scharf, the museum’s current Haring retrospective delivers the artist well beyond this neo-Expressionist context. Cogently framing Haring as an artist/activist along the lines of Jenny Holzer and Barbara Kruger, Keith Haring: The political Line underscores the urgency of Haring’s socio-political messages. Boasting over 250 drawings, paintings, sculptures, and monumental works (not to mention documentary photographs, films, and plenty of Pop Shop memorabilia), this thematically organized exhibition ascribes Haring’s iconic pictographs to diverse political causes—from AIDS awareness to nuclear disarmament. Even more impressive than the exhibition’s scale and scope is the relevance of Haring’s messages even 23 years after his untimely death.

Keith Haring, “Reagan Ready to Kill,” 1980. Collage de coupures de journaux et ruban adhésif sur papier 21.6 x 27.9 cm. Collection Keith Haring Foundation.

In 1978, four years before he would be invited to broadcast his messages on the Times Square Spectacolor screen as part of the Public Art Fund’s “Messages to the Public” (1982–1990), a 20-year-old Haring was already expanding his practice into New York City’s streets and subways. The current exhibition’s “Public Spaces” section begins with an early series of “Cut-Ups” (1980) inspired by William S. Burroughs’s Dadaist literary technique of the same name. Motivated to challenge mainstream mass media, Haring used New York Post headlines to create provocative messages like “Reagan: Ready to Kill” and “Pope Killed for Freed Hostage.” Like Holzer, who began posting anonymous “Truisms” and “Essays” around lower Manhattan in the late 1970s, Haring’s earliest interventions involved plastering lampposts and newsstands with absurd and seditious collaged texts.

Similarly subversive and bringing the artist greater exposure, Haring’s large-scale “Subway Drawings” (1980–1985) protested the encroachment of advertising into community spaces. Covering over subway station ads with black paper, Haring replaced commercials for Coke and Camels with chalk drawings of barking dogs, dancing figures, TV-headed monsters, spaceships, and tags like “Still alive in ’85.” Over the course of five years Haring made between 5,000– 10,000 such drawings, risking fines or possible arrest for each one. A dozen excised artifacts from this series are presented here, but the performative and political essence of the “Subway Drawings” is best conveyed through Tseng Kwong Chi’s documentary photographs, which are also on view. These black and white photos (which would become the basis for the book Art in Transit published in 1984) show Haring’s graffiti in situ—next to dingy tile walls, broken payphones, cheesy movie posters, and alternately enthusiastic, disdainful, and ambivalent subway commuters.

In addition to characterizing many of his public interventions, Haring’s capitalist critiques also appear in numerous paintings. “Andy Mouse—New Coke” (1985), is an interesting example that melds three American icons: Coca Cola, Mickey Mouse, and Andy Warhol. The painting’s background is a red and white New Coke label overlaid with yellow dollar signs and black line drawings of Disney’s most famous cartoon character. A hybrid figure—Mickey’s body with a human head sporting thick-rimmed glasses, frizzy hair, and mouse ears—at the center of the composition, represents Andy Mouse. This recurring character synthesizes two of Haring’s heroes and encapsulates the intersection of pop culture and high art navigated by Disney, Warhol, and Haring himself. Details like the “®” beneath the Coke logo and the dollar sign motif signal a critique of commercialism, copyright, and wealth, but “Andy Mouse—New Coke” is also a celebration of artists harnessing mass production for their own creative projects.

Though Haring’s work is often thought of as being celebratory, comical, and even cute, his deceptively simple hieroglyphics also communicate complicated issues and disturbing subjects. The figure with a hole in its chest gracing the retrospective’s poster and catalogue (“Untitled” 1982), for instance, appears frequently in Haring’s work and was invented shortly after John Lennon’s fatal shooting. More explicitly violent, the works in the exhibition’s “Religion” section criticize the church by depicting an assortment of mutilated bodies—gutted and bleeding in front of crosses, impaled on crucifixes, and piled into mass graves. Another grim section, “Sex, AIDS and Death,” mixes somber symbols like graves, angels, and open armed figures, with gruesome depictions of the disease that eventually claimed Haring’s life in 1990. 

The AIDS crisis affected Haring most personally, but it is the “Racism” section that introduces the most harrowing image in the exhibition. “Michael Stewart—USA for Africa” (1985) depicts a blood-red naked male with a grossly elongated neck being strangled by a pair of disembodied pink hands. The tortured figure’s limp wrists are handcuffed to a white dove and a skeleton. Other ominous symbols include a globe spewing blood and a dollar sign attached to a menacing green hand that also reaches for the victim’s throat. This powerful painting is Haring’s response to the death of his friend, Michael Stewart, a young black artist who died in police custody after having been picked up for allegedly writing graffiti in the subway. In addition to illustrating bigotry in America, this painting also confronts racism on a global level. Xes marking New York and South Africa on the blood-spilling globe link this specific incidence of police brutality to the larger issue of apartheid, which Haring tirelessly rallied against—notably printing and distributing 20,000 “Free South Africa” posters in Central Park in 1985.

Though very much a time capsule of the 1980s underground scene and political fervor that informed Haring’s New York-based practice, this retrospective also feels contemporary and surprisingly French. Amidst recent protests across France following ratification of the “marriage for all” law this past spring, Haring’s equal rights and gay pride messages appear as relevant and critical as ever. Making a more calculated French connection, curators Dieter Buchhart and Odile Burluraux play up Haring’s interest in Rimbaud, Cocteau, Sartre, Genet, Artaud, and Barthes.  Links are also made to Dubuffet and Christo whose “Running Fence” (1972–76) is credited as steering Haring towards public art. Amidst plenty of back-patting for having hosted Haring’s first solo show (Bordeaux, 1985-6), the exhibition’s Francophile subtext also finds support in the artist’s own words. As cited in the exhibition catalogue, Haring wrote presciently in his journal at age 10: “When I grow up I would like to be an artist in France.”

11 Avenue du Président Wilson // Paris, France


Mara Hoberman


The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2013

All Issues