The year: 1978. The city: New York. The mood: optimistic—pre-AIDS, post-Vietnam, post–economic downturn. Rent was cheap. Clubs were gritty. The East Village was fertile—rife with scrappy eccentrics who wanted to challenge the status quo through art and music. And Keith Haring, a scrawny, bespectacled young student at the School of Visual Arts, thrust himself into the scene as only a wide-eyed kid from small-town Pennsylvania could. He became a fixture at downtown destinations, like the Mudd Club, alongside other up-and-coming cultural luminaries, like Jean-Michel Basquiat, Debbie Harry and Madonna. But behind the club kid was a serious artist who was working to develop a deceptively complex style and language all his own.
Today Haring’s work is instantly recognizable. His boldly sketched block figures (that dance, clutch beet-red hearts and jump with glee) have appeared on everything from yo-yos and watches to, as of just last year, a fabulous collection of Nicholas Kirkwood heels. They’re images people can understand and, on the most basic level, “get.” But over the years there’s been a push on the behalf of several key advocates for a deeper understanding of this artist, who was as subversive as he was playful.
It’s a theme on display in “Keith Haring: 1978–1982,” a traveling exhibition co-organized by the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati at the Brooklyn Museum from March 16 through July 8. With rare experimental videos, some 155 pieces and more than 150 archival sketches, photographs, flyers and texts, this is the first major exhibition to explore Haring’s early years. “I think that people get a little stuck on the overly familiar ‘Haring,’ which is, in part, a result of Keith’s own desire to make his work as accessible as possible,” says Julia Gruen, Haring’s former studio manager and executive director of the Keith Haring Foundation, a charitable organization the artist launched before his death from AIDS-related complications in 1990 at the age of 31.“It’s not like he arrived in New York and started drawing in the subways or sprang fully in the art world as this graffiti writer. There is much more to the story; he was a serious and committed artist.”
In those first years, Haring’s output was mostly abstract, drawing from his icons: Jackson Pollock, Picasso, Jean Dubuffet. But he made text-based pieces as well, inspired in part by Beat writer William Burroughs and the avant-garde poet and painter Brion Gysin. Haring appropriated their “cut-up” technique of rearranging letters and language to create something entirely new. The exhibition features several of these collages, including a 1980 series in which he jumbled New York Post headlines to say things like “Reagan Slain by Hero Cop.” At the same time, he started developing the visual language he became famous for. His Rosetta stone, so to speak, was the subway system. And from 1980 to 1985, he sketched his characters in chalk on unused ad space all across the subterranean network, executing each drawing quickly to avoid arrest. About 30 such drawings plucked from platforms during those years will be on view in Brooklyn. “It was a gesture to include the public,” says Brooklyn Museum project curator Tricia Laughlin Bloom. “To bridge the art world and the streets of New York.” At one point, Haring’s underground work was so prolific that essayist Barry Blinderman, director of university galleries at Illinois State, recalls hopping on the Lexington Avenue subway line, going nowhere in particular, just to see what Haring had done.
His career and popularity skyrocketed after his first major exhibit at the Tony Shafrazi gallery in 1982. He launched a SoHo boutique (the late, great Pop Shop); he made murals, public sculptures and ads for Absolut. Critics, however, were a harder sell. “There’s been little critical writing on Haring,” Blinderman says. “There’s this perception of the work not being of intellectual import because Haring didn’t speak in the tongue of postmodernism—art that critiqued consumer culture and institutions was starting to take hold and preceded interest in Haring.”
Shows like this may change that. “He was definitely one of the most important artists of the ’80s and ’90s,” says Blinderman. “He may not have started a school of thought in the way someone like Picasso set off a certain style”—though he has had a noted impact on contemporary street artists like Swoon, Banksy and Shepard Fairey. “What’s important is that he thought big,” Blinderman continues. “How many artists can come up with a whole new language that can grow and never be exhausted? There’s no football field he couldn’t have filled his art with, if given the opportunity.”
Keith Haring: The Everyman Artist
Early on, Haring developed his own abstract alphabet, using shapes to form a visual language of cheeky hieroglyphs that are legible to all but still open to deeper interpretations, be they silly, childlike or crude.
“Keith Haring 1978–1982” runs March 16 through July 8 at the Brooklyn Museum. For details, go to brooklynmuseum.org.