Keith Haring: The Political Line, SF

It's hard not to be seduced by the color, signs and symbols in Haring's work, and this show gives them all ample play.

Written by:
Emily S. Mendel
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Does art belong in a museum or on a T-shirt? When it’s the art of Keith Haring (1958–1990), the answer is both. The vibrant and striking “Keith Haring: The Political Line” at San Francisco’s de Young Museum explores his universal humanitarian and political messages while displaying his explosive talent.

In the late 1970s, Haring’s unique creativity was first seen as graffiti in white chalk on the black paper pasted on unused advertising spaces in the New York City subways. His distinctive illustrations with a message combining internal pictograms, signs and dots quickly turned him into a celebrity of NYC’s 1980s art, music and fashion scene.

As part of the 1980s’ blurring of the worlds of commercial and traditional art, made notorious by his friend and mentor, Andy Warhol, Haring drew illustrations for advertisements, and sold T-shirts, toys and posters decorated with his iconic images in his 1986 NYC Pop Shop.

Always insisting that his work be accessible to the public and for the public’s benefit, Haring veered away from limiting his visibility to traditional art galleries and instead made his art available by painting and drawing in diverse public spaces, such as a hunger-relief concert backdrop and the AIDS chapel at San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral, always furthering his message of loving life and opposing whatever was antithetical to life.

As his fame grew, Haring created large-scale pieces and exhibited his work around the world, but he maintained his creative focus on his message. Even after his 1990 death from AIDS, Haring, through the charitable foundation he established, continues to benefit needy children and AIDS and HIV patients.

The de Young Museum’s exciting 13-year retrospective, “Keith Haring: The Political Line,” from private collections and the Haring Foundation, elevates the artist’s oeuvre from T-shirts to 330 politically themed oil and acrylic paintings, wall sculptures, free-standing constructions, subway drawings, as well as some of the artist’s journals and Polaroids that have not been seen since Haring’s death. Don’t miss Haring’s poignant journal page describing his reaction to Andy Warhol’s death. Aside from the first two interesting galleries showing Haring’s very early drawings and subway graffiti, most of the rooms are divided thematically by Haring’s political and social messages which include nuclear disarmament, racial equality, environmentalism, anti-capitalism and consumerism, and the excesses of mass media and technology.

In some of the pieces, the messages are clear. With other more abstract works, interpretation is less literate. Even the de Young’s guest curator, Dieter Buchhart, who organized an almost identical exhibit in Paris last year, offered opposing interpretations to Haring’s large red and black acrylic of three men with crocodile heads. (Most of the art is without title, so no help there.) Haring said, “I painted images that are derivative of my person exploration. I leave it up to others to decipher them, to understand their symbolism and implications.”

It is a pleasure to view the massive scale and bright colors of his art counterpointed by the internal tiny system of dots, signs and symbols that comprise each piece. For example, the large pink acrylic and fluorescent enamel Statue of Liberty sculpture looks simply painted until, on closer inspection, the wiggles, signs and dots appear. What’s more remarkable is the fact that Haring never made preliminary sketches or drawings of any of his work, yet they look remarkably composed and symmetrical.

I was quite impressed with “Keith Haring: The Political Line” — much more, in fact, than I expected to be. There is an engaging naiveté to his work that belies its inner complexity. Some of the pieces are quite beautiful. His work is not only for the mind but for the senses as well.

It’s hard not be entranced by Haring’s positive messages, effervescence, sexuality and sheer exuberance for life.

Emily S. Mendel
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