Keith Haring and the Political Line

Had he been alive today, Keith Haring (1958-1990), the American artist and sculptor, would be celebrating his fifty-fifth birthday. Diagnosed with AIDS in 1988, he died two years later at the age of thirty-one due to complications from the virus.View of the Keith Haring exposition website

A couple of weekends ago I took in the large retrospective of his work at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville in Paris, where nearly 250 of his works were on display, one of the largest presentations of his work in history. Keith Haring—The Political Line is on display from 19 April to 18 August 2013 and focuses on the political content in his works. Throughout his work, Haring was not afraid to confront the social challenges of the day: racism,homophobia, the horrors of AIDS, the atrocities of the apartheid in South Africa, the destruction of the planet’s environment, the threat of thermonuclear war and violence against legitimate and democratic forms of expression like the right and freedom to assemble and protest. The museum is on the bank of the River Seine in the shadow of Le Tour Eiffel and if you can put up with the metal detectors, frisk searches and inefficiently organised queues for tickets at the entrance, it will be well worth the reward. The exhibition is in a beautiful and large space in which to evaluate Haring’s works. (Think Tate Modern but wider.) There are dedicated rooms to his chalk drawings and another in UV light when he was using phosphorescent paint. Perhaps, the latter were meant to evoke the New York club culture from which he had emerged.

I’ve seen some of Haring’s individual works in various museums over the years, but not such a large concentration. I had never noticed his penchant for avoiding the canvas as a medium for painting for so many years, for he thought it to be a relic of a long tradition. Haring preferred to use tarpaulins (a fabric used to make tents), subway walls, the sidewalk, sides of a building as a medium for the transmission of his work. Canvases represented a permanence which his ephemeral works in chalk and painted ‘graffiti-like’ statements were meant to combat. The New York Subway was his canvas, a public space which everyone traversed and would become an overt and subversive political expression because its wide visibility would promote discourse. These public drawings would come to symbolise his own individual stance as an artist, as they were a measure of the individual’s freedom against the State, a theme threaded through many of his works. He would gain ‘recognition’ from the NYPD over the years for that individual discourse with several arrests.

image of Keith Haring radiant baby and barking dog
Radiant Baby and Barking Dog by Keith Haring
Courtesy of Flick CC user (zentolos)

Vocabulary and Archetypes

Haring calculated that at some point he made at least 5,000 of these works in chalk over the subways of New York. It is fair to say that Haring’s style and vocabulary became instantly recognisable and universal. It points to recognisable signs and signifiers that translate across cultures of the world. Using symbols of the radiant baby, barking dog, pyramid and serpent, Haring’s language transcended geographic boundaries. His work was followed with great interest in Asia, Europe and America.

‘The reason that the ‘baby’ has become my logo or signature is that it is the purest and most positive experience of human existence. Children are the bearers of life in its simplest and most joyous form. Children are colour-blind and still free of all the complications, greed, and hatred that will slowly be instilled in them through life.’ (p.132) Keith Haring Journals (7 July 1986: Montreux)

Haring’s work is immediate and those that confront social issues are subversive. As an openly gay man who exploded on the New York club scene in the late 1970s and 1980s hitting venues like Studio 54 and the Mudd Club, Haring would be part of the LGBT protest group, ACT-UP, volunteering some of his artwork for some of their iconic campaigns. As such, sexuality pervades many of his works, whether they are phallic at a macro- or micro-level. The use of the phallus symbolised power and was used to confront sexual prejudices, prevailing at the time. President Reagan, who held office from 1981-1989 remained silent on the issue of AIDS for most of his tenure in the Oval Office. It took over 21,000 Americans to die before President Reagan finally said something. After Haring was diagnosed with AIDS, he began the cocktail of AZT and retroviral medicines, which did not cure the disease, but merely slowed its onset. Feeling he did not have much time to live, Haring painted continuously. His figure of the iconic ‘heart’ would also become associated with the ‘serpent’, or the serpent would be manifested or transformed out of the figure’s penis, as more became known about the spreading of AIDS through blood.

haring journals

In spite of the disease and the elements of anger it provoked, Haring’s work ultimately presents an optimistic vision. The way in which he used the theme of sexuality in his work was always tempered with an understanding to the venue it would be seen by spectators. He has said ‘you can do whatever you want in the privacy of a gallery or a book’, but he didn’t draw any sexually explicit drawings in the public subway work because children might view them. For Haring, ‘babies represented the possibility of the future, how perfect we could be.’ He didn’t view the works with overt sexual tones as pornography, but understood his role as an artist.

In his Journal he wrote on 7 July 1986: ‘I think part of the reason I feel I have a “responsibility” as a public figure is that I know that there are always people watching…people that look up to you in a kind of way, especially the young people’ (p.132)

Detail of silence = death by Keith Haring
Detail from Keith Haring’s Silence=Death
Courtesy of the author

A Man of his Times

Haring’s work captured the era perfectly, whether it was the rise of break-dancing, which culminated in Michael Jackson’s moonwalk, or the critique of the rampant capitalism of Wall Street and the market liberalisation undertaken by President Reagan. Street dancers were celebrated in Haring’s work evoking its upbeat and communal experience. His paintings, even some of the darkest like Silence=Death (with the triangle associated with the homosexuals murdered by the Nazis), at a detailed level, indicates a shared experience.The triangle contains figures of individuals who have their mouths or ears covered, a variation on the ‘hear-no-evil, speak-no-evil’ theme. Always the optimist even in death, Haring felt that we are not alone. The universality of his figures, whether they are dancing or not, is found in its sexual ambiguity. As an archetype, they lack gender specificity. It could be two men, a man and a woman, or two women. Viewers project themselves into the drawings and see what they want to see. His style also evokes a modern ‘primitive’ archetype in that it could have been created by cultures thousands of years ago. From this point of view, he is the modern extension of the first cave drawings. They didn’t have a canvas either and used the wall and it wasn’t called an ‘urban blight’ at the time! Further, his style brings this timeless figure full into the present with its commentary on the stress and burden of technology. (You see the image of the computer replacing the brain or head itself in many of his works.)

Haring writes in his Journal on 7 October 1987:

‘At the same time that [my works] are associated with these so-called ‘primitive’ [African, American Indian, Aztec] cultures by their use of linear, two-dimensional and even decorative elements, the information being conveyed is completely contemporary and in most cases would not or could not have existed before. They are informed by technology, popular culture and the information Age. They explore the “effect” of these new realities on the human condition and experience of the “self”’ (p.244).

When Haring enrolled in the School of Visual Arts (Manhattan), one of the most influential courses he would take was a semiotics course in 1979 taught by conceptual artist Bill Beckley. Beckley’s required reading included Umberto Eco’s (recently published at the time) A Theory of Semiotics. It is very clear that Haring was able to distil a unique and personal vocabulary which transcends time and speaks immediately to the viewer. You might think that there is nothing to it. It’s quite simple and easily replicated, perhaps lending credence to the notion of mass commodification that was levelled at his mentor, Andy Warhol. However, unlike Warhol, Haring understood and despised this capitalistic aspect of art.

Detail of a Chalk Drawing by Keith Haring
Detail of a Chalk Drawing by Keith Haring
Courtesy of the author

The ‘Aura’ of Subway Drawings

His 5,000 ‘gifts’ to the Subway epitomise this understanding. These drawings (several of which are in the Paris retrospective) were always meant to be transient and ephemeral. I’m sure that if another artist coloured over his work with graffiti, he would probably take it as a complement and celebrate their need for artistic expression. They had distinct ‘aura’ in the Benjaminian sense as they resisted commodification as original, one-of-a-kind objects, meant to engage universally and provoke discourse before disappearing amidst the background jungle of the urban city ‘blight.’ They were never intended to be permanent works of art. Around 1985, when he found out that entrepreneurs were selling these drawings, he discontinued making them.

A final thought on Haring’s work is that it speaks on a variety of levels. Whether you are a child or an art historian, his work evokes a multiplicity of meanings. As we project our ‘self’ into his work,Haring’s drawings can be readily accepted by the mind of a child, beholding wonder and astonishment in what they could mean. Are the barking dogs fighting? Adults see beyond the barking dog, which is chasing or shouting at an individual, to the re-enforcement of order by the State. Perhaps the art historian sees these strong lines which fill the entire drawing plane as a critique on Mayan art and the modernist works of Fernand Léger. Haring’s work negotiates all of these levels with ease.

‘In all my work there is some degree of content that is more obvious communicating a specific or a general idea that people will get. But a lot of times the content of the work is ambiguous enough that it can be interpreted by whoever. That was one of the essential things that made the subway drawings powerful. They weren’t exactly telling you what they meant. There were aside and in the arena of advertisements which were all directly telling you exactly what they meant, what they were trying to sell. The subway drawings looked like signs and symbols. Everyone I’d encounter when I was in the subway, drawing, would ask ‘What does it mean?’ I was provoking people to look at it and to have to figure it out for themselves, which is what most of the work has really been about. So in making poetic information, instead of obviously communicating information, people have to fill in the blanks and find their own associations and meanings within the work’ (p.78).

In what would be his last interview Haring is interviewed by Jason Rubell. 27 January 1990. He died 3 weeks later. We remember him today.

Learn more about Keith Haring

Keith Haring journals
dustjacket of Against All Odds Keith Haring in the Rubell Family Collection
Haring’s journals covers the time from when he was aged 19 until his death at 31 and covers his time on the New York scene and his adventures around the world. Noted luminaries include Madonna, Grace Jones, Andy Warhoo, Jean-Michel Basquiat and William Burroughs.

Keith Haring, 1978-1982 / curated by Raphaela Platow

This catalogue accompanies the itinerant exhibition, Keith Haring: 1978-1982, which was held first at the Kunsthalle Wien, Vienna, 28 May-19 September 2010 and continued onto the Contemporary Arts Center, Cincinnati, Ohio from 26 February to 5 September 2011.

Against all odds : Keith Haring in the Rubell Family Collection
This catalogue was published in conjuction with the exhibition ‘Against all odds: Keith Haring in the Rubell Family Collection’ presented at Palm Springs Art Museum 8 November 2008 to 18 January 2009.The Rubell Collection exhibition offers the reader the last interview of Keith Haring in the final weeks of his life. It also includes an excellent essay, Keith Haring and Fernand Léger: Democratic Art, Popular Culture and Semiotics, by Robert Hobbs, Rhoda Thalhimer Endowed Chair of American Art at Virginia Commonwealth University. The works in this exhibition offer a wide variety of Haring’s oeuvre.

The Library also has documentary videos of Keith Haring:
The Universe of Keith Haring [videorecording] / by Christina Clausen

Drawing the line [videorecording] : a portrait of Keith Haring

Homepage of Keith Haring foundationMore information on the Keith Haring Foundation and its work to promote and maintain the work of this artist can be found here.

Keith Haring Live in Video

One of his collaborators in the mid-1980s was Grace Jones. Matching the rise of the new medium of the music video, Haring was asked to design and paint a huge skirt which is 60 feet in diameter for Grace Jones’ new single I’m Not Perfect.

In the video, Jones has this idea that people are following her like the Pied Piper, seduced by her tune, dancing and going underneath the skirt. You can see Haring drawing on the costume (about 54 seconds into the video and continues throughout it.)  Although it doesn’t feature any hula-hooping like at Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee Concert, Grace Jones’ video is a mini-documentary of a Keith Haring Work-in-Progress.

Some Exhibition Pictures

Below are some shots taken at the Keith Haring–The Political Line:

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