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Party and protest with Keith Haring at Bozar
Keith Haring’s style is instantly recognisable, a bright, hyperactive descendant of Pop Art that helped define the New York scene of the 1980s. Recurrent figures in his work, such as dancing men, radiant babies and barking dogs, became icons representing the Big Apple’s hedonistic urban lifestyle during the decade.
“He was a very public artist, and he had a conviction that art should be for everybody,” says Darren Pih of Tate Liverpool, co-curator of the Keith Haring retrospective that has just transferred to Bozar in Brussels.
“He made art on the New York subway, he made street murals, he had exhibitions. He collaborated with choreographers and poets, with Madonna and Grace Jones, with Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat. He is symptomatic of the fluid cultural energies of the 1980s, compounding different influences: pop art, activism, fine art ideas, street graffiti, hip-hop culture and fashion.”
Haring’s high profile and prodigious output make him a tricky subject for a retrospective. It is easy to tick the boxes and give people what they expect, but harder to surprise them. The show at Bozar succeeds by emphasising Haring’s place in the city, capturing his energy and an urgency in his art that still resonates today.
Haring was born in 1958 and raised in Kutztown, a culturally conservative community in rural Pennsylvania. His childhood enthusiasm for drawing and cartoons led to a course in graphic design in Pittsburgh. But in 1978 he dropped out and moved to New York to enrol in the School of Visual Arts
The work from this period, which begins the show, already seems confident and media savvy. In the 1979 video performance piece Painting Myself into a Corner Haring (pictured below) has covered the floor of his studio at the school with paper and is slowly filling the space with a dense pattern of shapes and signs that eventually box him in.
Working shirtless, his gestures recall the action painting of Jackson Pollock, while the pattern looks more like Belgian artist Pierre Alechinsky, an acknowledged influence alongside the Art Brut of Jean Dubuffet. “It’s very fluid, very spontaneous, and it is performative,” says Pih. “He is very comfortable being filmed making the painting.”
New York was also starting to influence his work. At one point he had a studio space that opened onto the street, and people passing by would stop to talk about what he was doing. “I think the fact that people were interested in knowing more about his work had a profound effect,” says Pih. “It taught him that people were open to art ideas, if you let them in.”
Haring was also inspired by the graffiti in New York. These hyper-stylised, spray-painted images shared the confidence and fluidity he saw in abstract expressionism. And it was through graffiti that he found a way to bring his art to the wider public.
At that time, advertisers on the subway paid for their posters to appear for a fixed period, and when that time was up, the poster would be covered with a sheet of black paper until another was booked into the space. Haring’s idea was to draw on these blank, black papers with chalk, rapidly creating pictures with an immediate audience.
In doing this he adapted his style, replacing abstract patterns with figures inspired by the cartoons he loved as a child. His education in semiotics also came into play. “He began to think about simple, accessible, graspable ideas,” explains Pih. “The flying saucers, the barking dogs, the crawling babies became a visual alphabet he could use to create new meaning in interaction with the audience.”
Sometimes these subway drawings only stayed up for a few days, or even just over night, but Haring was tireless. “He made thousands of these black panels between 1980 and 1985. If you were in New York City at the beginning of the ’80s you would see these Keith Haring drawings all the time. They really contributed to him gaining a profile.”
A final element in Haring’s work was political activism. His paintings took aim at issues such Apartheid in South Africa, nuclear weapons and US foreign policy.
And the messages travelled. “These paintings could be cloned and replicated, and turned into a pin badge, or a t-shirt, or a poster.”
As Haring’s reputation grew, enthusiasts started to “steal” the subway drawings as quickly as they appeared, and so he changed tactics. In 1986 he opened the Pop Shop, a store in mid-town Manhattan where people could buy pins and t-shirts.
“It was a way of retaining a connection with ordinary people,” says Pih. “You could buy a pin for 50 cents and own a little piece of this optimistic message that Keith Haring was transmitting to the world.”
He had indeed gone global, but instead of sending his work to foreign exhibitions he would travel to each venue and create new pictures on the spot. This is how M KHA, the museum of contemporary art in Antwerp came to have a Keith Haring mural in its cafe.
As the 1980s progressed, Haring’s activism became dominated by the issue of HIV/Aids and campaigning for fair access to health care and more research into treatments. At the same time, people close to him started to fall ill and die, and it became clear that he, too, was at risk.
Some of his later work reflects this darkness, such as a series featuring a demonic sperm cell rampaging through society. Another large painting, produced for an exhibition in Knokke in 1987, has a tornado of urban images whirling above a body lying in the dunes. Pih: “That is surely a self-portrait, with Keith Haring’s stricken body on the ground.”
He fell ill at the end of the decade, and died in 1990 from complications related to AIDS at the age of 31.
While synonymous with the 1980s, Keith Haring remains relevant today, if not for his style then certainly for the way he worked. “He came from the art world, but he saw a responsibility to communicate about issues that were urgent and global in that moment,” Pih says. “And this uncompromising commitment to social justice is why Haring is important.”
Until 19 April, Bozar, Brussels. Photos courtesy Bozar