Monday, February 9, 2015

Keith Haring at the de Young

I am so pleased I got to squeeze in a visit to the de Young Museum in San Francisco to see their current Keith Haring exhibit before it closes this month.

Haring is such an iconic 80s artist, coming from the downtown Manhattan art scene along with Jean-Michel Basquiat and Madonna, and although Haring died in 1990, his work still speaks to us today. His graphic street style translated well onto large canvases in which he railed against injustice of all kinds: apartheid, the destruction of the planet, rampant consumerism and greed, and the bigotry and hatred that allowed thousands and thousands to die of a disease that, if we had gotten a jump on finding a cure, might be eradicated by now. His squiggles pack a punch. So much so that the show is entitled "The Political Line" since we are still dealing with all these issues more than thirty years on. His work reads like hieroglyphics, recording and marking the rage, terror, and sadness that infiltrated the dark Reagan years. Figures either dance in rapture, or shake and run from a restlessness born of frustration. I lived through those years and while Madonna sang "Everybody/ Come on, dance and sing," there was an anxious, fearful energy in the air because of AIDS and the very real threat of nuclear war with Russia. I think both of these paradoxical feelings--joy and fear--informed Haring's work. Things may have been difficult, but we still wanted to dance and have a good time...

And of course Keith Haring was unapologetically gay and used sexual imagery in his art work. Now, there is of course a history of gay male artists throughout the centuries, but I can't think of another gay artist who drew penises and erections with such dedication, love, and abandon (Tom of Finland aside!). I won't post them here, but the exhibition shows an entire notebook of penises (mostly self-portraits!) and the location where he drew each of them ("Drawing penises in front of the Museum of Modern Art").

As I toured the exhibit, I also realized that so few artists have created their own vocabulary. By that I mean that artists traditionally have painted landscapes or still lifes, figures of mostly women and some of men, allegorical scenes or scenes from the Bible. But who else created anything akin to barking human-dogs, a radiant baby, or persistent and zapping UFOs...and used them in their own visual language. Oh, there are some who created their own semaphores: maybe Cocteau... maybe Francis Bacon in a way...certainly Matthew Barney with his oblique Cremaster Series. But this is not so common to painters. And Haring did manage to invent his own visual language.

Before--and somewhat after--Haring became famous, he drew impromptu scenes on the unused black-lined niches used for advertising posters in the New York Subway. I recall being in Manhattan in the summer of 1982 and seeing, at seemingly every subway station, these curious white chalk drawings of the outlines of angels, or people, or robots...

The exhibit shows a marvelous collection of these drawings in a low-light room so as not to damage the paper or chalk. One is still attached to a film advertisement next to it. And clearly a friend of Haring's wrote some cheeky graffiti: "HARING STOP IT ENOUGH ALREADY."

As I mentioned, there is something wonderfully hieroglyphic and primitive about Haring's lines and he put them on some large vases...which feels ethnic and appropriate.

Below are some of his more directly politically charged pieces. I have to say that since I recall the 80s clearly, it was very powerful standing in front of his Silence = Death. It brought back memories of ACT UP and my own feelings about being gay, being marginalized, and feeling a kinship with the kind of fury that comes from having a large segment of humanity tell you, for no real reason at all, that you don't deserve to be here.

And here is your blogmaster outside the museum in front of Haring's delightful Three Dancing Figures, a joyous explosion of movement in primary colors. I could almost hear Madonna, back when she was still good, urging, "Everybody/ Get up and do your thing..."

If you are in Northern California, do try to get to the De Young for this rare opportunity to see so many Harings all in one place, and to learn about his life and works... it is very special. The exhibit closes this month, February 16th, 2015.

All photos by JEF except the last photo by JDG

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