It was a trip worth making to see the new Keith Haring show and what a breath of fresh air it is to see this artist’s collection of work up front and personal. His work wasn’t made for the big white gallery environment but it does show off over 85 of his artworks perfectly.
A down and dirty urban street artist Haring combined his love of graffiti art with fine art ideas. Having studied at the School of Visual Arts in New York he developed a calligraphic style of autobiographical painting consisting of signs and symbols. Haring’s sense of fun, spontaneity and personality shone through his work as he strove to harness the energy found in children’s art in his own mature hands.
A time of decadence and revolution, change manifested itself in many quarters and as part of a vibrant artists community of writers, dancers, actors and musicians, alongside an eclectic artist conclave (Warhol, Basquait) he could truly be himself. It was the in the act of creating his street art that it became more of a performance. Covering expired subway adverts in chalk he created thousands of drawings over the years in his distinctive free-flowing lines.
Through these he created his own visual vocabulary which translated the ongoing saga of the political 80s. Anti-Partite (race riots), the Cold War (Berlin Wall coming down), equal rights, AIDS (safe sex). He tirelessly campaigned against the US government for their lack of action and the Tate’s collection shows a man dedicated to visual activism through his life work: videos, paintings, campaign posters, drawings, documented photographs, etc. Showing there was so much more to this man. His legacy of mass-consumerism, ie, the proliferation of merchandise in his name was actually started by him in his own Pop Shop. He voraciously sought to get his work out there for everyone to see it. Despite the art world hating his approach, his artwork was democratic, accessible, fun and available for anyone to see.
It’s actually quite obscure seeing the characteristics of pop culture (Disney, MTV) and underground club culture (Studio 54) sitting next to his political agenda. Haring’s art is full of visual referencing: the religious cross, red X, Soviet colours of red & black and tarpaulin flags (campaigning). The black borders reminiscent of cartoons he paints around his paintings make them readable. It doesn’t turn you off with boredom rather it switches you on like a light bulb. There’s no high art or conceptual fanning about so you can’t make out what he’s going on. Radiant babies, flying saucers, nuclear signs, dogs, pyramids, genderless figures, tv’s and robots. The dog and babies were his graffiti tags so you knew the work was Haring’s. The bodies with a hole in its stomach relates to John Lennon’s assassination, well known for his pacifism and political activism.
Critically for Haring the energy and spirit of the 80s saw his death too early from AIDS, and we’re privileged that the Tate has his red Virus painting depicting the HIV/AIDS epidemic and his own personal battles as it infects his mind and body. His work transcends time and politics as society faces its own battles in the 21st century and there couldn’t be a more relevant time to have this show.
On until 10 November 2019