New Show Views Haring Work Through a Political Lens

by Sura Wood

In its new exhibition, the deYoung Museum features 130 large-scale paintings and other works by Keith Haring.

Artist Keith Haring—who was shaped by the political turmoil of the 1960s and the Vietnam War, a distrust of institutional power and a love of Disney cartoons—advocated for social justice in his personal life and through his art.

An agent provocateur, he dedicated himself to a variety of causes, from nuclear disarmament, racism and economic inequality to the environment; he also fought to eradicate AIDS, the illness that took his life in 1990 at the age of 31.

“Keith Haring: The Political Line,” a new exhibition opening this month at the de Young Museum, features over 130 of the artist’s large-scale paintings on canvas and tarpaulin, sculptures and subway drawings and is the first major U.S. show to view his work through a political lens. “Haring was deeply engaged with current affairs and the prevailing political and social issues of his time,” says the museum’s organizing curator, Julian Cox. “His journals are full of references and reflections on topics that he cared deeply about and which he articulated in his work: AIDS and homophobia, sexism, the excesses of capitalism and technology, the perils of global warming and environmental degradation.”

Inspired by cartoons, graffiti art, club music and hip-hop culture, Haring, who was openly gay, created playful, confrontational works equally at home in a gallery or on city streets. He was at the center of New York’s thriving downtown art scene in the 1980s, where he mingled with writers, musicians and artists such as Roy Lichtenstein, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Yoko Ono, Grace Jones and Madonna. Andy Warhol was a friend and formative influence whose portrait Haring combined with Mickey Mouse in his “Andy Mouse” paintings. “Andy’s life and work made my work possible,” acknowledged Haring when Warhol died in 1987. Several photographs of Haring with Warhol and other famous members of his circle on are view.

Although his success was meteoric, Haring made his name in his early 20s as a graffiti artist in the New York subway system. Using white chalk on empty advertising panels that lined station walls, he dashed off the motifs developed when he was
a student fresh out of art school, which would populate his works for the following decade: infants emitting beams of light, zooming spaceships zapping earthlings, barking dogs, angels, pulsing TV sets and multi-limbed creatures of alien origin.

Haring was attracted to the spontaneity of
the subway drawings and the speed with which they could be completed. That ordinary people from all walks of life could see them as they commuted to and from work epitomized his populist “art is for everybody” philosophy. The transit authorities also took notice and he was arrested for vandalism on more than one occasion.

“Just as no one can look at a sunflower without thinking of Van Gogh, so no one can be in the New York subway without thinking of Keith Haring,” William S. Burroughs once said. Haring’s journal entry describing his 1987 visit with the author, with whom he occasionally collaborated, is in the show.

Haring, who never made preparatory drawings, usually started and completed his compositions in a single sitting. He soon adapted this improvisational style, and the bold street imagery that combined optimism with political commentary and overt sexuality, to more traditional mediums. His savage wit is on display in a narrow, 20-foot-tall ink and tempera work on paper that has a blood-stained message scrawled in black and white, which reads: “Everyone Knows Where Meat Comes from, It Comes from the Store.” His paintings on immense vinyl tarpaulins demonstrate cleverness and a
capacity for scale and impact. “Untitled” (1983), for instance, portrays alien figures with jagged, zippered mouths and totemic animal heads striding through a brightly colored, patterned landscape, while another 10-foot-by-10-foot painting from the same year features a black robot-like creature with metal arms, antennae protruding from the top of its head and a blaring yellow rectangular slot for eyes. A fluorescent enamel-on-fiberglass sculpture, “The Statue of Liberty” (1982), was done in collaboration with LA II, aka graffiti artist Angel Ortiz; it stands roughly eight feet tall. The iconic American symbol of freedom and independence is painted in a neon pop-art color scheme and covered—or defiled, depending on one’s point of view—head to toe with tags and symbols as if she had acquired a whole body tattoo; she lifts an orange torch with a blue lightbulb skyward.

The artist aggressively takes on an incendiary triad of race, power and violence in “Prophets of Rage” (1988), in which a black figure in silhouette, broken chains dangling from his ankles, attempts to grasp a golden crown just above his head. He’s flanked by the decapitated body of a white man hanging by his feet on one side and, on the other, a red heart with a knife through it, dripping blood. “Haring was a showman,” notes Cox. “And this large painting has all the trademarks of that aspect of his personality.”

Though based in New York, Haring visited San Francisco many times, leaving behind an artistic legacy. He created a 1985 mural for the South of Market Child Care Center and another for the underground club DV-8—both are now in private collections—as well as “The Life of Christ” (1990), a triptych sculpture installed in the AIDS chapel at Grace Cathedral. The San Francisco Art Commission owns his sculpture “Untitled (Three Dancing Figures)” (1989).

Haring sought social change until the end, passionately promoting safe sex and AIDS awareness. “Silence=Death,” a large, pink, triangular-shaped canvas laden with symbolism, is an activist work that poignantly speaks to the crisis, giving voice to the suffering of an invisible population and attention to a disease claiming the lives of his friends. It was created in 1988, two years before he died.

Nov. 8 → Feb. 16

de Young Museum

Golden Gate Park