In spring of 1977, a skinny teenager from Kutztown, Pa., wrote in his private journal that he was “confused” and utterly exasperated. Keith Haring wanted to be a professional artist but was terrified he'd fail — terrified he'd always resort to copying other artists instead of finding his own style. “If I always seek to pattern my life after another,” he wrote, “mine is being wasted re-doing things for my own empty acceptance.”
Within a few years, Haring discovered a signature style that employed thick, quirky lines and the contours of mannequin-like figures. He also encountered people like Jane Dickson who recognized that Haring had the determination and genuine talent to make it big in the art world. But Dickson, an accomplished artist who befriended Haring in 1980, also saw something else in him: a wildness that, if left unchecked, might kill Haring at an early age. The art world was full of early deaths, just like the world of music and film. Jim Morrison? Jackson Pollock? James Dean? The list of tragic demises is endless.
“Keith was incredibly fast out of the gate,” Dickson tells SF Weekly. “I also knew Jean-Michel Basquiat, and it was clear that they were going to be famous. They wanted that more than anything else; they were extremely talented, extremely ambitious — and it did seem to me that they were going to live fast and die young. I told them, 'I can't keep up with you guys. I want to be around for the long haul.'”
The de Young Museum's new exhibit, “Keith Haring: The Political Line,” which opened Nov. 8, gives us Haring in all his complexity. Mostly, we meet the politicized Haring, the artist who said, “Enough is enough,” and used his artistic platform to condemn racism, sexism, homophobia, environmental injustice, religious hypocrisy, and other societal oppressions he felt in his bones. Because Haring's imagery was always so precocious, he could reach people who might otherwise ignore such messages. One of Haring's best-known polemics was the antiapartheid canvas he painted in 1984 that depicts a large black figure chained by a smaller white one. The black man holds a white cross while the white man has a red cross on his chest. Or is that an X where the cross will soon penetrate? It's unclear. As art scholar Dieter Buchhart, who curated this exhibit, points out, Haring's works are always open to interpretation. Heroes can be devils, and devils can be heroes — though it's clear that Haring wanted South Africa's brutal segregation policies to end. Haring's Untitled (Apartheid), one of some 150 works at the de Young, became an iconic poster in the antiapartheid struggle, whose major successes included Nelson Mandela's prison release in February 1990 — the same month that Haring died of AIDS at age 31.
“Keith Haring: The Political Line,” which originated at the Musée d'art moderne de la Ville de Paris (National Museum of Modern Art in Paris), is billed as the first U.S. art exhibit to assess the political foundations of Haring's work. The first art that visitors see at the de Young — at the exhibit's entrance, before even entering the gallery spaces — is a video of Haring's animated billboard that he made with Dickson in 1982. The billboard appeared above New York's Times Square, and it features two of Haring's best-known characters: a barking dog and a newborn baby. The dog chases the baby (who can run like a man), violence ensues, but the figures ultimately return to their previous static position. Dickson commissioned Haring to do the work while she oversaw the animated billboard program called Spectacolor. Dickson was one of the first New York artists to do computer animation. She and Haring were part of a circle of artists who embraced street culture in a way that wasn't being reflected in traditional museums and galleries. With her animated billboard, Dickson helped introduce Haring, Jenny Holzer, and other artists to an even wider audience. Haring and Dickson both lived near Times Square, and had birthdays that were just days apart.
“Our motto was, 'If no one is asking you to dance, throw a party,'” Dickson says of Haring. “A strong memory I have of Keith in those early days: There was a women's march for choice in 1981. I did a poster about choice that was in the Village Voice, and then I went to march down Fifth Avenue with millions of other women, and there was Keith with a bag full of radiant baby buttons. I think it was the first button that he made of that image, and he was handing them out to every woman marching. It was a gesture of generosity.”
Haring's art changed when he moved to New York in 1978 to attend the School of Visual Arts. The subway system became his gallery space, where — in minutes — he could draw his characters all over blank billboard spaces. Haring also defaced billboards that had full ads. As he got famous, people would steal them (including the billboard frames) from the underground. Among the many highlights of “Keith Haring: The Political Line” are Haring's original subway billboards. Seeing these works is to connect first-hand with his daringness. Haring was arrested over and over again for doing his subway work, which police deemed “vandalism.” Haring didn't care. The thrill of working in a busy public space, connecting with anyone who passed by, inspired him.
The risky behavior that Haring was known for — including sex with strange men in New York clubs and the ingestion of large amounts of drugs, including amphetamines — reflected this same search for higher experience. Haring didn't hide anything. He knew his private journal, which was published soon after his death, would become public. The journal makes many references to graphic sex. During his life, Haring created scores of paintings, drawings, and other artwork that featured erect phalluses, oral sex, and intercourse. These more X-rated works — perhaps unsurprisingly — have never become part of Haring's pop-culture reputation. A portfolio of these works are in “Keith Haring: The Political Line,” most notably The Great White Way, a 14-foot-tall penis with figures that narrate a gruesome history of capitalism and religious warfare.
At the end of his life, Haring didn't express many regrets. Even when he sensed he had AIDS (“I know my days are numbered”) he wanted to create even more art and be involved with even more public projects. Today, reading his diary, you can see the intellect and the daringness that made his art so beguiling, and made Haring himself so likable. Haring's last journal entry, from September 1989, describes a trip he took to Italy, where he saw the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Haring identified with the tower, writing, “It is really major and also hysterical. Every time you look at it, it makes you smile.”
The same thing can be said about Haring's art. He explored deadly serious issues in his work, but it's the utter joy that he captured — the moments where sweat seems to almost jump off your body — that will always attract new generations to Haring's art, and will always make his work seem so fresh and so alive.