Keith Haring: Pop Art with a Sharp Social Jab

de Young hours:

Tuesdays- Sundays 9:30-5:15

Fridays 9:30-8:45

Keith Haring: The Political Line opened at the de Young museum on November 8, and runs until February 16, 2015. The show features over 130 works from Haring’s brief yet prolific career, from chalk subway drawings to collaborative sculptures with graffiti writer Angel Ortiz (aka LA II) to massive tarpaulin paintings. Though Haring was incredibly successful in his lifetime, he often doesn’t receive recognition for his political work, though it played a major role in his body of work.

The de Young show is Haring’s first US show curated to shine light on Haring’s commitment to art as a public medium and a vehicle for social change. Haring strove to create art that was accessible to everyone, through public works such as murals, or his “Pop Shop,” which sold t-shirts, posters, toys, magnets and buttons featuring his work. Though many within the art world criticized the degree to which Haring made his artwork available for mass consumption, Haring saw these moves as chances to bring his art, and the messages of change contained within it, to the people. He frequently donated his artwork to raise funds for health centers, provided artwork for use in logos and imagery for public service organizations, and created art workshops for children.

Haring existed outside of “the white cube” of galleries, museums, and the private art world. The Political Line respects this. In the official press release for the Political Line, Colin B. Bailey, the Director for the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, states, “We are particularly pleased to profile Keith Haring’s artwork in San Francisco; we sense that it will appeal to a younger generation who will appreciate his honest and passionate commitment to addressing contemporary issues through art.”

The show has certainly succeeded and even surpassed this expectation; visitors to the exhibit on Veteran’s Day ranged from babies to white-haired ladies with walkers, and each seemed to enjoy it just as much as the next.

Subjects featured in The Political Line range from race to sexuality to technology to the AIDS epidemic during the Reagan administration. Despite the weight of these topics, the work is accessible to all viewers. Haring aimed to create work that was relevant and approachable. He utilized his knowledge of semiotics, combined with bright colors and simple images, to create an iconographic language that was recognizable and understandable for all.

The simplicity of Haring’s work, with its cartoonish sensibilities, creates a more subversive platform for his politics. Drawings and paintings are often simultaneously humorous and confrontational, engaging the viewer and forcing them to think. The wall of “Manhattan Penis Drawings” caused giggles amongst younger visitors to the show, but it also communicates Haring’s desire, as stated in The Universe of Keith Haring, a 2008 documentary of the artist, to “assert [his] sexuality” and “force people to deal with it.” In many ways, the elementary nature of each piece can make the message more disturbing than it would be if executed in another manner. In the section of the show dealing with capitalism, I overheard an elderly man observing a painting of a pig-faced, dollar-nosed monster gobbling up a group of people exclaim, “that is a nightmare!”

In addition to an impressive body of Haring’s work, The Political Line gives insight to Haring’s personal reflections and meditations on the world around him through displays of his journal entries.  Haring cared deeply about each issue he focused on. Open pages reveal ruminations on technology (“Have we created a monster?”) and the impact of the death of Haring’s friend and mentor, Andy Warhol. In each gallery section, quotations from Haring give light to his relationship with the issue at hand. In the room featuring work dealing with capitalism, a wall plaque sheds light on Haring’s awareness of his complicated relationship with money, citing his view that “Money is not evil, in fact it can actually be very effective for good if it used properly… [but] it does not make you any better or more useful of a person.”

Though Haring’s work dealt with issues current in the 1970s and 80s, such as the AIDS epidemic, apartheid, and nuclear power, the messages are still applicable today. Haring’s cut-out word pieces featured some hauntingly familiar words: “KILLER COPS LOOSE IN CITY.” Some work also feels particularly pertinent to the growing power of technology and Silicon Valley, including Haring’s reflection, printed on a gallery wall, that “eventually the only worth of man will be to serve the computer. Are we there? In a lot of ways we are.”

Haring died from AIDS in 1990, at age 31. Though he faced failing strength and increasingly poor health towards the end of his life, he worked with tenacity and passion up until his death. The work he left behind is the legacy of an artist who looked beyond gallery walls to do something positive for the world. The Political Line honors this legacy, and continues Haring’s impact.

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