The recently concluded Brooklyn Museum exhibit, “Keith Haring: 1978-1982,” re-enforces the view that artists are often appreciated more after death than they are during their lifetimes.
Born in 1958 in Reading, Pennsylvania, growing up in nearby Kutztown and moving to New York City in 1978, Mr. Haring came to epitomize the gay commercial artist-social activist living the club scene in pre-AIDS Lower Manhattan during the early 1980s. He died of AIDS complications in 1990 at the age of 31.
Among the early influences that gave rise to his commercial street art style were his father, cartoonist Alan Haring and Walt Disney. After his arrival in New York, Haring admitted that Andy Warhol had perhaps the most influence on his work.
Haring’s early training at New York’s School of Visual Arts solidified his pop art, fast-graffiti art credentials, signs of which soon began appearing all over town in subway tunnels, on subway cars and on other structural “canvases” such as bridges and buildings. When not illegally working on structures, Haring worked in what came to be his preferred standard media of: white chalk on black paper, black Sumi Ink with or without red Sumi Ink and acrylic on white paper, and Sumi Ink, acrylic and spray enamel on white paper. While he also worked in video (Painting Myself into a Corner-1979, et.al.) at SVA and in photography (Photographic Wall-1979 to 1982), these media appear to be secondary to his more memorable works in Sumi Ink, acrylic and spray enamel on paper.
The social activist themes running through most of Haring’s work were a reflection of the Tom Wolfe-coined “me-decade” mentality that preceded the AIDS epidemic from the mid-1970s to the early-1980s in New York. Raised as a Protestant, Haring’s street art appears to be strongly anti-fundamentalist and anti-church as exemplified by his Reagan and Pope Headline-Cut-Outs on Paper-1980 and Bishop’s Mitre Photograph-1981, and anti-materialistic as reflected in Radiant Baby-1981, possibly influenced by his participation in the Jesus-movement of the early-1970s.
Most of Haring’s Brooklyn Museum exhibition comprised what are referred to as pictograms, depicting themes such as: birth and death (Baby Exiting Birth Canal-1980 and Graveyard Sky-Eyes-1980), gay sex (Penetration-1981), spaceship aliens (Pyramid & Flying Saucer-1980), live television sets (Serpent Bite-1981, Matrix-1983), and hedonistic pursuits (Bestiality-1980, Idol Worship-1980). Prominent in a number of his pieces are: hydra dragons (Sacrificial Offering to Hydra Dragon-1982), dolphins (Dolphin-1980) and phallus as water towers and grain silos (Penis Drawings for Ken Hicks-1978). Perhaps his most complex work was a highly visible, nearly-room-length wall mural (Matrix-1983). This treasure encompassed much of his art-to-date depicting: flying saucers, pyramids, pregnant women, dancers, acrobats, crawling babies, TV set televising a game show, decapitation, monster’s head on a human body, dogs, multi-eyed primates and several other illustrations.
Finally, also on exhibit were some of his well-handwritten early journal entries (Notes on Semiotics 1979-1980) and his Promo Flyer Wall for Club Fifty-Seven-1979, 1980.
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