Sunday, September 15, 2013

Now that's how you curate a Keith Haring exhibit.

I'm no stranger to the art of Keith Haring.  I've been looking at his art since seeing one of the first major exhibits I ever saw twenty-something years ago.  It was an exhibit in Washington, DC that looked at the influence of Walt Disney on the art world.  From then until last year's inspirational Haring retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, Haring has been one of the artists I seek out.

So it's no surprise that I went out of my way during my first visit to Paris to get to the Musee d'Art Moderne for Keith Haring: The Political Line. What is a surprise, is how much this exhibit made me realize that there's a lot of Haring's work I haven't experienced.  It's easy to assume that Haring is all about "radiant babies" and "dancing wolves."   But this exhibit goes beyond the most famous of Haring's imagery and paints a more complex picture.

But before we get to all the politics, let's just talk about the objects.  The Political Line is an astounding achievement from a curatorial standpoint. And it includes one category of objects that I didn't even know existed; giant vases.  I'm not sure how I can have been to so many Haring exhibits without knowing there are all these massive vases.  I love how Haring's markings seem both ancient and modern.  Many of them feature nudity or sexual acts which only reinforces the idea that these are a modern nod to antiquity.  Of course boom boxes ensure you know these are works from the 80s. Here are a few photos of just a portion of the works included in the show:

Untitled, 1984 Ink on Terra Cotta

Both Untitled, 1981-82 Enamel and Ink on Fiberglass

Untitled (Tinaja), 1982-83 Acrylic on Terra Cotta

Detail from
Untitled (Tinaja), 1982-83 Acrylic on Terra Cotta

Untitled, 1985, Chinese Ink on Terra Cotta Vase

Both Untitled, 1989 Acrylic on Terra Cotta Vases    

The vases also made me realize that Haring is an artist who is all about scale.  His works are frequently gigantic and this show dedicates massive amounts of wall space to Haring's work. (Although part two of my Paris Haring experience will only make me realize that the vision of Haring's work can be even bigger than what was shown here.)  Two canvases were particularly large and engaging:

Untitled, 1983, Acrylic on vinyl cover

Untitled, 1985, Acrylic on canvas

All the above pieces weren't meant just to celebrate the objet d'art.  All the works in The Political Line were selected to demonstrate Haring's use of art to make idealogical and political statements. The show delivers in a massive way reminding the viewer that Haring's work is far from the happy, fun-filled images we all know and love.  Most of his work is surprisingly hard hitting as he tackles everything from religion to consumerism to sex.  That means much of his art was and is surprisingly controversial.

The exhibit tackles a number of themes in Haring's work. I'll mention a few, starting with fame and commercialism.  I know it seems a bit disingenuous that a Pop artist like Haring wants to complain about the perils of fame and commercialism when so much of what he did falls squarely within these two ideas.  He made plenty of money thanks to commercialism and the power of his artistic fame. But somehow that just makes the argument more interesting.  There were two works from the show that I particularly like which explored fame and commercialism.  First is Andy Mouse – New Coke, 1985, Acrylic on Canvas. Casting Andy Warhol as Mickey Mouse seems to me like a pretty harsh criticism of Warhol's dedication to consumerism and the "mass produced" as art.  And yet, I'm guessing Andy would have been thrilled.  It doesn't hurt that like Warhol, Haring is appropriating mass-market brands to make his point.

Andy Mouse – New Coke, 1985, Acrylic on Canvas.

Untitled, 1985, acrylic and oil on canvas.

Haring's relationship with race, religion, and compassion is also complex and political. Born and raised catholic, it's clear that Keith respected the ideas of God and tradition.  But he didn't always agree with religions' interpretations of God and his philosophies, particularly when it came to race and compassion for humanity. And when he didn't agree, he could deliver scathing critiques. The symbol of the cross appears frequently as an oppressor in response to the way organized religion treated blacks, latinos, and other racial groups.  That negative portrayal of religion is equally as strong when it comes to the treatment of gays, particularly during the rise of the AIDS epidemic. I particularly liked this work which features an image reminiscent of the monsters that appear in Medieval art. In this case, the monster seems not to be devouring the traditional sinners, but rather those who preach to the sinners.

Untitled, August 25, 1983, Acrylic on vinyl cover

I also liked this image which suggested white suppression of minorities through the use of religion. 

Untitled, 1984, Acrylic on Canvas
There's plenty of sex in Haring's work, much of it homoerotic.  Haring was unapologetic that gay sex was a reality and should be celebrated. But also wasn't afraid to use sex to critique oppressors.  one spectacular work in the show was a giant phallic canvas, the content of which speaks forcefully to the oppressive and greedy nature of whites and religion.

The Great White Way, November 27, 1988, Acrylic on canvas
In the notes to this section of the show, there was a quote from Haring: "I'm glad I'm different. I'm proud to be gay. I'm proud to have friends and lovers of every color.  I am ashamed of my forefathers.  I am not like them."  What a great sentiment.  And well ahead of public opinion.  I think that might be why Haring's art feels so relevant in our contemporary world.

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