Everybody knows Keith Haring: his t-shirts printed with radiating babies, red hearts and barking dogs became iconic in the mid-eighties as he started selling them in his Pop Shop in downtown Manhattan and are nowadays recognized by one and all. Yet few know about the artist’s longstanding political engagement, his activism and his fight against racism, environment destruction, homophobia and AIDS. That is why the Musée d’Art moderne de la Ville de Paris and Le CENTQUATRE gallery have joined forces to present Keith Haring: The political Line. The exhibition – a comprehensive retrospective featuring nearly 250 works – explores the messages of social justice, individual freedom and change conveyed by the artist through his canvases, sculptures and graffiti.
Haring was exceptionally aware of the international political situation, something he attributed to having grown up during the boisterous 60s. Born in Pennsylvania in 1958, he took an early interest in art and began studying at the Ivy School of Professional Art of Pittsburgh. However, he soon grew frustrated with commercial art and decided to move to New York’s School of Visual Arts. It was 1978 and Basquiat, Rauschenberg and Warhol (who would become his close friends) were at the forefront of the city’s art scene. It was during these years that he started doing his subway paintings, which he humorously dubbed “urban guerrilla art”, working frenetically and risking arrest every time he took the subway downtown. These quick drawings, which became part of his everyday routine (some of them have survived time and are visible in the exhibition, even if Haring wished them to be ephemeral) were made in chalk over publicity billboards. Sketched quickly in one lean line, they would shape the artist’s visual identity, gradually turning into the clean, naïve characters inhabiting his canvasses.
"It was during the late seventies that he started doing his subway paintings, which he humorously dubbed “urban guerrilla art”, working frenetically and risking arrest every time he took the subway downtown."
Even through the use of pop art techniques (Coca-Cola logos, dollar bills and Andy Mouse, a crossover between Mickey Mouse and Andy Warhol, are recurrent in the exhibit), Haring could not hide the conceptual nature of his work. His figures were drawn with an almost irritating precision and their touching candour expressed paradoxically dark and complicated realities, conveying his message in a very comprehensible way. With cartoonish charm, a painting in the exhibition depicts the United States as a muscular character with an erect penis and a tank where his head should be. Another canvas features capitalism as an oversized pig merrily devouring humans. Where one painting represents media as a Technicolor monster trapping humans with its many tongues, another reflects upon the atomic menace using only black, white and red. Haring’s political engagement drove him to work mainly in the public space (he famously painted the Berlin Wall at Checkpoint Charlie in 1986). In his opinion, art should be accessible: “the public has been ignored by most contemporary artists”, he wrote in his journal, “but the public needs art. Art is for everybody”.
Keith Haring: The political Line is at the Musée d’Art moderne de la Ville de Paris and Centquatre until 18 August.
Text by Marta Represa
Marta Represa is a freelance writer specializing in fashion, art, photography and culture.