Not since Andy Warhol has an artist been as driven to achieve both popular and critical success simultaneously as Keith Haring. Although his trademark images of radiant babies, anthropomorphized televisions, barking dogs, and UFOs caught the attention of the NYC subway-riding masses, and his Pop Shop products rivaled Warhol’s Factory output, Haring received little museum attention during his lifetime. René Ricard, in 1981, wrote about Haring with great prescience:
Everyone wants to get on the Van Gogh Boat. There is no trip so horrible that someone won’t take it. Nobody wants to miss the Van Gogh Boat. The idea of the unrecognized genius slaving away in a garret is a deliciously foolish one. We must credit the life of Vincent Van Gogh for really sending that myth into orbit. How many pictures did he sell? One. He couldn’t give them away ... We’re so ashamed of his life that the rest of art history will be retribution for Van Gogh’s neglect. No one wants to be part of a generation that ignores another Van Gogh.
Haring, who was born in Reading, Pennsylvania (and would have been 54 this week), went to the School of Visual Arts where he studied painting, performance, and installation. Evidence of his early interests are apparent in the current Brooklyn Museum show, which is packed with his notebook drawings, his videos, and documentation of installation and performance pieces. Comparisons to Van Gogh do hold up when one encounters such unbridled Catholic tastes when it comes to art forms, as well as a shared propensity to document his life and working process through journals and letters. These texts, amply displayed, allow us to see into Haring’s working process—and his calligraphic sketches are wonderful background material when seen next to his large-scale ink drawings. His ability to transform words into images and back again would eventually give way to a purely image-based art, but his early posters for shows, parties, and nightclubs are both witty and sophisticated graphic design.
Keith Haring, flyer for Des Refusés at Westbeth Painters Space, New York City,
1981, acrylic and ink on paper; Courtesy of the artist and Brooklyn Museum of Art.
Highlights of the exhibition include some of Haring’s early video pieces. Painting Myself into a Corner (1979) shows him doing just that, creating a black and white floor mural, backing himself into a (literal) corner. But it is ultimately Haring’s drawings from this period, which catapulted him into the realm of instant brand recognition, that steal the show. Drawings on subway posters, in chalk on the blacked-out enamel paint used to obliterate outdated ads, take up several rooms. Their by-now familiar iconography in no way diminishes Haring’s graphic power. A small drawing, Untitled (1980) in ink on florescent orange sign paper, of a pig’s head emerging over a horizon reminds us of Goya’s dog; Haring’s strong art historical grounding gives both the image, as well as his larger mural-sized pieces, a resonance that we might only now begin to appreciate fully. It is the strength of the exhibition that it focuses on the period of Haring’s work when he had not yet fully settled into the museum-ready style that he eventually obtained.
The works here—the best of them still look edgy, a little rough—show a young Haring daring his audience to like him, while at the same time courting the acclaim he was so desperate for and didn’t quite achieve before his death. These works, and Haring, might finally be seen as, if not great art, at least as Art, now that the hype has dissipated. With Haring, nobody has missed the Van Gogh Boat.
(Image on top right: Keith Haring, Untitled, 1980, ink on orange paper, 36 x 35 1/2 in.; Courtesy of the artist and Brooklyn Museum of Art)