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Keith Haring: Politics for Everyone

by Helm de Laat in Theatre, Art & Expo , 26 October 2015

Dit artikel is ook in het Nederlands beschikbaar
length: 9 minuten

Everyone knows the happy little figures by Keith Haring, but many people got to know the other side of his work during the AIDS crisis. Long before he died of AIDS in 1990, he was world-famous and one of the most well-known gay artists. And not just in the United States. His first exhibition in Europe took place in Rotterdam, as early as 1982. This city now hosts the exhibition “Keith Haring: the Political Line!”

AIDS was not the only social issue Keith Haring was involved with. He was also active in the fight against nuclear weapons and racism. He was one of the few artists who thought it goes without saying to use his art for political means.

The AIDS crisis seems to be over, and Haring’s imagery seems to have become common property. The artistic appreciation of his work gained the upper hand, and the political side of his work disappeared into the background. The exhibition “Keith Haring: the Political Line” tries to correct this view, and particularly addresses the social and political aspects of his work. The exhibition is set up in collaboration with the Keith Haring Foundation. This foundation manages his artistic legacy and dedicates itself on the social issues Keith Haring devoted himself to. The exhibition has been shown before in Paris and San Francisco. This Rotterdam edition has an added focus on Keith Haring’s relationship with the Netherlands. And fully in line with Haring’s ideas about the social function of art, new art projects in which everyone can participate were set up in Rotterdam.

Art is for Everybody

Keith Haring was born in 1958 and, just like Andy Warhol (1928-1987), grew up in the countryside in Pennsylvania and started his education at the art academy in Pittsburgh, where Warhol also learned the tricks of the trade. Haring’s work has always been bracketed with Andy Warhol’s pop art, but they only met each other after Keith Haring had left for New York to continue his education. Like so many other young artists, he became fascinated at the academy by abstract expressionism, which was calling the shots at the time in the American art world. But just like the pop art artists, he wanted to make art that was for everyone, and was looking for a podium and an imagery that were accessible to everyone.

In New York, he found himself among youths and ethnic minorities that were also beginning to express their desires in the public domain. Their street art on empty walls, but especially their graffiti on train compartments, were subject to severe government opposition. Keith Haring was looking for his own way between their “tags” and “glyphs.” He discovered that old advertisements in subway stations were taped up with black paper before new posters were placed. With chalk, he would quickly make drawings on them. He was accompanied by his Chinese friend Tseng Kwong Chi, who made photos of this. Many of them show a nervous Keith, always on the look-out for the police. He was fined on numerous occasions and even arrested at times. Between 1980 and 1985, he made at least 5,000 of such drawings. There, he developed the imagery he became known for, with his barking street dog and little hip hop men.

The Public Needs Art

Keith Haring reached out to a much larger audience by working this way than with his exhibitions in galleries. The drawings he made at the stations were very much liked by a large number of travelers and these drawings made his name. Even policemen started asking for his autograph after a while.

Through art school and several galleries, he kept in touch with the art circuit, in which his star was rising - just like other young artists who were discovered on the street. Through his work, he was hoping to find a vital alternative for the corrupt and practically bankrupt city of New York. Andy Warhol, who was washed out according to many, became friends with Haring and supported him. Warhol was taking pleasure in his work again and started collaborating with Haring. When Haring drew some spectacles on the Mickey Mouse in his drawings waving dollar bills and calling it Andy Mouse, he was amused. Haring had already become a big earner himself by that time.

As early as 1982, his work was brought to Rotterdam by Gosse Oosterhof. He even made a small catalogue, and Wim Beeren purchased work from him. In 1986, he brought Keith Haring to Amsterdam, and that his how Amsterdam became one of the few cities with a giant mural that has been leading a hidden existence, awaiting restoration. Also in 1982 already and at the invitation of the famous curator Rudi Fuchs, Haring took part in “Dokumenta,” a prestigious international art event. While he was becoming a craze in the international art circuit, he was still illegally working on new murals in New York’s rough districts. The city forced him to remove the mural “Crack is Wack” in 1986, but several months later, he was commissioned by the city to restore the mural on the same location.

‘I’m Not White’

Haring was part of a generation that grew up with TV images of race riots and protests against the war in Vietnam. Images that completely seemed to contradict the ideals of the American Dream and determined his political activism. Homosexuality did not exist in this world. He left the white upstanding Christian country community in Pennsylvania in 1978 to go the colorful and free-minded New York with its street culture and gay community. During the day he was making art for everyone and was fighting for peace and equality. With his friends, he handed out 20,000 posters he had printed himself at a large Rally for Peace in 1982. At an anti-apartheid rally in 1986, he spread posters with his work and designed buttons, T-shirts, and other campaign material.

The exhibition also shows work in which he turns against the injustice of big business and the state, and the double standards of the Church. At night, the clubs, the dance, the hip hop and, of course, the sex with his black and Latino b-boys were waiting for him. At the cross-roads of these two worlds, he wrote the following in his diary: “I am sure inside I am not white... I’m glad I’m different. I’m proud to be gay. I’m proud to have friends and lovers of every color.” But outside the gallery walls, and especially in neighborhoods where his boyfriends grew up, homosexuality was a taboo subject.

Coming Out

In 1978, after having just moved to New York, he draws the city in his sketch books and sees a cock in every skyscraper. At the exhibition, several of his “Manhattan Penis Drawings for Ken Hicks” are on display. They are equally adolescent as liberating, but their importance to his work is somewhat overestimated. He liked to show them to his boyfriends, but didn’t do a lot with them. At his first exhibition in 1982 there are some paintings on gay sex, but they do not leave the gallery. In the period before the gay liberation of the 1970s, even concealed references to homosexuality could lead to censorship and prosecution. Andy Warhol undoubtedly must have told him about his experiences with the FBI. He was watched by the FBI for years because of his homosexuality. And in large parts of the USA his films were not shown, not even in art clubs. Warhol’s claim that he was asexual and that his art had nothing to do with politics perhaps had become a frivolous pose, but in the not so recent past it was a survival strategy.

Incidentally, the theme turns op in Haring’s work, usually in his drawings. In 1988, he made “The Great White Way,” an almost man-sized pink penis that reminds us of his first drawings of New York. The title both refers to the racism of the white elite and to a street that is part of New York’s Millionaire’s Row. It is one of the few works that can also be interpreted as a protest against patriarchy. Of all the social movements of this time period, it is only the women’s movement that is absent in his work. Keith Haring had nothing with feminism. The Pink Penis can be interpreted as vigorous sexuality fighting racism, but the little figures and symbols that cover the penis point out that it symbolizes the injustice that impairs each and every one. This work had nothing to do with homosexuality, but by 1988, things had dramatically changed.

Silence = Death

With the onset of AIDS, keeping silent about homosexuality was no longer an option. One of his sex partners died of AIDS in 1988, and his own suspicions are confirmed when doctors inform him that he also contracted HIV. As with many other artists during this period, homosexuality is only truly expressed in his work after AIDS. As early as 1985, he made the work “Safe Sex.” It shows two little men having sex and leaves nothing to the imagination. After this, references to homosexuality become more frequent, for example pink triangles, full of new, unwilling little figures. They do not want to see it, hear it, and cover their mouth with their little hands. The title “Silence = Death” is also the slogan of ACT UP, the action group that is leading the fight against AIDS. This fight pushes all other political themes in his work to the background. The happy little snake from his earlier work is replaced by a “demon seed,” a sperm cell with the devil’s horns.

Shortly before his death, Haring creates a mural in the men’s room at the New York LGBT Center that is leading in the care for AIDS patients in 1989. In this mural, vital homosexuality cannot be missed. The work is called “Once Upon a Time” and now has monumental status. It is missing in “Keith Haring: The Political Line.”

Art Experience

One of Keith Haring’s most impressive community art protects is “CityKids Speak on Liberty” (1986). It is a huge depiction of the Statue of Liberty. He invited 1,000 children to fill in the contours he designed with their drawings about freedom. However, the organization CityKids, which is dedicated to children from poor neighborhoods, is fighting for its existence, and has put the giant work of nine meters up for sale.

The Keith Haring Foundation supports setting up these kinds of community art projects. The current exhibition was shown earlier this year in Munich, with the title “Gegen den Strich.” Organizers of the local Pride, the Christopher Street Day, asked their visitors to color in the meters long design of a student. It was not considered to be a success.
The Rotterdam Kunsthal used a different approach and organized a competition - the Keith Haring Art Challenge. A professional jury will select three designs. Visitors of Dutch music festival Lowlands set the brush rolling, and the next opportunity to use a brush or a spray was at the Rotterdam festival 24 hours of Culture on September 12-13.

Practical info:
“Keith Haring: The Political Line.”  Till February 17, 2016 at the Kunsthal,
Westzeedijk 341, 3015 AA Rotterdam
Opening hours: Tuesday-Saturday 10:00-17:00,
on Sundays and Holidays, 11:00-17:00
More info:

Accompanying publication: Dieter Buchart (Ed.), “Keith Haring: The Political Line.”
Munich: Prestel, 2014, ISBN 9783791354620.



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