In November 2014, I had plans to go to San Francisco to see a show of skulls at the California Academy of Sciences. As an afterthought, I checked other SF museums for shows I might also want to see while I was there, and found a retrospective called Keith Haring: The Political Line had just opened at the de Young. I bought a ticket, thinking it would be a nice diversion, a fun show.
When Keith Haring came to prominence in the early 1980s, I really didn’t pay too much attention. I was aware of him, of course, and thought his baby, dog, flying saucer, and batman imagery was playful and amusing, but lightweight. I think the fact that it reproduces so well – I had certainly seen enough of it on buttons, t-shirts, greeting cards, refrigerator magnets, et al. – made me think I knew, and contributed to my reading of, his work. The day I saw The Political Line, I realized how wrong I had been.
The show was startling; I was taken aback by how powerful it was. Reproductions of Haring’s art, like those of Roy Lichtenstein’s, look great but can’t convey the formal aspects which give the works much of their strength. Seeing the actual paintings made me realize how important scale is in Haring’s work, and allowed me to see them as not just cartoons – to recognize their abstract qualities. His bold, confident stroke frequently possesses as much visual weight as the object it delineates. He also often utilized an all-over compositional style and created tension by minimizing the distinction between the figure and the ground until they became almost interchangeable. The push-pull results of these components contribute to his work’s signature pulsating energy.
The Political Line’s focus also made clear the gravitas of Haring’s oeuvre, which I had previously not considered. His unwavering dedication to his sociopolitical concerns continues to inspire. Drug addiction, nuclear proliferation, children’s issues, apartheid, and AIDS (another public health crisis exacerbated by presidential ignorance, ineptitude, and inaction) were some of the causes he took on in his work. If his “radiant child” image symbolizes hope, we could use Keith Haring now. We could use his hope and his activism and his drive, and we could use his anger.
Keith Haring would have turned 62 today; he died on February 16, 1990 of AIDS-related complications. He was 31 years old.
All artwork © The Keith Haring Foundation