A pop shop for a new generation
ENTERING the B r o o k l y n Museum’s “Keith Haring: 1978- 1982,” which focuses on his early career, I worried that the show was going to be one big, marketable nostalgia trip. The loud strains of David Bowie, Grace Jones and the B-52s emanating from the galleries were not auspicious. Nor was the sight of a Pop Shop full of merchandise just outside the exhibition. (Haring didn’t open his first one, on Lafayette Street, until 1986.) Inside the show were walls of sceney photographs, a recreation of one of Haring’s installations at Performance Space 122 and another blast of music (accompanying a slide show of his famous subway drawings). It looked as if the museum had simply repackaged the mythic Haring – club kid, Warhol protege and maker of friendly street art – for a younger generation, glamorising the permissive culture of downtown New York in the 1970s and ‘80s.
It has done that, stopping well short of Haring’s death from AIDS-related complications in 1990, at 31. But within the exhibition’s party atmosphere other Harings emerge in early drawings, collages and journals, and, especially, on video. And each one is just as relevant, to young artists today, as the figure celebrated in shows like last year’s “Art in the Streets” at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles and on the reality television series “Work of Art: The Next Great Artist.” Organized by the Contemporary Arts Centre in Cincinnati and the Kunsthalle Wien in Austria, this show includes equal quantities of works on paper and rarely seen archival objects (about 300 pieces in all). Also here are seven videos, a medium Haring took up as a student at the School of Visual Arts but later abandoned.
He shouldn’t have. He was great at it from the get-go. In his first video, “Painting Myself Into a Corner” (1979), a spry and shirtless Haring bops along to Devo as he works on a large drawing at his feet. He’s simultaneously a Bruce Nauman testing the limits of a confined space and a Jackson Pollock hovering over the floor. In “Phonics” and “Lick Fat Boys,” both from 1980, he plays games with language: breaking words into phonemes and rearranging them, physically with letters on a wall and orally by recitation.
These works sound dry but aren’t. Neither is “Tribute to Gloria Vanderbilt,” in which Haring makes eyes at – and eventually makes out with – the camera while dancing spastically to a New Wave beat. One of the little gems of the exhibition, this piece does double duty as a dig at oversexed advertisements for designer jeans and an exuberant expression of queer identity.
The notebooks provide more evidence of Haring’s interest in linguistics and semiotics. The words from “Lick Fat Boys” reappear as poems, puzzles and anagrams, alongside studious jottings about Roland Barthes and the information theorist Abraham Moles.
In these books Haring also formulated his own theory of spatial relationships. “Shapes that contain no inner components of positive/negative relationships will function better with other shapes of the same nature,” a part of it reads.
And in his drawings he put those ideas into practice: first in a series of 25 individual Tetris-like shapes in red gouache, and later in his interlocking forms made from wriggling lines of Sumi ink on large scrolls of paper.
The largest and most striking of the examples on view (“Matrix,” from 1983) generates unlikely synergies among pregnant women, UFOs, clocks, televisions, men with dog heads and crawling babies.
Some of the earlier works remind you that Haring started out, in Kutztown, Pa., as a cartoonist. In the silly series “Manhattan Penis Drawings” (1978), the World Trade Centre appears as two phalluses.
But other drawings from that same year evoke pre-Columbian art, Paul Klee, Stuart Davis and the Swiss outsider Adolf Wolfli.
Interspersed with the works on paper is plenty of archival material, which isn’t just there for ambience. It makes the point that Haring was a social-media savant in a Xerox and Polaroid age, distributing his art in the form of buttons, fliers and graffiti.
(The Keith Haring Foundation is picking up where he left off, posting pages from Haring’s journals on its Tumblr account.) In 1980, for instance, he photocopied and pasted around the city provocative collages made from cut-up and recombined New York Post headlines. One reads, “Reagan Slain by Hero Cop”; another, “Pope Killed for Freed Hostage.” More famous are the chalk drawings he made in subway stations, on the sheets of black paper that covered old advertisements.The Brooklyn show ends with an entire gallery of them, though the accompanying slide show of photographs by Tseng Kwong Chi preserves more of the original,semi-illicit context.
At this point you will either have succumbed to the blaring punk and New Wave soundtrack – compiled by DJ Scott Ewalt and available as an iTunes playlist – or fled the galleries altogether. The show was organized by Raphaela Platow, the Contemporary Arts Center’s chief curator; the Brooklyn Museum’s nightclublike presentation has been supervised by its project curator, Tricia Laughlin Bloom, and Patrick Amsellem, a former associate curator of photography.