Keith Haring was the first artist I chose to love all by myself, outside the influence of my parents, or however else it is that we begin to understand our tastes. I have several pieces in my home, (prints of course…) and have always kept my eye out for his work (see poster ripped from a wall in Salzburg above.) Haring broke out on the scene when I was at the perfect age to grab on to a new type of pop art. It was bright, bold, the lines spoke to me. I mean I was a pre-teen in the early eighties… I was loving the slick, stylized feel of big colors (Esprit anyone?), smooth lines (Nagel – don’t hate…), and looking for something that made sense to me in a world that seemingly made less and less sense. But these were strange times, and they were going to be all the more stranger for me as I started to see the eighties emerge around me.
Things I remember? Telling my mom to vote for Carter not John Anderson because in our mock election at school, the Anderson votes had led to a Reagan victory, and due to the narrative I was generally exposed to, I was pretty sure we were all going to die a soon as Reagan took office. John Lennon’s murder. Xanadu. Some drama in Iran. No-nukes rallies. Michael Jackson. The emergence of the Anti-Apartheid movement. Olympic boycotts. Live Aid. Our first Mac. My step-dad’s first cell phone: the Brick. And some artwork that was showing up in New York’s subways. Today I got a screaming refresher course in the decade that took me from 10 to 20.
From the first time I saw Haring I knew that this was an artist I understood. I understood the frenetic feel, contrasted with super clean lines and bright colors. I understood the politics. He spoke to things I knew about and would grow up under the influence of: AIDS. Crack (is Wack). Oppressive governments. Racism. Homophobia. Environmental devastation. The computer age.
I learned somethings I didn’t know about his work and his life, and his techniques. I learned that Larry Warsh is maybe the most bomb-diggity art guy in New York. I learned that a Sheikha in Dubai owns a couple of amazing pieces of Haring’s work. I learned a new phrase: VISUAL VOCABULARY. And I like that a lot. And Haring was basically right that more people go to the subways than go to the museums – although today, it hardly seemed that way. A huge crowd – nearly as interesting in its diversity as the exhibit added much to a stunning exhibition.
There has been a lot of discussion of Haring’s work and it’s intention – aesthetic? political?commercial? sell-out? watershed? Maybe it is all of the above. I like to think so. I can say, more than 30 years later, his work has a prescience and a relevance that is almost eerie. And seeing this amazing exhibit at the De Young in San Francisco today took me right back to a crazy period of time that shaped me and informed so many of my sociocultural priorities and concerns… so how cool to see it all before me today.
For a ton of amazing images from museum visitors, go to Instagram and click on the De Young Museum Keith Haring Exhibit location tag. #Awesome.