4:02 pm Mar. 16, 2012
Keith Haring always had his line. At least, that’s how it looks at Keith Haring: 1978–1982, currently in residence in the city of Haring’s artistic birth at the Brooklyn Museum and curated by Raphaela Platow for the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati and the Kunsthalle Wien in Vienna.
Whether because the world is getting worse, because we’re all getting older, because AIDS isn't in the news so much and Ronald Reagan is dead, or simply because of the catchy, period-perfect dance music pumping through a few of its gallery spaces, the show's well-organized but exuberant profusion, and multiple glimpses of Haring’s own young face succeed in granting a particular innocence to its vision of the early 1980s—an innocence surely visible only in retrospect.
That Devo song is the soundtrack to a 1979, thirty-three-minute long, black-and-white video titled Painting Myself Into a Corner, in which a cute, skinny, springy-legged Haring, barefoot and shirtless, uses a brush and a plastic container of sumi ink to fill a large sheet of paper covering a floor with a series of connected shapes in his signature thick, black line—almost thick enough to have substance of its own, it keeps moving relentlessly, always steady and black enough to be seamlessly inaccessible. Working from the foreground back toward the wall of a small room, Haring’s expression is, for the most part, attentive—not with the hard-fought concentration of someone doing something difficult, but with the relaxed focus of a practiced performer or athlete—but when occasionally he smiles, it’s the boyish smile of a twenty-year-old having a grand time doing something he knows he’s good at.
Take the nine-foot-high, ink-on-paper drawing (untitled, 1982) displayed dramatically against a red wall when you first walk into the exhibition. It shows one white outline figure, visible only from the waist up, holding another sprawled figure over his head, in either sacrifice or rebuke to an enormous seven-headed hydra. The hydra’s body is filled in with what are either crosses or Xs—supplemented with straight lines of motion coming from the sacrificial victim—and its blind heads, with their pointy ears and square jaws, could equally well pass for dogs or crocodiles. The longest neck extends out of sight, past the drawing’s upper border—raised on comic books and TV, Haring generally drew clean, straight borders around his pictures—and then swoops back in again, moving to attack the shorter-necked head in the act of biting him.
Using cartoonishly big political concepts—Reagan, AIDS—tied to current events and to his own experience, Haring created a graphically arresting tableau with a kind of double transparency. The ratio of his line’s thickness to the size of the shapes it encloses, like the density of figuration overall, is perfectly chosen to create a plane at once filled and open: You can see it and see through it at the same time, like an animation cell. Likewise, the fact that his human figures lack hands and facial features—they don’t even have chins to show which way their faces might be pointing—means that our view of them must be literally limited to the exterior. Surface wouldn’t be the right word, because it’s a relative term; they’re people without outsides as much as they are without insides.
A group of 1978 gouaches, each showing a single red, Tetris- or jigsaw-like shape floating somewhere on a letter-sized sheet of paper, is labeled as “Haring’s Alphabet,” and it’s an extremely apt analogy. Not because they’re evidence of Haring working out shapes he can combine to fill up space—a 1977 journal page, densely but already transparently packed with a kind of alphabet soup of little red shapes, shows that the obsessive/performative filling of space came naturally—but because they demonstrate the way his individual shapes work. Like letters of the alphabet, they’re static and nearly—not entirely, but nearly—meaningless when standing alone. In groups, though, they move and dance as insistently and unanalyzably as figures caught in a strobe light, because of the flickering relationships among them; and what dynamism they do have when alone rests on the promise of what they can do in combination.
The same goes for his images of people: They have neither insides nor outsides because they exist, fundamentally, in their relationships.
Near the front of the show are three groups of drawings. One set, from an unbound sketchbook, shows Haring varying the thickness of his line, using dots and stripes and circles and points, and balancing densely filled sections against large white patches; another set of “penis drawings” has pages filled with penises (or sometimes absurdly phallic buildings) in pastiches of various styles, with schematic shading like the cartoonist B. Kliban; and two drawings, exceptionally, introduce the colors yellow and blue, in pencil. The yellow and blue don’t work, but the sketchbook images are gorgeous; even so, this looks less like a young artist experimenting than like one reverse engineering, varying one detail and then another, only to prove in the end that it was all right there to begin with.
Or maybe this is just what it means to find your voice: to begin making work that in retrospect looks—not because of its enormous success, but because of its enormous clarity—inevitable.
In the midst of the show is Matrix, the forty-nine-foot-long, six-foot-high, ink-on-paper mural, which features a pregnant woman; snakes; lightbulbs; pyramids; a fish; a merman; a reverse merman; dead bodies; a six-eyed giant full of babies; a crucifix; a giant with a TV for a head, showing a dollar sign, pregnant with a giant atom; a flying saucer; a tape-deck dog; a dog with a baby inside it; scores of other strange figures; and the artist as a giant monkey man king with a giant paintbrush.
And at the back of the show are thirty-one large chalk drawings. Executed in the early 1980s, surreptitiously, on the black paper covering old advertisements on subway platforms, they were made in a nexus of vandalism, self-promotion, and civil disobedience—Haring was “bringing art to the people;” talking about AIDS in a way that was new and provocative but necessary; and making his style instantly recognizable to a broad public—but look now, like most of the show, more like snapshots of a happy youth. The politics, the changes in the art world, the sudden, explosive fame, the threadbare fun then and lumbering institutional money now, even Haring’s own early death in 1990—all of it looks like nothing but context for the line.
All images Courtesy Brooklyn Museum of Art, © Keith Haring Foundation