Street Artist

A closer look at the de Young's massive Keith Haring retrospective, before it goes away

If you haven’t had the chance yet to check out The Political Line, now would be a good time. Like now. Go. As of today, you have less than two weeks. The exhibition, which opened up at the de Young in November, is something to behold, showcasing dozens of works from Keith’s ridiculously productive, tragically short ’80s run. Haring, for folks in our generation, is one of the two or three most iconic visual artists of the last century, a figure whose influence is completely inescapable if you have even a passing interest in art or own a Tumblr account. Seeing the work in person though, reminds you why he’s so ubiquitous, and why the work is so essential.
Visually and physically, the show is spectacular, with Haring’s symbol-language spilling out across an insane variety of media, from giant tarp canvases to subway drawings, ceramic pots to ten-foot totem poles. Naturally, it’s also a feast of ideas, placing a particular emphasis on Haring’s most politically charged pieces, and grouping them loosely by theme. While some pieces refer explicitly back to the circumstances of their ’80s genesis (Apartheid or the AIDS and crack epidemics), others–say the ones where computers supplant human heads–seem to foreshadow where we’re at today. And then there are more personal pieces: everything from journals full of dick drawings, to unearthed art school videos, to the heartbreaking “Pile of Crowns” for his fallen friend Basquiat.

If Haring’s language was something of a constant, it was a language that whose communicative power he was compulsively, constantly pushing into new territory. Taking in that volume of work firsthand, you get a chance to see just how much he was able to communicate in such a short time. To the extent it’s possible, The Political Line makes you feel like you’ve actually gotten to know someone.

Originally exhibited in Paris in 2013, Line is the product of good taste and plenty of hard work, both on the part of the exhibition’s original curator, Vienna-based Dieter Buchhart, and Julian Cox, FAMSF’s founding curator of photography and chief administrative curator. With the help of the Keith Haring Foundation (the org that manages Keith’s artistic estate) Dieter and Julian sourced over 130 pieces from museums and private collectors around the world, assembling a massive and varied collection with the Bay Area audience in mind. Over the phone a few weeks ago, I got the chance to chat with Julian about how it all came together. He offered up some insight into the curation process, Keith’s work, and what it meant to be a part of it all.

Keith Haring Political Line
So how was it working with the Keith Haring Foundation on the show?

The foundation was instrumental in every way. They are the primary lender to the show. We had over 45 lenders to the show, including collectors and international museums, but the single largest lender is the Keith Haring Foundation. They still have a number of very important works, and they are responsible and thoughtful guardians of the legacy of Keith Haring. They’re also very committed to the issues and social concerns he invested so much into in his lifetime. They’ve been with us every step of the way.

Keith Haring Political Line
It’s incredible stuff, I got the chance to see it. What’s the selection process like? Was there a core group of work you were starting from?

We definitely had a core group. The exhibition curator, Dieter Buchhart, is deeply knowledgeable about 1980’s street art–-the work of Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and others from that time. He also has extensive relationships with private collectors, and much of Keith Haring’s work is owned by private collectors. It’s very sought after in the auctions and secondary marketplace. So Dieter has a web of great contacts, but it’s an extensive process to negotiate loans from these individuals and secure works that will be a good fit for the narrative thrust of the show.

The Political Line examines Haring’s passionate engagement with issues like racism, the advance of technology, anti-nuclear issues, and the rise of of rampant consumerism and capitalism. Remember, that decade, the 1980s, is almost entirely the period covered in the show. He comes out of art school in 1980 and he’s dead by February the 16th of 1990, so it’s a short creative life–-he’s not even 32 years of age–he’s a young man blazing a trail through the 1980s.

And everything he does can be characterized as a counterpoint or a critical response to the culture of the 1980s. Think about the birth of the first 24-hour news network, CNN, in 1980, and MTV launching its all-music-video station in ‘81. The crack epidemic becoming a major social issue by 1983. The advent of the first Apple Macintosh computer in 1984. You could go on and on, but basically he’s really connected to these different social and economic changes, and addressing them very directly in his art. And he wanted to make art that was relevant to peoples’ lives and spoke to some of the social imbalances of that period. Coming back to your question, the curator, Dieter, wanted to find works of art that would illustrate powerfully those concepts that were front and center for Haring as he was in the studio, or out on the street creating.

Keith Haring Political Line
That was one thing for me. I knew going in that it was all from that time period, but it was just kind of staggering to me seeing it all firsthand, and realizing that he had produced all of that in basically a decade…

I like the way you describe it there, because there is very palpable energy in the galleries when you’re confronted with the original artworks. They pulse with energy and those people that knew Haring or worked alongside him…they speak about the electric energy that he had, that he was so committed to his work. And whether it was a large-scale outdoor mural, or a big painting on paper, or one of these extraordinary tarpaulin works, or a sculpture that he created in a foundry, that he put his heart and soul into it. Obviously he was incredibly prolific during that period.

He was also very conscious of his own mortality, because many of his friends had the AIDS virus or were dying from AIDS, and he knew pretty early on that ultimately he might fall to that too, because of his lifestyle. He was racing against time and that relentless energy is part of what makes the work so thrilling, I think.

Absolutely. So you mentioned trying to curate the show specifically for a Bay Area audience. What were some of the things you were taking into account in doing that?

Well just as an example, us being so close to Silicon Valley, Haring was very prescient on the subject of technology. He loved to work with different technologies, but he was also very concerned about their capacity to eradicate individual expression, and to impact creativity in a negative way. He wrote about this pretty extensively in his journals, which are fascinating and available for free on the Foundation’s website. And I think that issue is very connected to the transformation that’s happening in the Bay Area at the moment.

But I think I’d also say it’s broader than that–-for instance, his work that dealt with issues like racism and Apartheid. Apartheid of course has had its historical moment, but racism is something we’re still struggling with in contemporary society. And Haring was quite outspoken about that, and made works of art that directly addressed social injustice.

Keith Haring Political Line
He raised thousands of dollars for the anti-Apartheid movement with one major painting from 1984–a beautiful large-scale painting on canvas–-that’s one of the standout works from the show. He also would make posters and lapel pins of certain works of art that were connected to the issues that he cared about. Later in his life (he was diagnosed with AIDS in 1988), he turned his attention more towards the AIDS epidemic and produced important works like the Pink Triangle work: “Silence = Death”.

So I think it’s broader than just a Bay Area audience. But for us, we hadn’t had a big Haring show in the Bay Area for more than 16 years, and there hasn’t been one anywhere else on the West Coast since the 1990s. So organizing this exhibition was a chance to for us to assemble some of the great works of art that Keith made, but also to build around a thematic structure that goes to the heart of what he cared about.

Keith Haring Political Line
I was still a kid 15-16 years ago, but it also seems to me that in terms of his standing and the perception of his work in the high art world, that’s probably evolved a lot over the last two decades…

It has, it has indeed. I think even in his own lifetime too though. He started out as a counterculture artist, but very soon, because of the vitality of his imagery and his artistic vocabulary–the signs and symbols in his work–-he got sucked into the art market and sold his work at shows, and his work became highly collectible. And he loved that because it was an income and living, but it also created a tension for him, because he wanted to be free and out there in the streets. He was a young person, still in his early 20’s. He wanted to be on the cutting edge the entire time. When you read his journals, you can see him struggling a little with that. It happened during his lifetime and then accelerated after his death.

What’s your personal connection to the art, or to Keith?

It’s an interesting question. When I started, I didn’t have a strong personal connection with the work. But I did grow up in Thatcher-era Britain, in parallel with Reagan-era America, so one of my personal connections, and one of the things I love most about Haring, is his love of musical culture. His collaborations with people like Grace Jones, his friendships with Madonna and Boy George and Run DMC–these artists who were at the forefront of the musical culture of the time, the youth culture of ’80s. It’s still so strong today. I mentioned earlier the advent of MTV, and Haring loved that. He’d sometimes be in Japan or in Berlin, and he’d make a special effort to fly back to New York City so he could be at his favorite club on a Saturday night and be on the dance floor. Or in the back room making paintings specifically for that environment. We have some of those in the show, the blacklight pieces he did.

There’s a real vitality in his engagement with music. And he was a democratic artist, with a lowercase “d”. He said it repeatedly: “Art is for everybody,” and he wanted to connect with a large audience. That’s partly why he made so many of the chalk drawings in the New York subway system. He famously said [paraphrasing] I could have a million people a day see these works , whereas if they were hung in the Met or MoMA in New York, maybe a few thousand people a day would see them. He loved that idea of being out there, in public space That aspect of his story is something that really connected with me, and I learned about through working on the show.

My main expertise is photography, curating photo exhibitions. So this was a little bit outside my regular tram lines, but it was thrilling to be involved with this project and it was a great learning process for me.

Keith Haring Political Line
The Political Line runs through February 16th at the de Young, including extended hours until 9pm on Fridays. Grab tickets and learn more about the exhibition here.