Out of the Gallery and Into the Streets: Keith Haring’s Early Years
Keith Haring: 1978-1982 at Brooklyn Museum
March 16 to July 8, 2012
200 Eastern Parkway
Brooklyn, New York (718) 638-5000
This exhibition of Haring’s early work focuses on the artist’s emergence as part of the New York underground, chronicling his evolution from SVA student and club-kid to the year of his SoHo debut at the prestigious Tony Shafrazi gallery. Keith Haring: 1978-1982 is the first survey of its kind dedicated to the artist’s beginnings, and offers an in-depth look into his evolving process with some striking, never before seen works.
The exhibition aims to trace what curator Raphaela Platow calls the artist’s visual vocabulary—namely his dynamic figures, swirling forms, phallic objects, and instantly recognizable line drawings. Interestingly, his early work features a more literal manipulation of language, specifically his use of cutting, pasting and collage of found text to create new meanings. A selection of these experiments from 1980 is on display, and one untitled text collage from 1980 reads: POPE KILLED FOR FREED HOSTAGE. These works were reproduced using a Xerox machine and pasted around New York City, an early example of Haring’s interest in making art accessible to the masses. This same experimentation with language is evidenced in Haring’s SVA-era films on display, Phonics (1980) and Lick Fat Boys (1979). For these videos, Haring and his friends manipulate and rearrange phonemes (“art fat lick” “boys lick fat”) to produce similar effects of his collages through oral recitation. These remixed language pieces are complimented by a collection of 25 red gouache-painted shapes with which Haring experimented to create abstract forms. In limiting himself to this specific geometric vocabulary, the figures form a sort of visual alphabet, their shape hinting at Haring’s later, more figurative work.
The exhibition features many small-scale works on paper, produced rapidly for friends and often ripped out of notebooks. A standout here is a series of works titled Manhattan Penis Drawings for Ken Hicks (1978). Haring had a knack for skirting the line between boyish play and social commentary and his phallic renderings of New York architecture are an excellent example of these slips in identification. Haring’s more deliberate political works – many produced after the artist reached international heights of fame – are all but absent from the show. While it wasn’t until the later years of his life that he enlisted imagery promoting safe sex, his early drawings on display are not without his playfully sexual forms. His line drawing of the twin towers subbed out in favor of two erect penises subtly suggests the interplay between economy, masculine power and gay sex.
The beginnings of the Haring’a large-scale ink drawings are displayed in the exhibition’s first galleries and showcase the artist’s facility with line, realized here in brushed sumi ink. Perhaps most captivating when viewed in series, these early experiments with scale feature Haring’s signature drips, a testament to the artist’s confidence and looseness of production. Interested equally in the work of the Abstract Expressionists, Jean Dubuffet, and Pre-Columbian design, Haring’s forms speak to a fascination with the gesture as well as a desire to produce forms embedded in his subconscious, seeking always to paint spontaneously and without hesitation. A journal entry from 1978 reads: “when I can unify my movements so that I can paint consistently at a very high rate of speed on a very spontaneous, natural, spiritual level; then perhaps I will have exhausted the possibilities of the kind of ‘body- involvement’ painting I am currently involved in.” This notion of performance imbedded in Haring’s works speaks to his emphasis on process: his movements studied and automatic like those of a dancer.
Haring’s early career also saw him as a downtown impresario and fixture in the gay club scene, and his role as a social connector and curator is evident throughout the exhibition. It was Keith Haring who brought together then emerging artists Madonna, Kenny Scharf, and Jean-Michel Basquiat at Club 57 and the Mudd Club, where he curated the 4th floor gallery. Vitrines containing documentary photographs are displayed alongside a projected slideshow of Haring’s subway chalk drawings, photographed in situ by his friend and collaborator Tsend Kwong Chi. The sceney snapshots on display consist mainly of black and white images taken by photographer Joseph Szkodzinski of Haring and his friends partying in downtown nightclubs. Equal parts nostalgic and uplifting, this portion of the exhibition accounts for the pulsating eighties soundtrack audible in the rest of galleries.
The show closes with a collection of Haring’s much anticipated chalk subway art, drawn on the black paper used to cover old advertisements in the stations. The majority of these drawings are new additions to the exhibition, on loan from a mysterious private collection. The delicate chalk renderings showcase the artist’s signature gesture, and are presented encased in glass shadowboxes, an effect that amplifies their ephemeral fragility. The simple figures speak to Haring’s commitment to bringing art out of the gallery and into the streets. Thanks to his more than fifty public artworks, many of which are still displayed around New York City, we can now have his work in both places.