Tuesday, 20 March 2018 19:34

Keith Haring’s Alphabet - 'A' for Art or Activism?

To celebrate the American artist Keith Haring, who would have turned 60 this year, the Albertina Museum in Vienna is presenting nearly 100 of his works.

The exhibit, which will be up until June 24th, is entitled ‘Keith Haring. The Alphabet’ as a special focus is given to his unique symbolic language that is present throughout his  works, almost like an artistic alphabet.

The retrospective at the Albertina is the first to present all of the leitmotifs - the entire alphabet - developed by the artist: from the radiant baby to the pyramid and the barking dog. The exhibition is supported by Semper Constantina Private Bank. The Social Conference took place on March 19th and was curated by Elsy Lahner, a contemporary art curator at the Albertina since 2011 and Dieter Buchhart, an Austrian art historian and curator.

Haring’s works, mostly very large, occupy the bright, open lower floor of the Albertina. The journey already begins at the top of the elevator, with the most important political events during Keith Haring’s life displayed in photos on the way down, starting with a family picture showing Haring as a young boy surrounded by his parents and his siblings and featuring, among others, photos of Woodstock, Vietnam, Reagan, Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King.  One darkened hall features fluorescent works, making his energetic figures appear even more vivid and lively.

I had already visited the exhibit earlier on and was thus able to ask the curators some questions on my own. This was the first question on my mind.

Aren’t we ‘putting words into his mouth’?

No we aren’t. It turns out there really is much of a message to all of Haring’s art. Something I find impressive, but at the same time almost a bit disappointing. So much for the idea of Haring simply having drawn happy, dancing little people and fun cartoons. His art dealt with many distressing issues of his time such as the Vietnam war, racial discrimination, nuclear disasters, oppression and the destruction of the environment.

Was he not only ‘big’ in America?

A very ‘European’ question to ask of course.  Yes, he obviously was very popular in the US and is best known as a New York artist - he befriended among others Andy Warhol, Madonna, Grace Jones. In fact, his piece called Andy Mouse, depicts Andy Warhol with sunglasses and Mickey Mouse ears.

But, he also travelled around the world to paint public murals in cities such as Paris, Berlin, Tokyo, Pisa, Sydney, Melbourne, and Rio de Janeiro where he also painted at children’s hospitals, charities, churches, and orphanages.

 “By the mid-1980's, Mr. Haring was also doing oil and acrylic paintings, as well as wall sculptures and free-standing constructions. He had 42 one-man exhibitions, and was represented in group shows like the 1983 Sao Paulo Bienal, the 1984 Venice Biennale and exhibitions at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. His works are also in the permanent collections of museums like the Stedelijk in Amsterdam, the Whitney in New York and the Beaubourg at the Pompidou Center in Paris." (from Haring's obituary in the New York Times).

But is it ‘art’?

A question that I frequently ask myself when I can’t get my mind to embrace, to my eye, ‘unusual’ art. As so often with art, we have to see it within the context of its time. Keith Haring started off with the large subway paintings that many of us have heard about. He used white chalk to draw onto the empty spaces of black paper - they were simple, and he did dozens of drawings per day in front of people and frequently got arrested for it.

His obituary in the New York Times quoted Tony Shafrazi, at whose gallery Haring had exhibited since 1981, regarding his rapid success: ''He was one of the most astonishingly unique talents of recent times. In a short time after he arrived in New York at age 20, he practically took over Manhattan with his subway drawings, which were an instant series of signs and pictograms that everybody became familiar with.''

Lending street art credibility

Again, looking at the time during which Haring rose to fame, the article goes on to explain that “Haring provided proof of the possibilities of using public sites that were not usually dedicated to art to share artistic and political messages to multiple audiences. He lent street art credibility and legitimacy and took it into fine art galleries and museums, inspiring a new generation of street-to-gallery artists.”

As a matter of fact, Haring's didactic, subversive and cartoon-like art opened up the path for underground cartoonist Matt Groening's highly successful series ‘The Simpsons’.

Art for the people

Even as his art became better known and more expensive, Haring wanted it to be available to all and opened his famous Pop Shop in New York and later in Tokyo.  

Haring also loved working with children and led art workshops for kids in museums and schools around the world.

He also became active in behalf of a number of political and social causes, particularly ones relating to AIDS. In 1989, a year after his AIDS diagnosis, Haring started the Keith Haring Foundation which gives funding to children’s charities, AIDS research, and AIDS education.

To summarize Keith Haring’s many great achievements of his short life, here the informative text of the exhibit, listing some of the main factors that influenced his work:

His life and its influences

Keith Haring, who was born in Pennsylvania in 1958, probably mirrored his age graphically more than any other artists. As an adolescent he witnessed the United States traumatized by the Vietnam War. Keith Haring was ten years old when Martin Luther King was assassinated and when the Black Power movement raised its fist against the discrimination of Afro Americans.

As a child, Haring saw technology triumphant when man landed on the moon, whereas a young artist he experienced the disaster at the American nuclear power plant of Three Mile Island: with the radiant nuclear reactor as a motif recurring through his art, he committed himself to the struggle against the threatening destruction of our planet even before the catastrophic nuclear accident of Chernobyl.

Keith Haring's future loathing of war, oppression, ecological destruction, and the all devouring power of the state was fuelled by these early experiences.

The 1980s - the decade of his artistic career proper - provided Haring with the foundation of his visual language, with the mass suicide of almost 1,000 people in Jonestown and the environmental disaster of Bhopal, the financial crisis plunging New York into bankruptcy and the virtually hopeless fight against drug addiction, the fatal spreading of AIDS and racism in the USA and under South Africa’s apartheid regime.

By inventing the symbolic figure with a hole in its stomach, Keith Haring responded to the assassination of John Lennon in 1980.Using the motif of the barking dog, the artist sought to shake us up and prevent us from closing our eyes to the oppression of minorities or lethal HIV, stigmatized as "gay plague."

Leaving his political message behind in the corridors of the subway and on New York's sidewalks and facades, Keith Haring realized his art not only in the sheltered zones of museums and art galleries. At the same time, Haring achieved more or less unprecedented international fame within only a few years.

From a synthesis of Paul Klee's archetypal forms and the instruments of street art, Keith Haring developed a visual language built of simple lines. The mural he did on hte Berlin Wall, more than three hundred feet long, became an outcry against dictatorship. He was proud not to be an 'angry white male' but to be gay, different: to belong to a minority. Radically democratizing his art, he brought it into his Pop Shops to distribute it among the people in mass editions.

Haring's age was that of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, of the growing social gap between rich and poor, high life and low life, white and black. With his friends of the New York Pop scene, including Grace Jones, Madonna, Andy Warhol, and Basquiat, and the parties at the East Village, Haring personifies the brief moment in history when the mass culture of Pop and the artistic avant-garde were not perceived as opposites.

In his final year, he witnessed the crushing of Chinese student protests in Tianamen Square in Beijing, but also the fall of the Berlin Wall and Nelson Mandela's release from prison. In 1990 Keith Haring died of AIDS-related complications at the young age of 31.


Mary Anglberger

I’ve been travelling the world for over 20 years teaching English and am now taking time to follow my passion for photography and writing. I want to share all the things, events and people that have inspired and inspire me and spread those positive vibes all around.

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