An extensive retrospective of the late American artist Keith Haring opens today at the Musée d’Art Moderne in Paris. The exhibition, titled The Political Line, showcases some of the highlights from Haring’s formidable career, which spanned just over a decade. (Sadly, the artist passed away in 1990 at the age of 32 due to complications related to HIV/AIDS.)
Through his art, Haring commented on some of the most important socio-political issues of his time and, fittingly, this exhibition trails the major themes that influenced his work: capitalism, mass media and religion, racism, and his campaign against drug use and AIDS (he himself was diagnosed with HIV in 1988). Ultimately, the messages he conveyed were just as important as the medium itself.
“This is not something that he simply put into his work: this is a reflection of who he was as a person,” Julia Gruen, director of the Keith Haring Foundation, explained at yesterday’s press conference. “What you are going to experience with this exhibition is the great passion and idealism of this young artist. He put part of himself out there, so that you can reflect and you can interact with the experience of his time. He was very engaged in his whole moment.”
Upon arriving in New York in 1978, Haring fell in love with the energy of the city—particularly its prolific street-art culture—and he painted some of his earliest works on billboards, in the subway, and in other available public spaces. As such, he became a great champion for the democratization of art. “The public has a right to art … Art is for everybody,” he once said on his desire to make his work accessible to all. His approach was also a most pertinent way for him to get his message across.
Much like his contemporary and friend, Andy Warhol, Haring also examined the defining themes of pop art, such as the impact of the media and consumerism. In his unique graphic style, which featured cartoonlike line drawings, he used recurring motifs, such as the dollar bill and the Coca-Cola logo, and slogans, along with other symbols that became his signature, such as the barking dog, flying saucers, and faceless crows. The repetitive nature of his work is both effective and affective, especially in an exhibition of this scale.
Scale was another key concern of Haring’s. His background in graffiti set him up to produce large works of art, and his best works were often elaborate wall murals or larger-than-life pieces featured on billboards. One of his most famous was the New York billboard he painted with the slogan “Crack is Wack.” A photo of Haring posing next to it is featured in the exhibition.
Though New York was his playground, Paris was a city that was close to his heart. He exhibited in the ‘Figuration Libra France/USA’ exhibition in 1984 (which took place at the very same museum) alongside Jean-Michel Basquiat, Robert Combas and Hervé Di Rosa, and he spent a great deal of time in Paris. This was the city that shaped the careers of so many of his idols, like Henri Matisse and Jean Philippe Arthur Dubuffet. “To be able to spend time here, in the country that gave birth to most of these artists was an extremely moving experience for him,” said Gruen.