Friday, December 12, 2014

Art I'm Looking at: San Francisco--Keith Haring: The Political Line at the De Young

Two sharply contrasting exhibits are now featured attractions at the main venues of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco--the De Young Museum and the Legion of Honor. I visited both recently, starting at the De Young to see Keith Haring: The Political Line, a show  highlighting Haring's political activism. I enjoyed seeing the very large sample of work presented but kept wondering what fraction of his production might be called political. A little more context would have been helpful. Given the short period he was active (about twelve years, from 1978 to 1990) and the large number of works on display, my guess is that most of his work was politically motivated, particularly toward the end of his life, when his AIDS diagnosis spurred him and his growing fame had given him an international platform.

Motivation and message aside, what's clear from looking at this art is that Haring lived his short life at a fast pace. The work exudes energy. The zig-zag lines children use to depict lightning or electricity when they draw would not be out of place here. Garish, unmodulated hues; clashing colors set side by side; strong contrasts; angular, heavily outlined shapes; and "lines of motion" borrowed from the vocabulary of comic book artists all contribute. Influences are numerous and diverse. Mayan art, quilts, aboriginal art, graffiti art, the Nazca lines, comic books, advertising art, the chalk corpse outlines of Hollywood movies, writhing Boschian hells, and technological hells where demonic robots reign over electronic gadgets come to mind when looking at Haring's work. Yet, the work is always immediately identifiable as Haring's. This dialectical component is apparent also in the way his images operate on the level of pictographs--simple, symbolic, overtly didactic, and quickly absorbed on the one hand--yet remaining cryptic and baffling at the same time. Haring's is a language encountered in an anxiety dream; we feel we should know the language--and we recognize some of its words--but don't fully understand the meaning. The result is a lingering unease. Although there are political messages embedded in much of the work, Haring rarely gave his work titles--again leaving the viewer somewhat off balance. Without the direction provided by a title, it's often difficult to be entirely sure what Haring intended, despite his use of direct, icon-like pictorial elements (sometimes evocative of pictorial road signs or Olympic event symbols). That said, the work is not entirely without humor. There is joy in some of the dancing figures, a vitality in the glowing babies, and Andy Mouse (which does have a title) simultaneously pokes fun at Walt Disney and Andy Warhol; it made me laugh out loud (1985, private collection; detail above). A panel full of cartoon-like penis drawings from a sketchbook, many accompanied by diary-like entries indicating where the artist was when he made them, was funny too.

Haring's line is deft but un-nuanced. It sometimes leaves me cold, but I was impressed by the consistent confidence of its execution, whether in ink on paper, chalk on expired subway ad space, or in vinyl paint on a tarpaulin. I examined the works very closely. Nowhere is there any evidence of preparatory work--no sketching, no planning. Each piece appears to have been an unrehearsed improvisation, drawing on an ever-evolving vocabulary of signs and symbols, many recurring over and over again--barking dogs, crawling babies, snake-like creatures, robots, angular dancers, angels, crosses, bats, figures with holes in them, flying saucers, penises, electronic gadgets, and figures with Xs instead of brains.

The early subway drawings in the show were intriguing. These are perhaps the quintessential Haring. It was the subway drawings in chalk that earned him his first widespread recognition. They seem the most genuine expression of his gift. They were done quickly, as ephemeral performance pieces, in the platform time between connecting trains. They were done knowing the activity was technically illegal and might result in a fine (drawings on the blank panels were considered graffiti) and, like a graffiti artist, Haring made them knowing they wouldn't last, that they might be quickly covered by a new ad or wiped away. I was not alone in wondering how the examples in the show (presumably quite rare) were preserved, as they appear to be in the original metal frames that surrounded the subway advertising spaces they were made in, the whole in each case apparently lifted off the wall. Done in soft chalk, the subway drawings have an affinity with brush-and-ink calligraphy in that the artist has only one chance to get it right. Every hesitation is preserved. There is no going back to make corrections. Remarkably, there is virtually no evidence of hesitation. Perhaps our view of the subway drawings is a necessarily distorted one, based only on a few well-executed extant examples, but other work in the show suggests Haring didn't often hesitate. While some of the later work seems a little too practiced, a little too obvious in its message, a little complacent, I was generally impressed by the show.

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