Finding a way through the hype

One of the critical thinking tasks we were set at Art College was to write a review of an artwork that was the antithesis of what we liked.  It was a useful exercise because it forced us to look at the piece beyond personal taste and to focus instead on everything else: its context, the artist’s intent, the subject matter, the medium, the choice of materials, and so on.  

So it was in this frame of mind that I went to see the Keith Haring exhibition at Tate Liverpool, the first major UK showing of his work.  From the images I had seen, his work did not appeal to me in the slightest.  Something of my hesitancy on entering the exhibition must have shown; in an unsolicited comment, the gallery invigilator assured me that it wasn’t all to his taste but that the show had rightly received critical acclaim and he was sure I would come out the other end having found something positive.

UnknownUsually, I don’t read the Tate booklets until after I’ve seen an exhibition, wanting to experience the work without being influenced by someone else’s thinking.  But on this occasion it was more of a visual dictionary of the symbols that relentlessly appear in all Haring’s work, with quotes from him about why he uses them.  This was helpful because it gave some insight into their importance to him and why he used them so consistently throughout his short life.  

The Nuclear symbol, for example, came out of his experience of living through the 1962 Cuban Missile crisis and then in 1979 the USA’s worst nuclear reactor accident at Three Mile Island, which was not far from Haring’s hometown. Haring said: “Living under the threat of possible destruction in the form of nuclear war, etc., the most important thing to me is the present”.  

These notes went someway to contextualising the many facets of Haring’s activism, but it was the films of him working that finally gave me a way in to his art.  The performative element is what is missing in the paintings, which have been isolated from their context on the gallery walls.  In the films one sees the energy, the conviction and assuredness in all the mark-making, with the performance being an integral part of the outcome.  

In one film there is a superb dancer in the foreground, with Haring energetically painting away in the background, two performances almost choreographed but with Haring’s history of spontaneity, probably not.  In another film there is Grace Jones in 1987, on very high stilts wearing a ball-gown with a huge black and white skirt painted by Haring. Another film is typical of Jones’s bravado, showing Haring painting her near-naked body.

A lot of Haring’s output was shown in nightclubs and it is these that work best in this exhibition, where the Tate has recreated the context.  There is a prescient tribute to Gloria Vanderbilt, the American artist, author, actress, fashion designer, heiress, and socialite who died last month (June 2019).  It shows Haring dancing, laughing and kissing the lens until it is smeared with lipstick and his own image obscured.  In another club reconstruction, there is a room flooded with UV light and thumping 80’s soundtrack.  The UV effect took me back to my own disco days when the lights showed up every fleck of dust if you wore black and made your skin look tanned if you wore white.

At his peak, the streets and subways of New York were Haring’s canvases; his politically-charged art was everywhere, including in galleries.  I thought he would find it ironic for his work to be exhibited at somewhere as mainstream and prestigious as the Tate.  But it seems not.  Apparently he always wanted to make money and to be famous, very much enjoying being a gallery artist as well as being known on the street. 

But over and above all were the causes he sought to highlight through his art: equal rights, anti-racism, anti-nuclear and in his last years, against the prejudice surrounding HIV Aids, which led to his own death in 1990.   Sadly, these are all concerns that are relevant today and are still in need of such activism. 

The insistent sameness of Haring’s symbols was a stumbling block for me, seeming more like a brand or a logo than an artistic expression.  But in the end what came out of this exhibition was that the art itself couldn’t and shouldn’t be separated from the issues or its context. Coincidentally, this is one of the main aims of the Haring Foundation, which supports arts and educational institutions by funding exhibitions, educational programs, and publications that serve to contextualize and illuminate the artist’s work and philosophy.