The bohemian atmosphere of downtown New York in the 1970s and 1980s had a huge impact on the art of Keith Haring, from his impromptu subway chalk drawings to his maze-like abstract paintings.
In a new exhibition that focuses on the late artist’s early career, Haring’s creative energy is instantly felt through his seemingly pulsating kaleidoscope-like designs.
“Keith Haring: 1978-1982” at the Brooklyn Museum includes 155 works on paper, 30 black-and-white subway drawings, seven experimental videos and rarely seen sketchbooks, journals, exhibition flyers and documentary photographs. It covers the years when the artist was 20 to 24 years old.
Arranged chronologically, it traces the development of his abstract visual language, beginning with 25 red gouache works on paper where he experimented with individual geometric forms and a grouping of miniature abstract images reminiscent of the tapestry-patterns of Gustav Klimt.
“One of the great things about this show is you see he’s interested in these essential abstract forms and then working them out on a bigger scale,” said project curator Tricia Laughlin Bloom.
That process also is seen in his videos. In “Haring Paints himself into a Corner,” he literally does just that, while creating an abstract floor design to the music of Devo.
Visitors also will learn that he dedicated an entire year in 1979 “to doing nothing but works based on language,” said Raphaela Platow, curator of the exhibition, which was shown last year at the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati where Platow is director and chief curator. “The whole idea of linguistics played a major role in his work.”
Haring died of AIDS in 1990 at age 31. While he’s often wrongly described as a graffiti artist, he defies categorization.
“Very few people are aware that Keith Haring started out as an abstract artist, that he did all of these geometric abstractions … and also considered video as a medium,” said Platow.
And he was an artist who consistently worked in the public sphere, as with his subway drawings.
There are 30 of these simple black-and-white line drawings in the exhibition — the most ever in a museum setting, according to Laughlin Bloom. Their signature iconography — repeated throughout Haring’s work — includes a flying saucer, crawling baby, dolphin, pyramid, television and nuclear reactor.
Haring came to New York in 1978, before the AIDS crisis, from Kutztown, Pennsylvania, attending the School for Visual Arts for one year and immersing himself in lower Manhattan’s underground art and music scene and its gay subculture.
Haring said his goal was “to create art for everyone.” To that end, the subway drawings, quickly rendered before police could issue a summons, were never intended to be saved, said Laughlin Bloom. “They were statements about reclaiming the public space and reaching the public.”
Among the highlights are an “everyman” figure in movement alongside an original subway ad for Penthouse magazine and another of a grinning face next to a Burt Reynolds movie poster that proclaims “He Wants You to Have His Baby.”
Haring’s message, as in all his works, is open-ended, left to the interpretation of the viewer.
Among his many intricate, psychedelic-like designs are two monumental pieces.
One is 50-feet (15-meters) long — a mesmerizing black-and-white all over geometric abstraction tightly integrated with his figurative imagery.
The other is a vibrant 23-foot (7-meter) vertical painting filled with free-form black-and-white patterns overlaid with energetic sprays of red paint that transition into bold lines and text that reads: “Everyone Knows Where the Meat Comes From. It Comes From the Store.”
Haring’s artistic output was prolific. Among his text-based works is a video of a close-up mouth articulating sounds. He was also interested in mechanical reproduction in which he typed groups of words over and over again in different arrangements. It was all about creating a rhythmic incantation and seeing “how many ways you can combine language to communicate differently,” said Laughlin Bloom.
He also cut up and rearranged newspaper headlines to create new ones, like “Mob Flees At Pope Rally” and “Reagan: Ready To Kill.” He copied these and plastered them all over the city.
“It was designed to … show up in the city as part of the overall canvas and to make a point,” Laughlin Bloom said. “People would see them and go, “‘Is that a real headline?'”
His scrapbooks and handwritten journals reveal what he was reading, doing and thinking. In one entry, Haring expresses concern about computers. “Our existence, our individuality, our creativity, our lives are threatened by this coming machine aesthetic,” he writes.
Haring took inspiration from artists Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock but also from graffiti artists Kenny Scharf, LA II (Angel Ortiz) and Jean-Michel Basquiat.
The one Haring-Basquiat collaboration in the show is crudely executed on a discarded piece of plywood, probably from a construction site.
The exhibition also explores another little known aspect about Haring, as a curator and facilitator of other artists’ work. He designed hundreds of flyers and press releases promoting ephemeral shows in clubs, empty buildings and other alternative spaces; these are reproduced in the exhibition as a wall collage.
“They’re little gems in themselves,” said Laughlin Bloom.
The exhibition runs through July 8. It is co-organized by Cincinnati’s Contemporary Arts Center and the Kunsthalle Wien in Austria.