Critics’ Picks

Keith Haring Silence=Death, 1988, acrylic on canvas, 108 x 120 x 108”.

Keith Haring Silence=Death, 1988, acrylic on canvas, 108 x 120 x 108”.

San Francisco

Keith Haring

de Young Museum
50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive
November 8, 2014–February 16, 2015

Radiating nuclear power plants were as much a part of Keith Haring’s iconography as radiant babies. Yet the politics of Haring’s practice, whose expressions range from railing against corporate greed to allegorizing environmental degradation, are often overshadowed by the universal uplift of much of his iconic imagery. Though lacking a thoroughly contextualized presentation of Haring’s polemics, by assembling over one hundred of his more overtly political works, the sheer scope of “Keith Haring: The Political Line” productively highlights how Haring infused his art with political content through a provocative play with language and symbolism.

For example, in Haring’s early collage works from 1980, he reconfigured New York Post headlines into egregious yet obliquely poignant boldface, as in Reagan: Ready To Kill. The inflamed rhetoric of Haring’s remix presaged outcries against the president for his abominable silence during the initial years of the AIDS crisis. (Here and elsewhere, extended wall labels could have provided helpful explication).

The exhibition fittingly closes with the pink, triangular canvas Silence=Death, 1988. Created the year Haring was diagnosed with AIDS, the work references the catalyzing imagery used by the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) and brims with Haring’s cartoonish figures covering their eyes, ears, and mouths in see/hear/speak-no-evil gestures. The inclusion of the artist’s widely distributed safe-sex-promoting poster from 1987, which pictured a smiling penis caricature holding a condom, would have further displayed his on-the-ground relationship to the political messaging of the era. Yet Silence=Death still resonates; even the work’s neon and metallic paint produces a searing afterimage on the viewer’s retina. Haring’s life ended from AIDS-related complications at the age of thirty-one, but parallel to this large painting at the conclusion of the exhibition, even after exiting, his lasting effects are still sizably felt.