New York

Keith Haring

Tony Shafrazi Gallery

Strangely, the “old masters” in “Post-Graffiti” presented mostly tepid work, as if desiring more focused spotlights, unmindful of that great group show that is the subway. Downtown, Keith Haring one-upped current fashion by staging a two-gallery, two-level show, his computer-age circuits overflowing ground floor and basement, their digital jag moving from this gallery to the space behind the former Blimpie’s up the street. Haring’s familiar gang—the radiant children and angels, the lunatic TV-lookers and extraterrestrial forms—were in full force. In the Houston Street environment they populated wall-hung tarps and a mural, invading the pillars, posts, walls, toilet, and sink of the Day-Glo disco space down below (the latter a collaboration between Haring and LA II). In the Shafrazi Gallery they climbed across white-dotted red patterns painted on walls edged by black meandering lines, inhabiting photographed figures, black wood cutouts, and freestanding sculptural forms (the latter two groups are collaborations with Kermit Oswald). It was these last—Haring’s newest step—that posed most of the problem for this show.

Haring’s is an art of abundant paradoxes. On the one hand, it’s dumb work—a kind of mindless drool of pattern compulsively devouring urban space. But its all-encompassing imagery nevertheless manages to segue with the rhythm of that space, just as its mélange of humanoid, reptilian, and celestial figures suggests the confused frenzy of the contemporary environment. If you forget this work almost instantly, you nevertheless notice it, as its jagged figures and the boogie beat of the back-and-forth lines interrupt your vision in street, subway, or on the gallery wall. Similarly, its overwhelmingly commercial character, which has led Haring to decorate a Fiorucci in Milan and to do fabric for designer clothes, is part of a cultural horror vacui, an all-consuming, omnivorous urge. The failings of the flat cutouts derive from this point, since Haring’s work takes its force from the deliberate diffusion of figure into ground, from the confusion of form and environment, and the space-invasiveness that is implied. Thus, if Haring’s earlier ceramic amphorae appear cannibalized by their guerrilla urban script, the new cutouts appear like elegant appliqués, dandy objets isolated from, and privileged over, their ground. The photographed forms—big dancing men patterned with body paint—are deathly dull, like body art exhumed. And the new sculptures, which appear as Indian totems grafted with Jean Dubuffet, bespeak an urge (present in much contemporary sculpture) for a monumental effect that would dominate and subdue its surround. For all the visual beauty of these shimmering black presences, illuminated by Day-Glo lines, they can’t escape the arty allures they imply.

Kate Linker