Keith Haring

Galleria Salvatore + Caroline Ala

Entwined black-outlined figures proliferate against multicolored luminescent backgrounds as if according to some genetic code gone mad. The works show no perspective, but rather a swarming superficiality; no suggestion of passing time, but rather an atemporality which freezes the bodies in their ascent and fall; no narrative, but rather a convulsive interpenetration of undifferentiated figures which mime a hymn to orgy—an asexualized orgy. Sex, however, appears everywhere in its most obvious characteristics. Every imaginable species and object, phallus erect, shows off a grotesque sexuality: animals, men both meek and macho, Pinocchio, Mickey Mouse, space invaders, airplanes, and even televisions endowed with minds. In this pollution of signs and signals, sex envelops itself, like hunger.

This show removed any doubts I might have had: Keith Haring is stricken by a kind of artistic bulimia. He is omnivorous. Here his secret vice was exposed for all to see; nothing was safe from his voracious swallowing up of objects, spaces, and surfaces, nothing could escape his convulsive production of signs. His elastic linking of the primitive and the technological, of Renaissance classicism and cartoons, of the bliss of sex and the obscenity of excess, renders his work both clearly legible and elusive. Despite the myriad signs with which he hungrily covers every surface, Haring seems to leave no trace of himself. He hides behind the sign, leaving the trace only of his hunger.

Vacuity, that place without place from which everything derives and to which everything returns, seems to be where Haring’s imagery explodes. A source of paranoia, it must be filled up, negated, and exorcized through his fluid and unrestrained gesture. Vacuity, the void, which in symbolic terms offers a way to liberation from worldly images and desires, here becomes the opposite—an altered state of congestion, vertiginous mutation, primordial chaos. Haring is compulsive in his gesture, and it changes nothing, either for him or for others. In a world of TV commercials and video games, we have become accustomed to a swift, superficial reading of signs; our glance becomes compulsive as it follows the frenetic proliferation of images. What Haring has is epidemic.

Haring’s work shows little trace of “high” culture, but a phantasmagoria derived from “low” culture—television, comics, video games. But there probably isn’t any “high” or “low,” only a continuous line along which emotions are dissolved and cultures interpenetrate and negate each other, making possible crossovers, incursions, advances, and surprising associations. Haring’s work lies somewhere between his own design and automatic writing; inventive freedom only flickers in the abundant gesture, the unpredictable contaminations between sign and color. With the casualness of youth, Haring plunges headlong into the vast expanse of the collective imagination. The omnivorous animal makes no distinctions among his prey; he appropriates casts of high-art statuary (the entire figure of Michelangelo’s David, then just the head, then the headless torso), his own totemlike sculptures, and Etruscan-type vases, covering them all with his frenetic writing. These sculptures play a part in Haring’s merging and homogenization of past and present, art history and the mass image. Rather than a homage to high culture, this is a choice of surfaces to be homologized at the lowest level by means of the sign.

But the statues and totems have a preexistent life, or at least a sense of history that weights them down and makes their link to Haring’s anonymous linear style an unconvincing one. The large head of David, colored orange, with red lips, green hair, and frenetically interpenetrating signs and lines over all, becomes a facile gag, and fails to go much beyond its initial amusing impact. It seems afflicted by some skin ailment. The totems suffer from their flat and somewhat cumbersome gigantism; the gesture remains constrained by the forms of these cutout figures. They tend toward monumentality, but fail to achieve it. I prefer Haring when he unleashes his gesture and his imagination, letting loose free associations which oscillate between consciousness and vertigo; when he gives way to the secret and compulsive vice that seems to guide his hand, leading him, in a sort of trance, to cover whatever surface lies in front of him, like a shaman of the technological era.

Ida Panicelli

Translated from the Italian by Meg Shore.