New York

Keith Haring

Tony Shafrazi Gallery

Keith Haring is probably the most brilliant populist artist now working. What this means is not only that his imagery and style are derived from popular culture but that his intention—to reach the widest possible audience—is popular. This can be tricky, especially if one wants to have a high-art aura, for in order to reach the broadest audience one’s style must tend toward lowest-common-denominator configurations, at once instantly recognizable and comprehensible. But high art is by definition exclusionary; in a sense, it is more likely to be an oppositional art than a popular one, for it implicitly insists on an absolute perspective. Popular art, which often mocks this perspective by insisting upon laissez-faire (less politely, anything goes), offers instead an inconsistent series of topical, relative viewpoints.

The best way to understand Haring’s attempt to reconcile these differences is through the distinction Meyer Schapiro set up between communicational and spiritual art. The former “transmits an already prepared and complete message to a relatively indifferent and impersonal receiver.” Such ”reproducible“ communication, ”calculated and controlled in its elements,” contrasts sharply with spiritual art, which does not so much communicate as "induce an attitude of communion and contemplation.” Haring attempts, through the use of heroic scale, to force the spectator to contemplate his reproducible communicative figures. Their scale, together with Haring’s strategy of urgent repetition (and its concomitant horror vacui), argues for their pervasiveness. His use of grand scale is also an attempt to absolutize the populist/topical perspective.

It is an art-historical cliché that Modern high art has been increasingly eager to assimilate popular art modes to reinvigorate itself. Does Haring’s work signify that to retain its vitality populist art must incorporate the elegant techniques of high art—not only the implicitly infinite scale of the flat or “minimalized” surface but the figure/ground interchangeability that follows from it, and the recognition that the medium is the major part of the art’s message? Haring’s buoyant pursuit of this merger suggests that he is less secure with the dominance he assumed was natural to popular art in this day of electronic communication (especially since he is transposing an electronic image to a traditional medium).

Scale (which does much of the work in these tour de force exhibitions) serves to create an effect of engulfment. In populist art this is meant to symbiotically comfort the spectator, for scale is used to simplify, or thin out, content; but Haring’s innovative use of it magnifies content. He employs monstrous scale to bring us to the verge of panic—that is, to overwhelm esthetic distance. The sense of engulfment Haring creates, for all its momentary fun-house effect—especially in the “Disneyland” Castelli installation of larger-than-life flat metal sculptures and wall paintings—reduces us to childlikeness, an infantilistic effect that makes us experience his comic-strip monsters as emotionally real.

Haring is a Biblical moralist for all his fickle look. Like the Boanerges, he almost boasts about the coming apocalypse, signaled by the castration of the black One by the monstrous Many (Many of the works are foot-stomping laments about the impending disaster in South Africa.) Haring’s Whore of Babylon (Whore of Babel?) does not look as alluring as in traditional illustrations but is clearly as potent a monster as the imagination ever created. In Portrait of Macho Camacho, 1985, in which a naked, red-gloved figure—with an artist’s forelock—boxes a devilish snake, Haring seems to say it all, personally as well as publicly, with an admirable brevity He will take his place alongside the masters of witty illustration, who get much of their momentum from their moral indignation as well as from the integration of high-art formalisms into their propagandistic images. At heart a “Protestant,” Haring has given protest punk/hedonistic form, creating an art that, while full of social necessity, exists for its own sake.

Donald Kuspit