New York

Keith Haring

The cranky reaction of certain critics to the Keith Haring retrospective—in The New Yorker, Kurt Andersen remarked that Haring’s “barking dogs, glowing babies, and jaunty everypeople are not much more than pleasant downtown wallpaper”—is reminiscent of the kind of response “serious” people usually reserve for bubblegum music. Like, say, the unapologetically feel-good, populist confections of teen sensation Hanson, whose ubiquitous “MMMBop,” was a Top Ten hit the week that the Whitney show opened. Had Haring been alive today, instead of dead from AIDS in 1990 at what now seems like the impossibly early age of thirty-one, he probably wouldn’t have minded being coupled with Tiger Beat–style pinups, despite his never-quite-realized quest to be taken seriously by the art establishment. After all, as a pubescent in Kutztown, Pennsylvania, Haring make a crude collage on lined notebook paper declaring “I Love DAVY JONES.”

This queer coming-to-consciousness, not to mention understanding of how the broadest icons shape personal desires, suggests a slightly more complex outlook than what Andersen characterizes as Haring’s “Bobby McFerrinism—don’t worry, sell doodles!” Haring embraced his pop passions (drawing, dancing, fabricating mass objects) as a form of libidinal projection and release, but he also transformed his frenzy for line and shape into something more than decorative obsession: into art that called for widespread alertness and concern. Consider these decidedly nonhappy-face proselytizings: “Free South Africa,” “Crack is Wack,” and multiple safe-sex slogans.

Curator Elisabeth Sussman and guest installation designer Tibor Kalman understood what should be crushingly obvious by now: “content” and “fun” are not mutually exclusive. To that end, they fashioned a fittingly raucous, multimedia tribute to Haring that jams to the ceiling his dense canvases and Magic-Marker drawings, often done in hot fuschias, electric blues, and acid-lime greens. Display cases run along the walls below these works, filled with ephemera from the artist’s life, including bumper stickers, childhood photos, early sketchbooks, his passport, even a restaurant bill. (All with a keen eye toward how personal artifacts can stand as an artwork in and of themselves.) Then there’s the room, at once sarcophagus and miniclub, that re-creates uncannily well the feeling of ’80os New York. Mixes by DJ Junior Vasquez pump through the darkened space, while Polaroids of Keith with Madonna, Dolly, Grace, and Boy George lie under glass alongside a collection of Haring’s favorite music (mix tapes with hand-scrawled labels; cassettes by De La Soul, Bowie, Eric B and Rakim, and Devo). On the far wall, a crude amateur videotape shows the 1987 closing-night party at Paradise Garage. Haring can be spotted swaying blissfully in the gyrating crowd, a ghost made flesh. The room’s about loss, but it’s also about joy.

Haring’s gleefully stripped-down and accessible work encapsulates a time when downtown, middle-class-white art-school culture successfully fused with the dual worlds of uptown (black and Hispanic street life on the one hand, slumming-it high society on the other), and the whole idea of subculture possessed a genuine charge. This was before a trio of forces—AIDS, Reagan, and the marketplace—sucked the life out of the scene and transformed it into a series of poses, and Haring himself became a kind of human souvenir factory, though that doesn’t necessarily dilute the strength of what he achieved.

The retrospective prompts any number of piquant memories in New Yorkers of a certain age: Haring in the Broadway/Lafayette station, drawing like mad under the threat of being arrested for defacing public property; prom queens dancing next to hip-hop kids at the Roxy; Dan Rather with jet-black hair (in a 1982. CBS videotape tracking Haring’s subway drawings). Such sentiments make it easy to write off an attraction to Haring’s work as the simple nostalgia of a narrow in-crowd. But that’s to overlook how specificities of time and place gave his output its resonance. Of course the images were about one city at one moment. Still, they packed a global appeal as tiny ambassadors for care—both in a Mister Rogers–ish “be nice to your neighbor” sense, and as less peppy reminders of what callousness and neglect can wreak.

Haring rose to glory around the same time early rap and hip-hop music did, and if you go back to that music—to Afrika Bambaata mixes or Grandmaster Flash’s “White Lines (Don’t Do It)”—it’s remarkable how much the songs sound like Haring’s pictures look. There’s something innocent and liberating in those nascent genres, but also a percolating awareness of darker forces (drugs or AIDS or just the cruelty of daily living). Haring managed to keep effervescence and realism in delicate equipoise until the very end. To reduce that achievement to monodimensional optimism is to miss the point of his work, and life, altogether.

Katherine Dieckermann is a writer-director who will shoot her first feature film, A Good Baby, this fall.

“Keith Haring” is on view at the Whitney until 21 September.