I stand in front of a giant pink skyscraper pinned to the wall. It’s filled with images of tiny figures crawling, dancing and jumping. I am next to an older couple. The man looks up thoughtfully, contemplating: What is this doing in a museum space? The woman glances at me, then looks away sheepishly, giggling like a preteen.
The pink skyscraper is a giant penis.
I’m at the M.H. de Young Memorial Museum’s latest exhibition: “Keith Haring: The Political Line,” a retrospective dedicated to the ’80s pop artist’s visual endeavors into social activism. If one thing is clear from this exhibit, it’s that Haring wasn’t afraid of crossing lines — and I mean “lines” in a nonphallic sense, though that certainly is an aspect the show highlights.
Haring, known for his visualization of New York City street culture, challenged the public’s perception of art, breaking down boundaries and barriers. His newspaper collages, made up of an amalgam of text to constitute fictional media headlines, are a testament to his revolutionary zeal. “REAGAN SLAIN BY HERO COPS,” one such piece states. “REAGAN DEATH COPS HUNT POPE,” declares another.
It’s hard to look at this anti-conservatism without seeing the oddly coincidental fact that the GOP swept the midterm elections only days before the Haring exhibit opened its doors to the public.
But coincidences aside, Haring’s art for social justice was popular at the time. “Haring understood that art was for everybody,” said Dieter Buchhart, guest curator at the de Young. “He fought for the individual and against dictatorship, racism and capitalism.”
This fight against oppression is sometimes spelled out in the gallery space — such as in the unmistakable newspaper headline collages — but at other times, Haring’s message is hidden in symbols. UFOs, pyramids, barking dogs and crosses make numerous appearances, perhaps referring to objects that have puzzled humans for years.
In an untitled work from 1982, Haring utilizes baked enamel on steel to portray two stylized images of dog-like figures howling at a UFO. In another untitled piece from a year later, these dog figures appear again, dancing across a 19-foot canvas in a bright trio.
This brightness is perhaps what one takes away most from “The Political Line.” Candy-colored hues sparkle around every bend of the gallery. Silver and pink arrest the viewer in “Silence=Death.” Red hues pop, and blood splatters in the cleverly titled “Everyone Knows Where Meat Comes from, It Comes from the Store.” But does one actually know where his or her meat comes from? It is this uncertainty and fear that Haring plays off of.
Technology, perhaps, has one of the largest roles in Haring’s art. Figures are depicted with computer screens for heads — decapitated by the machine. Silicon chips stand in as life forms. Televisions are held high by squatting figures, heralding the influx of technology and the proliferation of information. An excerpt from Haring’s diary, which is on view, explores an immediate level of doubt.
“Have we created a monster?” Haring writes. “Wars, apartheid, persecution of homosexuals, nuclear disasters, starvation, poverty … All should have become obsolete with the advance of technology universally. Why didn’t it? … What happened?”
This lamentation is felt through the body of Haring’s work on display. Human figures lack a sense of agency in his depictions, and when they do seem to be self-aware of their actions, they are bloody, violent and disturbing. Paintings depict stylized people stabbing one another with poles. Four mysterious hands viciously, anonymously pull apart the limbs of a tiny figure eerily marked with a red “x” in “Moses and the Burning Bush.”
Violence, poverty, the degradation of the environment, apartheid, AIDS — all are confronted head-on by Haring, who explored these topics in various forms of artwork. In the gallery, sculptures sit next to chalk work taken from the subway stations of New York; large-scale penis cartoons hang alongside smaller paintings inspired by Andy Warhol’s repetitive motifs in screenprints.
Though brief, Haring’s career saw the creation of a prolific body of work. His pieces exuberate a playful, colorful vibe. But if you look carefully and closely, you’ll see that this vibrant kinetic energy is laden with a political charge — a sense of visual activism that transcends time.
“Keith Haring: The Political Line” is on view at the M.H. de Young Memorial Museum until Feb. 16.
Addy Bhasin is the arts editor. Contact her at [email protected].