Unfinished Haring

Keith Haring, Unfinished Painting, 1989. Private collection

Everybody loves Keith Haring, but nobody takes him seriously. That perception probably has something to do with the fact that the Broad's "Keith Haring: Art Is for Anyone" is the first such museum show in Los Angeles, some 33 years after the artist's death. The exhibition does not exactly demolish the notion that Haring was repetitious. That goes with the territory: a short, prolific career of about 10 years prior to Haring's 1990 death from AIDS at the age of 31. 

What would Haring had done, had he lived a more typical lifespan? The artist posed that unanswerable question himself. In 1987, the year he was diagnosed with AIDS, he wrote: "Amazing how many things one can produce if you live long enough. I mean, I've barely created ten years of serious work. Imagine 50 years.… I would love to live to be 50 years old." He conceded this "hardly seems possible." 

Keith Haring, newspaper collages, 1980. The Keith Haring Foundation
As the exhibition makes clear, Haring worked in various modes and had no simple evolution of styles. A formative influence was William S. Burroughs and his literary "cut-up" technique. In 1980 Haring produced a series of collages from New York Post headlines. They tweaked Ronald Reagan and organized religion, which were to become targets of Haring's mature work. Burroughs' wordplay was also a point of departure for Haring's performances, shown here on monitors. 

Mainly Haring produced endless variations on his drawings of break dancers, monsters, and radiant babies. Few artists were as popular as Haring was in the 1980s, and that's what his following demanded.
Installation view, "Keith Haring: Art Is for Everybody"
Keith Haring, Moses and the Burning Bush, 1985. Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Ark.
Several works on view hint at a "late style" (he was in his late 20s). The revelation to me was Moses and the Burning Bush, a large acrylic on canvas painting from 1985. Out of context, I wouldn't have recognized it as a Haring. It's a multidimensional abstraction with the assuredness of an Alma Thomas or a Dreamtime map. It would be interesting to see more like that, or what might have followed.
Small detail of Moses and the Burning Bush, 1985
At about the same time, and up until his death, Haring was churning out paintings and graphics in his flatter signature style. He was sometimes engaging with painting in less successful ways. Red Room (purchased by Eli Broad) was made three years after Moses and the Burning Bush. It's an homage to Matisse, but it's more Red Grooms than Red Room
Keith Haring, Red Room, 1988. The Broad Art Foundation
Haring built on some of the innovations of Moses with Unfinished Painting and Brazil, both from 1989 and among his last completed paintings. These are square canvases, partly filled in with an allover pictographic design with chromatic richness. The Unfinished Painting is presented a surrogate for the artist's AIDS-shortened career. The upper left corner of the canvas is completed, the rest left raw save for drips. Brazil is roughly the opposite, with a corner of blue sky(?) at lower right. Why Brazil—an Oscar Niemeyer tomorrowland or a Terry Gilliam dystopia?

"Keith Haring: Art Is for Everybody" runs through Oct 8. 2023. It will travel to Toronto (Art Gallery of Ontario) and Minneapolis (Walker Art Center).
Keith Haring, Brazil, 1989. Glenstone Museum, Potomac, Maryland


Anonymous said…
Moses and the Burning Bush reminds me of Kusama's infinity nets.

By comparison, I think one can see where Haring's turn to abstraction falls short. For Haring, abstraction is just another "masculine" pattern.
For Kusama, it was a cosmic state.

--- J. Garcin
Agreed. Kusama is at an ethereal level.
I used the men's room at the Gay and Lesbian Center in Manhattan in the 1980s. It was painted entirely white, with Haring's signature imagery in black, overlayed. Very cool.

See pic...