I stand in front of a painting of two figures - one hand a hole in their torso, and is being used as a hula hoop by the other. Their outlines are painted in white acrylic, within a white outline, on red tarpaulin (not canvas – the metal eyelets have been used to fix it to the wall), and all the remaining space within the outline is filled in with short black-lines, zig-zagging and curving around each other. I look closer. It is not hard to see the artist’s brush strokes, as the lines are roughly an inch wide, but the light in the gallery shows up both the thickness of the paint, and the speed with which it was applied – the drip marks either mark moments of consideration for the artist, or the failure of the paint to keep up with them.
I first discovered the art of Keith Haring around fifteen years ago. Already used to the primary colours and thick outlines of Matt Groening’s creations like “Life in Hell,” “The Simpsons” and “Futurama,” Haring’s works appeared superficially similar and iconic, adding the same bright colours to reoccurring elements like the “Radiant Baby,” flying saucers, coyotes, televisions, computers. However, Haring fused painting with performance art – most of his work appeared outside of gallery spaces, first as graffiti, then as murals, becoming events. The scale of some Haring works, filling whole walls and sides of buildings – locations varying from a tenement in Philadelphia, to the Church of San’Antonio in Rome, and the Berlin Wall - and the sheer numbers of figures and icons compacted together, is overwhelming and bewildering. Think “The Simpsons,” then Hieronymus Bosch, followed by acid house, whose colourful aesthetic he inspired.
An exhibition of Haring’s work, titled simply “Keith Haring,” opened at Tate Liverpool in June 2019, the first UK retrospective of his work. I had to go: I have seen so many of his pictures, but only in books, or online. I could find out what size the pictures were, or the materials used, but I would have no sense of the scale, or the pace at which they were made. I already knew the vast majority of his works are labelled as “Untitled,” the work’s meaning coming only from within itself, and I knew that an art gallery was not the right context for this work – from sticking fragments of art to lampposts and door handles around New York, to sketching onto the paper used to blank expired artwork on the Subway, his artwork is best when it is active, just appearing to you, instead of being held in a vacuum. Regardless, these pictures buzz and excite.
Haring was not given enough time to produce his work – he would die of AIDS-related complications in 1990, aged only 31, and his knowledge of his condition only caused him to work faster and bigger still, while supporting gay and AIDS activist groups, posters for which appeared at the exhibition. I wish he could have lived to have seen the rise of emoji – he left the meaning of his own iconography to his audience, and I imagine he would have got a kick out of everyone now doing the same themselves.
Keith Haring wrote in 1978, the year he arrived in New York, “I am not making pictures anymore... My paintings, themselves, are not as important as the interaction between people who see them and the ideas that they take with them after they leave the presence of my painting.” Within a couple of years, he became a contemporary of Jean-Michel Basquiat and Andy Warhol, whose work first inspired Haring to become a painter. What do I do next?
* “Keith Haring” continues at Tate Liverpool until 10th November 2019, moving to the Centre for Fine Arts (BOZAR) in Brussels from 6th December to 19th April 2020, and finally, from 22nd May to 20th September 2020, the Museum Folkwang in Essen.