Keith Haring, who died in 1990, was a quintessential New York street artist and is one of the most recognizable figures in 20th century art, known for his dense colorful murals, his AIDS activism, and his Pop Shop. How many revelations about his career can yet another exhibition of his work possibly bring to light? Very many, according to Raphaela Platow, curator of a survey of his early work that opens at the Brooklyn Museum on March 16.
“The Keith Haring who did a lot of video. The Keith Haring who curated many shows,” said Ms. Platow, who is director and chief curator of the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati, where the exhibition was on view in the fall. There are sides of Haring that we don’t know. “He organized 30 shows in four years. And he wrote his own press releases. They’re hilarious. Then he moved to an entire phase where he did nothing but word-based pieces. Works based on words. Different iterations. Lots of collages. Video works that he created and that are about the variability of words, inspired by linguistics.”
“Keith Haring: 1978-1982” presents work from the first four, very raw years of Haring’s career—before he traveled the world, designed a jacket for a Madonna video, went on MTV, and painted Grace Jones’s body; before the Absolut and Swatch ads. It’s the first large-scale exhibition to focus exclusively on the period that began when he came to New York from Pittsburgh to study at the School of Visual Arts, and ended when he created the images that would make him famous, and commercial. The show comes to New York at a time of increased interest in street art. Last year saw the wildly popular Art in the Streets exhibition at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, curated by Jeffrey Deitch; it was planned to travel to the Brooklyn Museum, but the museum pulled out for financial reasons. The Haring show may serve as a kind of replacement; he’s considered the spiritual godfather to many of today’s street artists.
In organizing the show, Ms. Platow started with questions she had about Mr. Haring’s work. “I wondered how he got to the point where he could create these amazing large figurative pieces by the time he was in his mid-20s,” she said.
A look at Haring’s journals reveals that there is much to work with in this period. There are examples of his experimentation with words, and the results of cut-up exercises he did à la William Burroughs and Brion Gysin, who were both major influences at the time, as well as examples of gouache cut-outs he did when exploring Matisse’s practice. He documented his artistic breakthroughs. An entry from Nov. 7, 1978, reads, “I have just completed another landmark (for me, that is) painting. It is the first time I ever tried to utilize both arms to control two brushes.” Interspersed with the writing are small drawings of penises, pyramids, dogs and scenes of New York City.
And Haring was an avid video maker. “He recorded his own very performative creations of these abstract patterns sometimes on the floor of his studio or the wall of the studio, literally covered the entire space and videotaped it,” said Ms. Platow. “He considered the video the work of art, not the drawing itself.” His early experimental video works explored the intersection between drawing, space, movement and language. In Phonics (1980), Mr. Haring had his friends, including the artist Kenny Scharf, intone various phonemes, chosen at random. In Machines, he shot a close-up of a mouth formulating sound signals based on Morse code.
It was in 1981 that the imagery now most associated with Haring first made an appearance in his art—the barking dog, the “radiant baby,” the flying saucer, the pyramid.
Some of the pieces in the Brooklyn show, such as a few examples of the early drawings and the word pieces, were included in the Whitney Museum retrospective in 1997, as well as gallery exhibitions like the Barbara Gladstone show during the summer of 2011, shortly after Gladstone began representing his estate, but the Brooklyn show is the largest one to focus on the artist’s formative years, and there are, Ms. Platow said, good reasons to bring the early material out of the vault right now. Her inspiration to look more deeply into Haring’s work came eight years ago, when she was curating an exhibition of street artist Barry McGee at the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University, and first learned what a significant influence Haring has had on a younger generation. “Like so many artists who draw inspiration from urban culture and the street, [Mr. McGee] was really inspired and informed by Keith Haring. And here I was, a German. I had never even heard of [the term] ‘campy’ before.”
Looking for ways to shed new light on Haring’s career led Ms. Platow to the Keith Haring Foundation, which is in New York and has a warehouse in New Jersey, where she went through boxes and boxes of archival materials. “I went to the warehouse and we opened crates that hadn’t been opened since the late ’70s. We rolled out these amazing large pieces on paper.”
According to Julia Gruen, the foundation’s executive director, Ms. Platow’s visit was “a serendipitous moment.” The foundation was, she said, just finishing work on a monograph that Rizzoli published in 2008, with contributions from then art dealer Jeffrey Deitch and his gallery director, Suzanne Geiss, both of whom had extensive experience with Haring’s art.
It was in the course of putting together that monograph that Ms. Gruen began to realize that the materials should be exhibited. “They should not just be reproduced in books,” she said. “They should be seen.”
Before taking the exhibition to Cincinnati, where it finished its run at the Contemporary Arts Center in September, Ms. Platow debuted it, in 2010, at the Kunsthalle Wien, in Vienna, Austria. It was a huge hit—the second-most visited show since the Kunsthalle opened in 1992—proving that Haring has fans the world over. “I think the fact that the show opened in Vienna is a testament to the universality of what he created,” said Tricia Laughlin Bloom, the project curator for the show’s Brooklyn presentation. “His work really speaks across time, space and cultural divides, and that bears out when you look at his exposure internationally.”
People in Europe have heard about the Pop Shop, said Ms. Platow, “and they’ve heard about the East Village.”
Haring may have had his immediate audience in the nightclubs of New York, but, while he was alive, the aesthetic appreciation of his work was more pronounced overseas. “Even in Keith’s lifetime, his work was far more appreciated in Europe,” said Ms. Gruen. “And far more accepted. Those things that caused art connoisseurs to throw their hands up here in America just seemed like no problem in Europe.”
To give the presentation a hometown angle, the Brooklyn Museum has augmented the show with additional archival materials from the foundation as well as works from local private collections according to Ms. Laughlin Bloom.
“We’ll have a set of 20 great Polaroid portraits that Haring did between 1979 and ’82,” said Ms. Laughlin Bloom, “to kind of meet Keith right at the entrance.” She laughed, as if this were in fact a kind of spiritual homecoming for the artist.
That set of original Polaroids is one of those archival pieces that have never before been on view, though reproductions were included in the show in Vienna. “Most of them have titles that are associated with either a holiday or a day in Keith’s life, so it has a documentary feel.”
Another major addition to the show in Brooklyn is a set of 31 of the actual “subway drawings,” drawings Haring made on the walls of New York’s subway system, which has been loaned from a private collection.
Nestled among the display of subway drawings is the show’s crown jewel, a 23-foot Sumi ink scroll painting, Everybody Knows Where Meat Comes From, It Comes From the Store, for which the museum has had to extend a wall. The effect, said Ms. Laughlin Bloom, is of “almost an urban architecture within the exhibition space. You feel like you’re almost in the presence of a skyscraper form. We’re just getting the sense that it’s bringing the city—which was such an important medium for Haring—into our spaces.”
The show includes large collages and exhibition announcements applied directly to the gallery walls; an installation inspired by Haring’s “paper environments,” where he would cover entire rooms in collages lithographs, and drawings, and even hang works from the ceiling; and his famous photos of parties, nightclubs and performance art.
The show promises to reveal an artist who was in many ways ahead of his time. In one of his early diary entries, Haring wrote, “Do computers have any sense of aesthetics? Can an aesthetic pattern be programmed and fed into a computer so that it reasons and makes decisions based on a given aesthetic?” His own work proves the power of the human touch.