Artist and activist Keith Haring and his artwork have been a part of San Francisco since before he began to rise to prominence in the burgeoning street art and public art scene, and later in galleries and museums around the world. Many of the artist’s works in San Francisco were intended for a wide variety of audiences: from murals for DV8, a club once located in the South of Market to a multi-panel large-scale painting for the South of Market Childcare Center, also known as the Saint Patrick’s Daycare Center. Haring’s sculptures appealed to a wide variety of audiences, too. Untitled (Three Dancing Figures), the only piece that remained in San Francisco after a city-wide exhibition of his sculptures in the summer of 1998 was a prominent feature in its original location across from the War Memorial Opera House. Even now its permanent location at the Moscone Convention Center, and its current location at de Young Museum are brightened by its multicolored presence. Haring’s triptych altarpiece, The Life of Christ, the last artwork completed before his death in 1990 permanently installed in the AIDS Chapel at Grace Cathedral is a somber reminder of his enduring legacy, and how inextricably linked Haring’s artworks are to his social justice concerns.
Indeed, Haring’s works were foundational to his interest in shedding light on political, social, and economic rights endeavors, perhaps most important of which was to make art accessible to everyone by obfuscating the class hierarchy implicit in not only viewing art, but even more so with its acquisition. During his lifetime, exhibitions of his work in major galleries and museums were not vastly different to the drawings and paintings already in the public spheres of subways, street corners, and alleyways. Based upon Dr. Dieter Buchhart’s exhibition at Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris in the summer of 2013 Keith Haring: The Political Line now at de Young is the exhibition’s U.S. debut, and the first major Keith Haring show on the West Coast since the retrospective organized by SFMOMA in 1998. The Political Line focuses upon the broad scope of the artist’s social justice interests, which included issues just as pertinent today as they were in his lifetime: nuclear disarmament, racial inequality, capitalism and economic disparity, environmental preservation and sustainability, gender equality, and sexual orientation discrimination — including the AIDS epidemic that would eventually claim Haring’s life.
Under the auspices of and in collaboration with The Keith Haring Foundation, The Political Line tells this story with 154 objects, 132 of which are artworks including Haring’s famed subway drawings, including over 30 objects not shown in the exhibition in Paris. Several works have not been published or on public view since the artist’s death in 1990. The Political Line illustrates how Haring explored these ideas in a variety of approaches. Works like the Statue of Liberty that greets visitors at the entrance, the collages of words taken from newspaper headlines, and even subway drawings that filled empty advertisement spaces, Haring subverted common icons, ephemera, and public spaces to concurrently take away the power they held and to inject his own meaning and interpretations. Haring also used more direct approaches, using these icons within his own visual vocabulary. One painting, Andy Mouse considers artist and friend Andy Warhol’s ideas about art and its relationship to everyday life in contrast and compliment to his own with Warhol’s own color schemes, his visage, use of multiplicity, huge piles of cash, and Mickey Mouse motifs. The giant LGBT pink triangle symbol titled Silence = Death, upon which he intricately drew characters pressing their fingerless hands to their ears or eyes, is a striking conclusion to the exhibition. “An artist is a spokesman for a society at any given point in history,” wrote Haring. “His language is determined by his perception of the world we all live in. He is a medium between “what is” and “what could be.”
Keith Haring: The Political Line will be at de Young Museum through February 16, 2015.