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Culture

Keith Haring Paris exhibit reveals artist's 'political line'

© AFP

Text by Priscille LAFITTE , Tara KELLY

Latest update : 2013-04-27

Keith Haring, an iconic New York artist, is the focus of a new exhibit at Paris' Musée d’Art Moderne, on display until August 18. Haring, who died in 1990, was known for capturing the political spirit of the 1980s.

From Paris to New York, the late Keith Haring (1958-1990) was one of the most well-known artists of his time. His jellybean-like doodles captured the political spirit of the 1980s, advocating for change, social justice and individual freedom.

In tribute to the beloved artist, a joint exhibition opened last Friday in Paris at the Musée d’Art Moderne, in association with Le Centquatre.

One of the largest retrospectives of the American artist’s work to date, "Keith Haring: The Political Line" seeks to highlight the social importance of his work by drawing attention to his optimistic political agenda, with some 250 sculptures and drawings on display.

Keith Haring
Portrait of Keith Haring by Philippe Bonan June 1989

“This show is about the political line because it is on the one hand about Haring’s drawings without him ever changing anything or making any sketches--but on the other, this line and message is a political one,” curator Dieter Buchhart told France 24.

The Paris exhibition brings together Haring's small-scale works on paper from the early 1980s, his oversize paintings on vinyl tarp and his iconic sculptural works. Patrons can also see his 1985 "The Ten Commandments" series. Massive in scale -- ten panels, each seven meters high -- the works reveal the artist's radical interpretation of the Decalogue.

Despite the anti-religious themes associated with Haring's artwork, one of his most famous pieces, the "Radiant Baby" actually derives its origin from Christianity. Part of this can be explained with Haring’s own religious background. Though he was raised a Protestant, he joined the 1970s "Jesus Movement" in his youth. Its followers were known as the "Jesus People," or more commonly "Jesus Freaks", where their message was to spread the word of Christ. Like Haring’s work, it was predominately anti-church and anti-fundamentalist.

Pop Goes The Culture

Like fellow artist and friend Jean-Michel Basquiat, Haring was inspired by graffiti. His bold lines and vivid colors were one of the most recognizable traits of the eighties aesthetic. To make contact with the widest possible audience, Haring -- a Pennsylvania native who moved to to New York for art school at the age of 20 -- took to the subways, clubs, streets and public spaces with his art.

His work fought against mass consumption, racism, capitalism, violence, religion and injustice in all their forms, with a particular emphasis on the threat of nuclear war, the destruction of the environment, homophobia and the AIDS epidemic.

Keith Haring Michael Stewart – USA for Africa, 1985 © Keith Haring Foundation

While he never founded a school or an artistic movement, the curator of the current exhibit, Odile Burluraux, likens Haring to Andy Warhol, “the Pope of pop art”, who remained a friend and mentor. "Warhol was older, he wanted to feed the young, it refreshed his imagination,” Burluraux told France 24. “Meanwhile, Haring…admired Warhol and wanted to be recognised for it.”

Obsessions And Contradictions

Whether his creations scoured the subway, a vinyl tarp or a typical canvas, Haring’s art was fruitful. He drew and painted quickly, without preparatory sketch, notes Burluraux who recalls seeing Haring tackle a creation ahead of the French Revolution’s bicentennial anniversary in 1989.

“One of his incredible talents was the ability to treat any area, to master the framing completely. It impressed me,” recalls Burluraux, as she reflects on her first meeting with the artist just months before he passed away in 1990, at the age of 31, from complications related to AIDS.

Always a populist, Haring in 1986 set up his New York boutique Pop Shop to bring his art to “not only collectors but kids from The Bronx”.

Keith Haring Untitled, 1985© Keith Haring Foundation Collection Keith Haring Foundation Acrylique sur toile 152,4 x 152,4 cm

The boutique, marrying art with a low-cost buttons, posters and other trinkets, was the first of its kind, though some felt it contradicted Haring’s own messages of anti-commercialism.

Despite the backlash from the art world, Haring remained committed to his desire to make his artwork available to as wide an audience as possible, and received strong support for his project from friends, fans and mentors, including Andy Warhol.

This, together with his death and his enormous output led to an over-exposure that caused some to write off his work as mass-produced.

Combining rampant commercialism and celebrity culture with spirituality and a sense of an underground movement, Haring himself ended up becoming something of a brand. At the time of his death, his estate was worth 25 million USD.

A contradictory figure of his time, Haring's intertwined art and life symbolises much that is central to contemporary culture. And judging by the current vogue for early 80s street-chic, his image is ripe for a major Paris exhibit.

The exhibit runs until August 18, 2013.

Keith Haring Pop Shop
photo Marc Domage Container exposé au centre culturel Le Centquatre. © Keith Haring Foundation NY COURTESY GALERIE LIO MALCA

Date created : 2013-04-26

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