Keith Haring’s Voice from the Eighties Echoes in our Present
Keith Haring. The Political Line.
Rotterdam Kunsthal – September 20 2015 to February 7 2016
More than 30 years later Haring’s works return to the city where his international career once took off: in 1982 Rotterdam’s ‘Galerie ‘t Venster’ was the first ever outside the United States to show his work. Now the Kunsthal is hosting the exhibition ‘Keith Haring. The Political Line‘.
Keith Haring always had a special bond to The Netherlands, ever since his first solo exhibition in 1986 was hosted by the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, in many ways an exhibition that slammed wide open the doors for his art for an international audience. Hence, we dare to say that it’s a return Keith Haring himself would have looked forward to with excitement.
This is a retrospective show over the short but very productive career of the formerly New York-based artist’s, a career that spanned over the course of the deeply political 1980’s. Just like our polarised times, The Eighties were also an era heavily influenced by politics, especially in Haring’s crisis-ridden New York and the conservative America of the Reagan-years. Ideological conflicts and the big differences between contrasting elements in society came into focus and a social awakening dominated a good part of the cultural life.
Sounds quite familiar to our current political climate? Maybe no surprise then, that while being a retrospective exhibition, among the many striking impressions we experienced throughout the show is how contemporary it all felt, now three decades later. It was almost like everything was made for our days and Keith Haring is still talking to us here.
The Politics & The Line
Hence, no coincidence that politics is a focal point of the exhibition, as also the name witnesses thereof. Keith Haring was equally known as an activist expressing himself through his art, and just as much an artist who created art to activate his surrounding. This exhibition at Kunsthal is however about so much more than politics: it’s just as much about the raw talent and imagination that Haring possessed, or the personal struggles the artist faced.
During the exhibition it’s inevitable not to bear witness to the personal aspects of his art. While going back and forth the halls of the Kunsthal – you almost have to do so, because while walking you often realise that a certain detail you probably missed needs a second look – the thoughts are circling around two main threads: the raw talent and unique style that Haring possessed, and the socially engaged message he brought to the public through his distinct lines.
The Mastery of the Line
Keith Haring was born and raised in Pennsylvania where his early exposure to his father’s passion for cartoons laid the ground for his future artistic direction. The world of the cartoons, and especially Walt Disney, had a great influence on his technique and the simplicity of his line became quickly his trademark. Throughout art history it’s difficult to find many others who had such a simple but distinct way of creating so much with so few movements, the only ones who pop to mind are Picasso and Miró – not a bad company.
Haring moved to New York already at the age of twenty, where he studied at the School of Visual Arts and he quickly became part of the booming art scene of Manhattan, where he became a protégé of Andy Warhol‘s. During this time he became close friends with many artists who later would turn into huge international names, where a young woman called Madonna, at that stage still barely known, would become one of his closest friends.
One of Haring’s main ideas about art was to bring it out of the galleries and make it available to a large public who never would go to art galleries. The early expression for this was his continuous and untiring “interventions” in the New York Subway where he took advantage of the unused advertising spots – black surfaces awaiting billboards – where he illegally created quick drawings on the spot, often in close symbiosis with the surrounding. While he got arrested at multiple occasions the effort paid off and his fame sky-rocketed thanks to the thousands of Subway Drawings he created.
The Eighties was also an era when street art turned from what was early on considered vandalism into a recognised and more and more respected art genre and as a young student Haring was strongly inspired by it and street culture in general. Although he never learned to master the aerosol technique, his style got influenced by the work of the graffiti world. By coincidence, he also came across the tarpaulin, a material which became his own innovative canvas, mainly driven by the realisation how cheap and useful it was, a blessing for a poor artist. Many of the works displayed at the Kunsthal exhibition are made on tarp, a material that turned out to give his work a special edginess.
The Politics of the Line
As we’ve been introduced to by the curator of the exhibition, Dieter Buchhart, the problems of our world now in 2015 in high degree resemble the conditions under which Keith Haring worked in the 1980’s. This also sets the tone for the entire exhibition. You can’t help but wonder throughout what Haring would’ve said today about the development since his death. Is this really the furthest we got since?
Haring’s deep-rooted involvement in social causes likely influenced his productivity as well and the way he chose to distribute his work. His social activism was the dominant force behind his art and the way of expressing himself, largely influenced by his own experiences. Being homosexual in a time when American conservatism dominated the public discourse made his involvement in social causes, especially around gay rights, even more prevalent. This was only accentuated with the arrival of AIDS, which unfortunately also became his death. As testified by Julia Gruen, the executive director of the Keith Haring Foundation, during his last year Haring worked harder then ever. For an artist who so quickly and tragically was taken away from this world at the young age of 31, he left a copious amount of work behind.
The Political Line at Kunsthal
It’s important to say it straight out: ‘Keith Haring. The Political Line‘ is a fantastic exhibition. Saying that it is one of the cultural highlights in the Netherlands this autumn is really no exaggeration. Haring’s unique style influenced several generations of street artists and seeing it in person provides the knowledge of his art – be it the commercially widely spread barking dog on t-shirts, or the larger pieces that ended up in private collections – with a special meaning. Furthermore, the political dimension of the exhibition will follow you around, and it’s impossible not to realise that the current political climate offers challenges that Haring’s voice strangely enough already discussed three decades ago.
The exhibition in Rotterdam contains some 120 artworks, some rarely seen pieces from private collections together with some of the more familiar works already often seen by the general public. This exhibition is the result of common efforts between several parties, making the final outcome even more interesting. The two institutions involved are the Kunsthal Rotterdam, naturally, and the Kunsthalle der Hypo-Kulturstiftung in Munich, and the artistic organisation is dictated by the guest curator Dr Dieter Buchhart and the Keith Haring Foundation in New York, represented especially by the executive director of the Foundation, Julia Gruen.
The artistic direction resulting from two distinctly different perspectives makes the experience maybe even more interesting. The impression of the personal touch provided by Julia Gruen – who was a close friend of the artist’s and who worked for him since 1984 – provides an extra dimension to the exhibition, making it feel even more authentic.
Keith Haring’s Legacy
The Keith Haring Foundation‘s mission rests on two main pillars: firstly, to protect and promote the legacy of Keith Haring and secondly, to support not-for-profit organisations that assist youth in disadvantaged neighbourhoods, as well as organisations involved in AIDS-related education, research and care. Julia Gruen often points out that the work of Haring’s always leaves plenty for the individual interpretation. There are no clear-cut answers for what his work should mean, it’s open for everyone to create a personal message out of it. Nonetheless, the political involvement is always there, throughout all his works and naturally throughout this exhibition.
At the end, one of the unanswered questions I’ve been left with was for me to determine if Keith Haring was an optimist or not. After all, a lot has happened since The Eighties, especially when it comes to gay rights and in the fight against HIV and AIDS. There are, however, also plenty of topics that strangely enough to this day feel like nothing happened around. Racism, the environment, the problems arising from capitalism – all issues that Keith Haring was hugely engaged in – to this day remain hot topics where humanity is still failing.
Would Haring be surprised that not more is done? Should we? Do we have reasons to be optimistic, after all? All questions that the ‘Keith Haring. The Political Line‘ opens up. For the answers you be the judge.
Practical Details – ‘Keith Haring The Political Line’
Rotterdam’s Kunsthal is located in the city’s newly re-developed Museumpark, a great district with most of the city’s great museums within a short walking distance. Kunsthal is one of the major exhibition venues in the Netherlands, which has been open since 1992. Without a permanent collection, the focus is on a wide range of different exhibitions and thanks to the large space available there are always several shows presented in parallel. Check out their full current agenda if you’d like to know more.
Visitors address: Museumpark, Westzeedijk 341 | 3015 AA Rotterdam
Opening hours: Tuesday till Saturday: 10am – 5 pm | Sunday: 11am – 5pm | Closed on Mondays
Admission fee: Adults € 12 | CJP and students up to 26 years € 6 | Youth 6 to 18 years € 2 | Children to 5 years free entrance | Groups (minimum of 15 people) € 9 p.p. | Museumcard is valid.
You can also buy your ticket online.
Interested to see more exhibitions in Rotterdam? Have a look at our exhibition guide to see what else is going on!