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Keith Haring at Tate Liverpool
June 18, 2019
Tate’s northern gallery, in the city of Liverpool, is currently showing the UK’s first ever retrospective of work by the American artist Keith Haring (1958-1990) – a long overdue exhibition bringing together more than 85 works, many of which have never been seen in the UK.
Haring is best known for his vibrant, often fluro, stick men and dog figures that jump and dance in a celebration of the life and culture of 80’s New York. He was a key figure on the city’s counterculture scene, collaborating with artists such as Andy Warhol and Jean Michel Basquait. In recent years his prices at auction have also soared alongside those of his contemporaries, and he is now considered one of the forerunners of the street art scene.
His work also fused the art of the 80’s; it blends surrealism, pop, graffiti, hip-hop and even Chinese calligraphy. It reflected the vibrancy of his surroundings, with results that have the graphic appeal of cartoons or video games.
Alongside Haring’s artistic legacy, he is also known for his pioneering activism – something reflected in his oeuvre. Living an openly gay man during the HIV epidemic that gripped the city, Haring explored, and celebrated his sexuality. He also touched on anti-apartheid, drug abuse and nuclear disarmament issues.
Haring’s desire for using art as a public forum is clear in how he displayed his works – often in public on the side of buildings, and sometimes shunning the established culture of galleries and museums. This is clear in the show’s chalk drawings he drew while riding the subway.
It’s also shown in his non-visual art practices; Haring collaborated with creative such as Grace Jones and Vivienne Westwood to dress video sets and performances, bringing his trademark iconography to all areas of design. His images were also plastered across Reebok sneakers, posters and T-shirts.
The work in the show, filled with radiance, highlights Haring’s obsessions with semiotics as he studied everything from Ancient Egyptian art to Dr Suess. The result is his own invented visual language, that by the end of the show, visitors feel like they can read thanks to smart curation. The exhibition’s photographs and videos also help you step inside his wacky world of hedonistic, and sometimes dark and violet, New York in the 80’s. But despite this, his motto is always one of peace and love.
Haring himself was diagnosed with AIDS in 1988, and on 16 February 1990 he died aged 31. During the last three years of his life he made some of his most poignant work, clearly with a desire to address what would become his legacy. Ignorance = Fear from 1989, which in just bright red, yellow and blue, and through so few lines, provides such a heartfelt message that AIDS needs to be spoken about, is perhaps the strongest work in this jubilant show that celebrates not only Haring’s work, but the power of life itself.
Words by Toby Mellors