Keith Haring – reflection, response, renew

The word that stays with me as I reflect on preparing for, experiencing and pondering my experience with the Keith Haring exhibit is: ENERGY! I have the sense that he was burning through his life, cramming in experiences and expressing them passionately in his art. The video segment that showed him working behind a dance without music was very present in my mind as I prepared for my presentation, as was the triptych altar piece in Grace Cathedral.

The timing of the visit was perfect in the arc of our pilgrimage of the first week of the immersion; although the Saturday afternoon museum crowd was not optimal for my experience! The exercise we did prior to entering the exhibit brought me into the moment, connected me to our discussion on Friday morning and to the experience of watching the art of calligraphy and discussion with Nakasone.  Our class exercise on Durer’s prints surfaced all our prior discussions about line-space-form and meaning; how very different the images Durer created: dense, crowded, full of figures, rich in metaphor, overwhelming … just as some of Haring’s work was for me. Was Durer trying to change his culture? exploit and expand a new techology?

I was disappointed at not seeing Haring’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell in the exhibit, but was glad to see another work created on a tarpaulin, grommets in and paint drips giving texture to the image I found online and posted earlier. I found myself wondering how Haring created the work for the ballet: did he read Blake’s poem? did he watch the dancers? how fast did he paint it? Pondering Melcher’s article on the painting, I found myself trying a Haring-esque turn: is there another way to interpret the work as Haring turned McLuhan (the message is the medium – Haring)  around? For Melcher (article on Haring website), “the hand from hell is the central, dominating motif and becomes rather triumphant;” yet another way to “read” this imagetext fusion is that the hand of heaven accepts the “devilish” side of humanity, the sensuality, the sexuality and loves it. Haring’s radical generosity   empowered his prolific creativity; he did not fear overcrowding the “market” and gave away drawings with his autographs. It’s as if he always knew, even before AIDS, that he would not live long. As a friend related it in the video, Haring “said that he had so much to do.” How appropriate that to give my presentation the cohort moved away from the main traffic flow only to find ourselves annoying the guards because we were setting off the motion detectors and they were afraid that we would trigger the emergency alarm if we accidentally leaned on the doors! Radical, disruptive seminarians!

Haring’s work expanded discussion of  line, space, form as we viewed Islamic sacred writing and Nakasone’s calligraphy back into the street, for all to see and experience. Unlike the Islamic and Japanese/Okinawan calligraphy, Haring’s work was not intended for contemplation but for confrontation. Outrage and outrageous, Haring’s work call the viewer to engage in the work of changing the world. His eschatology is present in his works: AIDS, nuclear weapons, the end of the world. Plagues, wars have been humankind’s scourges in the past and remain with us today and one can see the influences of his early faith in his work.

I found Haring’s work an interesting mix of hope and despair; his is the visual “voice” of a street prophet, calling the plague of AIDS and the dangers of nuclear war to our immediate attention. Confronting us with what appear to be simple drawings and compelling our attention. Ai Wei Wei’s names project following the 2008 earthquake in China and his installation with the backpacks in 2009 in Germany was similarly compelling for me. Visually bright, and attention getting, the 9000 backpacks spell out a mother’s cry in Chinese: “For seven years she lived happily on the earth.” ( accessed on 28 January 2015). The power of naming, of image-text to arrest our daily life rhythm, to compel us to see. Installation in Germany where it is impossible to miss the connection to other government inaction.  Ai Wei Wei’s Trace and the Dragon (on Alcatraz) form powerful connections with Haring’s work:  their apparent simplicity of materials, construction belies the complexity and profundity of the message in the medium.

2 responses to “Keith Haring – reflection, response, renew

  1. Joy, thank you for your integrative reflection. I, too, saw artistic/activist similarities between Haring and Ai Wei Wei. Besides the connections you mentioned, I think both Haring and Ai seek (sought) the engagement of their audiences as recipients of the message. Haring interacted with people responding to his subway drawings… Ai asks us to inundate detention centers with postcards. Both artists seem to expect something from those who experience their art.

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  2. Bonnie, thank you for the comments. The call to action so evident in Ai Wei Wei’s and Haring’s works is both hard to avoid and hard to respond to – so much that is “wrong” or “evil” that each generation leaves to the next; perhaps without intending to do so. Social, systemic, “natural” and “just the way things are” – all the artists we’ve seen call us to DO something, to respond. They seem to say that if we truly believe what we say we believe we MUST act … As we enter the final days of this intensive, I find myself deeply appreciating the itinerary of this pilgrimage as planned by Rossitza and Devin. For me, the Haring exhibit was an inflection point, bringing all before to a concentrated focus and sending us out in our second week. Like a labyrinth walk, our first week was the inward walk of release and emptying of preconception, Haring and our Sunday experiences the center and this week we have been walking outward, renewed, ready? transformed? called to act for the healing of the world.

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