In 2019 it may be the case that Keith Haring’s work is most identifiable in t-shirt form. His graphic style full of colourful figures and palpable energy has earned him a place as a pop culture figure beyond the context of any singular work, and in this context, Tate’s greatest achievement in this first major UK exhibition of his work is to properly introduce audiences to the artist beyond this surface. Whilst revelling in the familiar, this show explores Haring’s complexity, proving to visitors precisely why he deserves his legacy.
Curatorially it’s a big show which wants to cover as much ground as possible, but happily avoids feeling messy. The storytelling is punchy whilst also giving enough space to each work and phase of his career. The particular time and place which Haring inhabited was fundamental to inspiring and shaping his work, and how to evoke a sense of 1980s New York has clearly been carefully considered. Light and soundtrack are fundamental: the subways and clubs so crucial to Haring’s world are suggested, rather than recreated, by the darker spaces and insistent hip hop and club music that fills the galleries. Even the blacklight room feels like a valid creation of the sense Haring wanted his work to achieve, rather than simply existing as an Instagram-friendly stunt.
What, then, of the artworks themselves? What’s revelatory here about Haring’s style is the uses to which it’s put. It’s one thing to know he’s described as an activist, but quite another to see the absolutely fundamental place this had in his practice. Whether in the small posters he distributed at rallies or the enormous anti-apartheid canvas, Haring’s creations convey a passionate belief in the cause. Haring worked in symbols, joyous and angry forms interacting within each artwork to tell a story, a story which climaxes in 1983’s The Matrix, a vibrant tapestry exemplifying Haring’s feelings about capitalism, technology and the human condition.
The final section of the show is dedicated to exploring his work around the AIDS crisis, which was casting its shadow over Haring’s New York long before his own diagnosis. There’s so much angry urgency to the life-or-death symbolism of these works, a darkness too, particularly in the series in which the disease is portrayed as a literal demonic presence. But there is no feeling of hopelessness; his activist determination is as strong as ever, his purpose in the face of government indifference entirely clear.
Haring’s success contains a duality, that his commitment to a philosophy of art for everyone made him a favourite of big-money collectors. Their support gave him a bigger platform for his activism as well as personal validation, but his ubiquity in fashion also means that his intentions have been watered down. Tate’s exhibition does justice to why Haring matters: his brilliance at spreading his message. From the smallest invtiation to the largest tarpaulin, he utilised approachability to get the public involved with caring or criticising. Taken far too young, Haring’s legacy is as much social as artistic, and this fantastic exhibition ensures visitors leave understanding exactly what that is.
Keith Haring is on display at Tate Liverpool from 14 June – 10 November 2019