Curator Q&A: ‘Keith Haring: 1978-1982’ Arrives at the Brooklyn Museum

Curator Q&A: ‘Keith Haring: 1978-1982’ Arrives at the Brooklyn Museum

March 09, 2012 at 4:00 am

Where: Brooklyn Museum
When: March 16-July 8, 2012

Twenty-two years after his untimely death, the first large-scale exhibition of American artist Keith Haring’s work will be mounted at the Brooklyn Museum.

Opening on March 16, “Keith Haring: 1978-1982” chronicles the beginnings of Haring’s career in New York City, through the years when he opened his studio and took his art to the streets.

Organized by the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati and the Kunsthalle Wien in Vienna, the exhibit will feature several never-before-seen early works; among them, seven video pieces, including “Haring Paints Himself into a Corner” and “Tribute to Gloria Vanderbilt,” as well as collages featuring fragments of Haring’s writings.

MetroFocus spoke via email with Tricia Laughlin Bloom, project curator at the Brooklyn Museum, about how New York City influenced Haring’s art, and why his work is still so relevant.

Q: When he arrived in NYC, Haring was inspired by graffiti art and used the city as his canvas. How do you think the city influenced his art? Are there any of his works that you think are quintessentially New York?

A: Haring absorbed the energy of New York’s downtown night life, new wave music, poetry and performance art into visual symbols,  capturing the rhythm of the city, especially in his large-scale drawings — what he described as “body involvement” paintings. He did not make a distinction between drawing and painting at this stage, the physical performative act of painting and communicating with an audience being more important than the finished product. There are many other ways his work is uniquely about New York, obviously through the subway drawings, also in his collages incorporating New York Post newspaper headlines, and his series “Manhattan Penis Drawings” for Ken Hicks.

He actively collaborated with graffiti artists and acknowledged the influence of unknown artists working in the street, at the same time that he collaborated with dancers, performance artists and other visual artists like Basquiat, Kenny Scharf and LA II.

Q: If Haring were alive today, do you think the progress the LGBT community has made, particularly New York’s recent passage of the Marriage Equality Act, would be reflected in his art?

A: I would expect so, yes; he was always engaged with social and political realities and supporting the dissemination of important ideas, with waking people up.

Q: What can we expect from the show?

A: At this point in time Haring has become one of the most visible and well-loved of contemporary artists. Yet his early works on paper and videos are not as well-known as his later imagery; considered together the works in this show tell a great story about Haring the person, the artist, the curator, the social connector; as well as New York City and the state of art during this period. Keith’s openness to people and to life in all its aspects can be seen in his embrace of subjects that range from politics to semiotics to popular music and formal experimentation.

"Self-Portrait with Glasses Painted by Kenny Scharf," a Polaroid photo taken in 1980. Photo courtesy of the Keith Haring Foundation.

Q: Was there any particular reason this year was chosen for the exhibit?

A: The Brooklyn Museum is the third venue for this traveling exhibition organized by the Cincinnati Art Center. The show was presented first in Vienna, then in Cincinnati. It’s the first major museum exhibition of Haring’s work in New York in 25 years — since the Whitney retrospective in 1997; and the first show of this scale to focus on his early period, so in many ways having a show of this scale in New York City  is overdue.

Q: Why do you think Haring’s art merits such a large-scale exhibition?

A: Haring’s desire to connect and to bring art to the broadest audience led him to produce intensively, to make the most of his time and his materials; especially during these years of early formal experimentation. It’s a rich body of work that is best experienced all together — street art, art history, linguistics, popular culture, matters of life and death and love and humor all converge in Haring’s work; we have created an appropriately dramatic setting to take it all in.

'Painting Myself into a Corner' was Haring's first video piece, made in 1979. Photo courtesy of Keith Haring Foundation.

Q: Are there any pieces in this exhibition that stand out to you?

A: I love his geometric and gestural abstract drawings, patterns and fields of symbols worked out in journals and smaller works on paper; and seeing these extended into very physical mural-sized drawings. You see great connections between his abstract work and the later visual story telling.

This interview has been edited and condensed.