Painting Myself Into A Corner

by Sara Clarke

Untitled, 1982. Sumi ink on paper. Image courtesy Brooklyn Museum of Art.

Keith Haring was an oddly ubiquitous part of my childhood. Oddly because, well, I grew up in a socially and culturally conservative small town where there is little appreciation for art of any kind, let alone the dingy grafitti-inspired oeuvre of a gay painter from the New York underground club scene.

And yet his work was everywhere in my childhood. Maybe it was his later status at the epicenter of the AIDS crisis, a supposedly gentler alternative to controversial artists like David Wojnarovicz and Robert Mapplethorpe. Or it could have had something to do with MTV’s commissions of their trademark astronaut as a Haring cartoon stick figure.

My memory of his work is so cuddly and bland that at first I wasn’t that interested in seeing the Brooklyn Museum’s exhibition Keith Haring: 1878-1982. But I was surprised by the work. It’s more raw than the dogs and babies that made Haring famous, oddly violent and often centered on images of penises and men fucking. This is not the ubiquitous Keith Haring of my childhood.

There are two pieces in the show that not only changed my understanding of Haring’s work but, frankly, blew my mind.

Untitled, 1979. Acrylic and ink on paper. Image courtesy haring.com.

The first is a study in abstraction done in 1979 when Haring was at SVA. The swirling figures interlock like puzzle pieces, suggesting a pile of humanity. It’s a bridge between Bruegel and Pollock, a mass of dynamic energy that doesn’t take itself too seriously.

Jackson Pollock, Autumn Rhythm (Number 30). 1950. Enamel on canvas. Image via metmuseum.org.

Pieter Bruegel The Elder, The Wedding Dance. Oil on panel. Image via Wikipedia.

The other piece stood out to me in a much less didactic way. It’s just… perfect. It’s the kind of painting you can’t describe in words. This is a masterpiece in a completely sincere way. It scratches the part of your brain that can find euphoria in a line or a shape. Unfortunately, I can’t find an image of it online. However, I did find a still of a video piece Haring made around the same time that features himself creating a painting that looks very much like the one I’m thinking of. So I’ll give you that, and then you have to go to the Brooklyn Museum to see the piece I’m talking about. Trust me, you’ll recognize it.

Still from Painting Myself Into A Corner video, 1979. Image courtesy Brooklyn Museum of Art.

Also brilliant, and a reason to check out the Haring show at the Brooklyn Museum even if you’re not a huge fan of his work: it’s one of the best curated shows I’ve ever seen. I especially love the choice to feature the music of 70’s and 80’s New York in some of the rooms. It’s rare that museums connect fine art with other artistic forms from the same period, and for Keith Haring, who exhibited work in nightclubs and made drawings on the subway, I thought it was a perfect choice.

UPDATE: Check out this tumblr with scans of Keith Haring’s journals. They start when he was thirteen years old!

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