Simanaitis Says

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TO SOME, GRAFFITI is civil disobedience. To others, depending upon its quality, it’s art. Disobediently enough, I place myself in this second group in admiring the works of Keith Haring.

Eleanor Nairne describes an ongoing Keith Haring exhibit “At Tate Liverpool” in the London Review of Books, July 13, 2019. This Liverpool, England, exhibit is continuing until November 10, 2019, and is the first large-scale presentation of Haring’s work in the U.K. “Given that there are no works by him in public collections here,” she writes, “it is a significant moment and an opportunity (at last) to appreciate the sweep of his career….”

Keith Haring, 1958–1990, American artist initially known for his spontaneous drawings in New York City subways. Photo adjacent to his mural in Pisa, Italy, 1989.

I’ve enjoyed Haring’s provocative whimsy ever since the Phoenix Art Museum organized “Haring, Warhol, and Disney” in 1991. Following here are tidbits on the LRB article, the Phoenix show, and my usual Internet sleuthing.

Haring with Andy Warhol. This and the following images from Haring, Warhol, and Disney.

Haring’s Lamentably Short Career. “It was the subway drawings, begun in 1980, ” the LRB’s Nairne writes, “that brought Haring to the attention of the art world. The idea was inspired: when the lease on an advert ran out the transit authorities would paste black paper over it, which Haring used as a blank canvas. Chalk cost next to nothing and drew beautifully on the soft black paper—plus the subway brought an immediate audience.”

Commuters, Nairne notes, were entertained by Haring’s “dancing figures, barking dogs, flying spaceships and radiant babies. We also feel the tension between the innocent vitality of his imagery and the illicit nature of the activity (he was repeatedly arrested while drawing)….”

Haring’s work also offers social commentary: Nairne observes, “His work is full of references to the dangers of homophobia, fundamentalism, nuclear power, racism…. When the AIDS epidemic took hold in the early 1980s…, he became closely involved in the campaign to increase public awareness.”

In 1989, Haring was diagnosed HIV-positive; he died in 1990 at age 31.

Keith Haring, Andy Warhol, and Walt Disney, Prestel-Verlag and the Phoenix Art Museum, 1991.

The Phoenix Exhibit. In the Foreword to the exhibition catalog, editor, curator, and art critic Bruce D. Kurtz wrote, “It was when working on this project [the Phoenix exhibit] that he mentioned that Andy Warhol and Walt Disney were his heroes, and I asked how he would feel about our organizing a show of all three artists. ‘Fantastic,’ he said.”

Self-portrait, 1989.

Kurtz wrote, “Haring’s Radiant Child signals hope and possibility. It symbolizes the sense of renewal that a new life brings, along with the feeling of openness and freedom from pre-judgements that typify children….”

“In October 1986, the Berlin Wall became Haring’s ground for a 350-foot long mural in the colors of the German flag (yellow, red, and black) depicting figures interlocking at their hands and feet…. In the tradition of the Wall, by the next day, other artists began painting over what Haring had done.”

Haring said in 1988, “I think I’m just part of the circle. I think that what I am doing is only a step in the right direction. Other people are going to take it further.”

Let’s celebrate his step in the right direction. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2019

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