Sunday, June 3, 2012

Prince of Pop Art, Queen of England

Keith Haring -- Artist and Social Activist
Queen Elizabeth -- Diamond Jubilee

We trekked out to the Brooklyn Museum on a recent gorgeous day to see, like pilgrims to a shrine, a huge exhibition of the works of Keith Haring.

If Andy Warhol was the king of pop art, then Keith Haring was the prince. Here's the wonderful antechamber to the gallery. It was always crowded, and there was never a chance to get a clear shot, but it's a great way to get the viewer in the mood for what's to come.

The exhibit is a show-stopper. Because Keith rose to public notice as a New York graffiti artist in the late 1970s through the late 1980s when disco and punk were king and dance clubs were the center of nightlife, we wore graphic vintage jumpsuits in his honor. When he was at the School of Visual Arts, he produced a video "Painting Myself into a Corner" in which he not only integrated music with sound but also showed how rapidly he worked. His ambidextrous method allowed him to pour the paint and shift the paintbrush from hand to hand as he moved quickly across the floor, covering the white surface with his signature black graphic imagery. In the video, he paints in rhythm to music by Devo which became the soundtrack.

Open through July 8, 2012 in the Morris A. and Meyer Schapiro Wing, 5th Floor, the exhibit titled "Keith Haring: 1978–1982" is the first large-scale exhibition to explore the early career of one of the best-known American artists of the twentieth century. Tracing the development of Haring’s extraordinary visual vocabulary, the exhibition includes 155 works on paper, numerous experimental videos, and over 150 archival objects, including rarely seen sketchbooks, journals, exhibition flyers, posters, subway drawings, and documentary photographs.

 Many of the pieces on exhibit were untitled as was this piece from 1978-79 of sumi ink and acrylic on paper.

His work combined punk, hip hop, cartoons and graffiti. Certain images of dogs, babies, space ships and bald cartoon people appear and reappear throughout his work, often emanating rays of light and sometimes melding into each other. "Radiant Baby" is probably the image most associated with him.

The figures also often appear in bas relief, almost like Egyptian hieroglyphics. Some pieces are wonderfully childlike and others are graphically violent. This black and white piece combines three of his frequent images.

This highly colorful dog emitting rays of light is typical of his iconic imagery.

Keith Haring (5/4/58 - 2/16/90) was an artist and social activist. Born in Reading and raised in Kutztown, PA, he moved to NYC in 1976 when he was 18 years old. He went to the School of Visual Arts, and began to create one of the largest bodies of work of any 20th century artist, all within an extremely short period of time. Looking back, it is almost as if he knew his life would be cut short. He was diagnosed with AIDS in 1988 and in 1989, he founded the Keith Haring Foundation to provide funding and imagery to AIDS organizations and children's programs.  For many years after his death, his Pop Shop was the star attraction on Lafayette just below Houston.

And there were a few that you wouldn't approve of your young children (or your grandchildren) seeing, like the graphic cartoon of angels - um - 'consorting' with canines, for example, so we left those out. We're just going to include one of the more nebulous works. Fair warning. It's the next photo. It's probably better that your colleagues not see this on your computer screen, so if you're at work, wait till they walk away before you scroll down.

(People younger than us call this NSFW - not safe for work. You have to remember things like this so younger people don't think you're hopelessly square [can we still say square???]. And people older than you will think you're SO hip [can we still say hip, or is that square?].)

Drawing Full of Naughty Bits!

Keith kept extensive notebooks chronicling his concepts and ideas as well as his sketches. The exhibit really brings home how much he honed his craft and thought about the creative process and examined images and ideas. He even developed his own alphabet of symbols and pictograms, which functioned much like modern-day hieroglyphs.

Compare his alphabetic symbols to this piece of the ancient Egyptian Papyrus of Ani with cursive hieroglyphs. Both sets of symbols are used to tell stories.

His pieces range in size and shape from small (less than 8" x 10") to enormously long or wide pieces. The Brooklyn Museum show contains the entire range and displays them beautifully. This shot gives you an idea of how huge this particular work really is.

This segment of the larger piece shown above delivers his sardonic message.

For those of us who lived downtown in the late 1970s and 1980s, Keith's subway chalk drawings were a frequent sight and were always a treat. Later in his career, as he got more famous, fans would rip them off the walls almost as soon as he'd produce them.  He seemed to favor stations on the Lower East Side, Upper Manhattan and the Bronx.

Keith developed a friendship with photographer Tseng Kwong Chi and would call him after he'd finished to tell him where to find his drawings. Kwong Chi documented thousands of temporary, ephemeral works of art. Some of the original chalk drawings have survived and were on display at the Brooklyn Museum.

Back then, NYC was a grittier place and the subways even grittier, so coming across one of Keith Haring's pieces was always an unexpected but highly appreciated delight.

Keith became good friends with fellow artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. This photo by George Hirose from a 1987 Whitney Museum event captures that moment in time when the Downtown artists became the darlings of the Uptown museums and galleries. Keith was pals with fellow artist Kenny Scharf and with Andy Warhol, who became the subject of many of his pieces, including Andy Mouse. Keith was also pals with Madonna, from their days (nights, actually) at Danceteria. He even designed the jacket she wore when she sang "Like a Virgin" on Solid Gold.

In addition to producing his own artwork and videos, Keith curated shows at a number of the downtown clubs like Club 57 and the Mudd Club. This particular flyer announced an event with modern dancer and downtown icon Molissa Fenley. Life was different then. Art and artists were more accessible. You were free to discover things on your own on a personal level, without the "noise" and direction of social media.

The show featured videos of Klaus Nomi, one of our favorite figures. It turned out later that although we were free to photograph the Keith Haring pieces without flash, we were not free to photograph the videos at all, so we did something bad. But we're very repentant. If you can't see Jean camouflaged in the picture, tilt your computer screen just a little bit.

Not everyone will be familiar with Klaus Nomi, so below is a brief video of The Nomi Song, which was not included in the exhibition.

When it came time to leave, the crowd had thinned out a little, so we stepped in front of this epic piece called Matrix (see the full work below) and mimicked the movements of the dancing figure behind us as best we could.

Longtime readers know that something comes over us in museums that makes us want to "act out" - like grade-schoolers on a class trip. This visit was no exception.

We like to think that Keith would have appreciated our hijinks and irreverence as an apt tribute to his work. You can imagine that posing one at a time left a little to be desired, but we had the great good luck to attract the attention of Paolo Paci, who took several photographs of us and was kind enough to forward them.

Paolo also does a series of You Tube videos called The Anonymous Orchestra (TAO), in which he films street musicians around New York City doing everything from the classical piano and the washboard on the street to breakdancing in the subway.

No this is not an optical trick.  This piece really is thaaaat long, extending the length of the back gallery.  Matrix was produced on June 4th, 1983. Its scope is incredible. That it was completed all in one day is a testament to the amazing speed with which Keith Haring painted and his work ethic.

After we checked out the museum store and stopped for a great dinner at Santa Fe restaurant (where we celebrated Jean's birthday last November), we went thrifting. At Hooti Couture, we met this quartet of young lovelies who were enjoying the warm weather. They asked to take our pictures, so we said - only if you take photos of us with you.

We had a blast. As you can see, we all enjoyed ourselves immensely.

Brooklyn, as you may have heard, is THE new place to be, with lots of people who could easily afford to live in Manhattan now choosing to live there because they prefer the ambience. (Remember Heath Ledger lived on Dean Street, just a few blocks from Hooti Couture?) Here's a picture of some of the wonderful old buildings which, thankfully, have not been torn down to make room for flavor-free 30 storey glass boxes.

(Odd bit of history: Valerie used to live just blocks away from here as a child, and remembers the day in 1960 when the sounds of a huge explosion filled the air, shaking the foundations of her apartment building and rattling the windows. Very close to where this picture was taken, a plane crashed, following a midair collision with another plane, which crash landed in nearby Staten Island. Everyone on board was killed, as well as several people on the ground. One of those on the ground was Valerie's grandmother's butcher. His shop was vaporized, and the butcher was never found.)

What we're wearing: 

 Jean is wearing a vintage Norma Kamali leopard jumpsuit from the Brooklyn flea market; wide cinch belt from BCBG Max Azria; Ignatius hat; Trippen boots; Issey Miyake Pleats Please backpack; vintage wide black bakelite cuffs, earrings and rings; Illesteva glasses.

Valerie is wearing a vintage black straw hat from Helen Uffner, bullseye earrings from the flea market, off kilter sunglasses and a vintage Anne Klein II jumpsuit from the Metropolitan Vintage Show, unlabeled belt, Gareth Pugh shoes from Melissa.

As a little endnote to our chapter on Keith Haring, here are Keith Haring and the inimitable Grace Jones (now also a woman of a certain age) in a fabulous cooperative effort.

Queen Elizabeth's Diamond Jubilee

God Save the Queen!  In honor of Queen Elizabeth's 60 years on the throne, Britain has declared a 4-day national holiday and is hosting all kinds of festivities.  We wanted to mark the occasion (she is, after all, a woman of a certain age AND an avid wearer of hats!) with this video of an American saluting the monarchy.

Okay, in case there's anyone out there who thinks it would be more appropriate for Englishmen to commemorate the Queen's Diamond Jubilee, we've got you covered too:

May the Queen continue to rock on with her bad self!
Toodle loo, kiddies!


  1. Just posted my blog entry from the last day of the Queen's Diamond Jubilee. Now that I've written it, I see how strongly traditional I sound and feel. Well, there it is. Goodness knows, if any country welcomes and celebrates eccentrics, as well as traditionalists, it's England. Will post more of the Jubilee images once I figure out how to get them onto the blog. It has been a fabulous time here, and very uplifting for the nation as a whole, I can tell you.

    Much love from England,

  2. This post gave me such a flashback to the 80's - I loved Keith Haring's work, and I had a Klaus Nomi record! Thanks for the well-researched and informative post. You two look very "avant-garde" in your graphic jumpsuits; Keith would have heartily approved.

  3. What a post! I was mesmerized by your detailed descriptions and by your jumpsuits. You made a piece of NYC history come alive in a way that only the two of you could do, right down to Grace Jones ( another headwear icon). Thanks for the ride!

  4. Just stumbled across your post trying to find a good picture of Haring painting on the floor for a lesson I'm teaching my 6th grade art class. Fun and informative reading. Thank you!!