In 1978, Keith Haring wrote four words in his journal just months after arriving in New York: “Art is for everyone.”
The artist, then 20, had moved to New York to study at the School of Visual Arts and was encountering the insularity of the art world for the first time. Most contemporary artists, Haring wrote, were ignoring the public in favour of bourgeois clients. Frustrated, he wrote, “The public has a right to art.”
Within a few years, Haring would be embraced by both the art elite and the boldface names of the era, such as Madonna and Grace Jones. But even as his paintings began to accrue commercial value, Haring retained his conviction about the public’s right to art. Throughout his roughly decade-long career as a commercial artist, Haring kept his work accessible via outdoor murals, including a 90-metre painting on the Berlin Wall.
When travelling to exhibit work in galleries and museums, Haring painted public works, providing something for free for anyone who didn’t cough up the cost of admission. He also offered versions of his work that cost just a few dollars, selling low-cost items such as T-shirts, stickers, refrigerator magnets and condom holders covered in his trademark line drawings at a retail store in New York called Pop Shop.
“Art is for everybody” remained his guiding principle. More than 40 years later, the phrase serves as the title of a new retrospective show now on display at the Art Gallery of Ontario.
The show first opened in May at The Broad in Los Angeles and will travel to the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis this spring following its exhibition in Toronto. It features more than 200 artworks and ephemera, from painted tarps and urns to large-scale sculptures and T-shirts originally sold at Pop Shop, and it is the first major exhibition of Haring’s work in Canada in almost 25 years.
The theme of accessibility ties together the show, which tackles everything from nuclear war to HIV/AIDS (Haring passed away from complications related to the condition in 1990).
The Broad’s curator and exhibitions manager Sarah Loyer, who curated the show, explains the theme “Art is for everyone” applies not only to Haring’s populist approach to displaying work, but also to the art itself.
He is able to take on all sorts of complex issues, such as capitalism, the proliferation of new media, sexuality and race. “And he talks about these really serious, complex topics while also using really vibrant colours and often humour, being able to elicit joy and wonder at the same time,” Loyer says.
“Even when works take on serious and political content and subject matter, there’s a way that it’s done so it’s accessible.”
On Tuesday, the eve of the show’s public opening, Haring’s younger sister, Kristen Haring, toured the exhibit.
Kristen Haring became a founding member of the Keith Haring Foundation, which the artist established prior to his death, in 1989, when she was just 19. And she has been one of the key shepherds of Haring’s legacy.
Pausing at a photo near the start of the Art Is For Everybody exhibit – from a gallery show in New York held during Haring’s ascent in the art world – Kristen Haring explained she was still in grade school when her brother’s work began to be shown at major galleries and that her family would drive an hour and a half from the small town of Kutztown, Penn., where the Harings grew up, to attend wild opening parties.
“We’d come in for a day trip and get this sort of one-day look at what was going on in Keith’s life and then I’d recede back to sixth grade in my little school.”
Stopping in front of a video playing a CBS news broadcast about her brother’s arrest for vandalism – Haring was arrested several times for creating chalk drawings on blank advertising space in the New York subway, a project that gained him local notoriety and assisted his career – Kristen Haring was bemused recalling her brother’s run-ins with the law.
“My parents were both horrified he was shown being arrested, but also so proud that he was getting this coverage.”
The arrest she remembers most, she says, was a story Haring loved to tell about an officer who handcuffed him, then received a call directing him to an emergency and locked the handcuffed artist away in a subway bathroom, saying he’d return for Haring later. Of her brother’s reaction, Kristen Haring recalls, “He said, ‘I was afraid I was going to die in that subway bathroom, forgotten about by this police officer.’ ”
In a room filled with photos of Haring and his celebrity friends – the fashion designer Jean Paul Gaultier, the singer Grace Jones, country star Dolly Parton, fellow art star Andy Warhol and pop icon Madonna – Kristen Haring recalls her brother meeting many notable names before their rise to fame.
“In many cases, he got to know them before they became celebrities. That was certainly true of Madonna. He knew her before she was famous and just as she was coming into her amazing career. The first time she performed Like a Virgin was at his birthday party. … They sincerely loved each other.”
From the time he was a teenager, Kristen Haring says her brother wanted to be famous. “That’s one thing he and I definitely did not see eye-to-eye on. I never saw the appeal of that, especially when I saw it happen to him.”
The goal, however, was never fame for fame’s sake, she says. “He wanted to be known but the reason he wanted to be known wasn’t to get a good table at a restaurant. It was that that would mean that people were paying attention to the messages that he had.”
For 30 years, Kristen Haring has helped protect those messages as a foundation board member and a steward of her brother’s work. Before he died, Haring spoke to everyone in the family about his desire to create a foundation as the vessel for his legacy.
In addition to working with galleries and museums, the foundation awards grants to organizations involved with HIV/AIDS and with disadvantaged children, causes close to Haring’s heart. As a board member, Kristen Haring has travelled around the world along with her brother’s work, often with other members of her family. In 1997, when the AGO mounted its last Haring show, Kristen Haring visited with both of her parents.
Reflecting on that show, just seven years after Haring’s death, she says, “I think I was still deeply grieving for him and seeing the work then for me was almost about feeling a loss of Keith.”
When she sees his work now, 33 years after his death – “You know, he’s been gone longer than he was with us” – she finds it, and the attention it is still getting, reassuring and exciting.
“It’s always a celebration,” she says. “The fact that people still care about this work would have made him so much more excited than any success he had during his life – the fact that the work lived on.”