Keith Haring At The de Young

The afternoon in 1977 after Keith Haring saw the Pierre Alechinsky exhibition at the Carnegie Mellon Museum in Pittsburgh, he paced my living room in excitement. That kind of excitement that an artist feels when they’ve connected with someone else’s work. Truly connected. He had actually been looking for our friend J., but she wasn’t home and my apartment was half a block away and he needed to talk. Badly. Not finding J. meant that anyone would do – and so there we were, me sitting in a chair having tea and Keith pacing from the living room, through the French doors to the dining room, back and forth, back and forth. All the while talking about Alechinsky’s work. At times like those one doesn’t think to record the moment in any serious way, just put the bits into RAM and that’s pretty much what I did. I often think that Keith animatedly pacing in my living room was a turning point in his meteoric launch, but we all know that’s not the case.

Keith also talked a lot about the Jean Dubuffet sculpture, The Free Exchange, that sat in the entry hall of the Sarah Scaife Galleries at the Carnegie Mellon Museum. Every time I went to that museum, which was almost every Saturday that I lived in Pittsburgh, I would stop in front of it and wonder what the attraction was for him. It’s obvious now, but back then I was still muddling around with my work, finding my voice, sorting it out, and it would be a couple of decades before I would connect with another artist like he did when he was eighteen. Keith was already pretty sure of where he was going.

* * * * *

Everyone in the Bay Area has been raving about the Keith Haring exhibition that is currently being shown at the de Young museum, out in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco – Keith Haring: The Political Line. I wasn’t sure that I wanted to go. I’ve seen his work in his studio and at the Pop Shop when I was passing through New York back in 1986, and in a few gallery exhibitions when I was traveling in Europe after he had passed away. His work is still everywhere and I wasn’t exactly sure what I would see, or feel, when viewing this exhibition, other than a feeling of paying homage to a teenage friend that I had nicknamed Sweetpea.

One of the words being used to describe this exhibition is powerful. I soon discovered that this was an understatement. For as much of his work as I have seen, I had never seen this much or these particular pieces grouped together before. This exhibition brought together a collection of his most political work, some of his iconic pieces, as well as documentation of his life as an artist.

In the second room of the exhibition there is a display table with a number of Polaroid photographs in it, Keith with Andy, Madonna and a few others. Standing in front of it, I could feel my eyes well up. Maybe because of the connection, but maybe more because of the great loss we all feel when we realize how young he was and how long he’s been gone.

Keith used his work to fight injustices around the world, from apartheid in South Africa to the growing AIDS crisis which eventually took his life. Much of his work deals with issues that we are still dealing with today – some twenty four years later. He questioned and considered and tried to boldly wake people up. At the end of the exhibition I can probably safely say that everyone leaving the museum felt a little uplifted, intensified, a little awestruck, and had a lot to think about.

The exhibition is on view until February 16, 2015.

If you’ve seen the exhibition and have something to share, or just have a comment, add it below in the comments area.

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