LOS ANGELES — A deadly disease, human technology threatening to end the world, gender norms disrupted, a leader’s promise to make America great again, capitalism running rampant, and violent racial inequities shared on media. It was the 1980s, and artist-activist Keith Haring was at the top of his game. He would die by 1990, after an influential and all-too-brief career.
“Amazing how many things one can produce if you live long enough,” he said in 1987. The exhibition texts are rich with quotes from the artist, helping bring him to life alongside his oeuvre. “I mean, I’ve barely created ten years of serious work. Imagine 50 years. The progress and evolution is remarkable. I would love to live to be 50 years old. Imagine … hardly seems possible.”
Keith Haring: Art Is for Everybody at the Broad Museum is the first solo Los Angeles museum exhibition of Haring’s work. We enter the show knowing the artist would never reach the age of 50 — he passed away at 31 due to AIDS-related complications — which puts the urgency of his work into context.
In the opening room, painted in brilliant Day-Glo colors, we hear his mixtapes (available on Spotify, courtesy th MCA Denver), a nod to Haring’s draw among artists, musicians, and street artists, and the aura of “cool” that surrounded him. Fittingly, the show ends with a gift shop — the artist’s continued fame is due in part to how readily he encouraged his work’s commercialization. But the show’s core speaks directly to his confrontation of the key social issues of his time, which remain relevant today.
Forty years ago, Haring drew three crawling babies on a New York subway map, one of his signature motifs that would become a defining visual associated with him. This subway map appears at the gallery entrance alongside an array of photos by friend Tseng Kwong Chi showing the artist at work throughout New York.
As the exhibition text notes, Haring said “the images are part of the collective consciousness of modern man. Sometimes they stem from world events, sometimes from ideas of technology or people changing roles in relation to God and evolution.” Indeed, seeing his works at full scale reveals their spiritual quality — massive paintings and murals create a sense that we are peering into another version of our world. In “The Matrix” (1983), we walk alongside a six-foot-tall, 30-foot-long Sumi ink exploration of various symbols. In the same room are the artist’s literal sculptural totems, enamel and Day-Glo paint on incised wood.
With 2023 vision, the appropriation of symbols and motifs from Egypt and the Americas is obvious, most clearly in one lithograph featuring Meso-American figures with their tongues out who reach across to each other as human figures construct a mountain of televisions with red X’s on them. The exhibition text could have done more to help viewers understand these symbols and why Haring might have used them. At the same time, he worked with modern iconography. A student of semiotics, he played with UFO and alien imagery, depicting dancing figures under the light of a flying saucer. Red hearts, crosses, and penises recur throughout his works, a number of them combining all of these elements into one, such as a scene where a UFO beams down onto two figures having sex.
“Drawing is still basically the same as it has been since prehistoric times,” Haring once said. “It brings together man and the world. It lives through magic.”
While his facility with iconography shows through, the artist’s work and purpose come to life with social issues. He grapples with his own privilege as a White street artist in “Michael Stewart-USA for Africa,” a grisly painting representing Michael Stewart, a Black artist who was arrested with brutality for making street art and who died two weeks later. In the painting, a Black figure with a long neck is choked by white hands, and a green hand reaches out from a dollar sign, perhaps to choke the figure as well. It stands in contrast to the photos of Haring openly painting subway walls. The work also makes a deliberate connection with South Africa, which at the time was in the midst of a social movement to end apartheid.
Haring’s works confronting death speak directly to the concerns of the time — and ours. In the 1980s, nuclear war, rather than climate change, threatened to bring about the end of the world. Haring directly addressed the living memory of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the only two cities in the world to be attacked by nuclear weapons. A triptych of ink drawings from a 1984 exhibition at Galerie Watari in Tokyo represent the harrowing experience of death by nuclear weapons and radiation. In the same room, an untitled painting shows a red snake reaching out past a mushroom cloud to consume a human figure; another untitled painting depicts a hellish scene of red figures and sexual aggression, a direct response to the homophobia of the time and the blood spilled during the AIDS crisis.
At this point in my experience of the show, the busy crowds faded away and the poppy music drifted off, and I found myself visually tracing the lines and squiggles of Haring’s work, composing a world unto itself. To sit with these expansive artworks is to travel back in time and understand that the world of the 1980s is not so far from today’s. The artist is no longer alive but everything he tackled is very much alive — even, yes, the aliens — in our headlines and our politics.
In 1985, Haring opened up the Pop Shop, a commercial space in lower Manhattan where he sold his work. Ephemera from the Keith Haring Foundation displays the range of objects that brought his work to the broader public, like patches, stickers, a skateboard, and a cap. In this same room, a painting shows a huge gray pig with a green nose eating orange human figures. The paradox of Pop Art is its simultaneous embrace and critique of capitalism, and Haring is not unique in that regard. He’s also not wrong that by making his work more accessible in price, he truly made his art something that everybody could own in some fashion.
In the final rooms, we return to the artist’s mixtapes, some party photos (Polaroids were the Instagram of their day, and they look exactly like an influencer’s online grid) and his famous work for ACT UP and AIDS awareness. One painting, drained of the artist’s characteristic color, presents a human figure on a black backdrop attacked by a sperm with devil horns. Another painting from 1989 is unfinished, a purple, black, and white world on its way to becoming just a year before his passing. The drips of purple paint are dried on the canvas forever.
The layout of the Broad Museum’s first-floor gallery brings us back where we started — back to the babies at the top of the New York City subway map. Throughout the show, living and dying are for everybody, intertwining like the figures in his illustrations. “There is nothing negative about a baby, ever,” Haring said. And after a decade-long journey into the heart of death, suffering, and disease contained within a few gallery rooms, I felt like I saw his iconic babies in a new light — a reminder that life, like art, always contains within itself the potential to begin anew.
Keith Haring: Art Is for Everybody continues at the Broad Museum (221 South Grand Avenue, Downtown, Los Angeles) through October 8. The exhibition was organized by The Broad and curated by Sarah Loyer, The Broad Museum’s curator and exhibitions manager.