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SEEING BETWEEN THE LINES

  

picture - The Universe of Keith HaringDVD Review

by Pamela A. Lewis

published February 20, 2009

 

The Universe of Keith Haring

released by Arts Alliance America

90 minutes with bonus 10-minute interview with Christina Clausen

 

Few of us get what we wish for at any point in our life, but Keith Haring, towards the end of his all-too-brief one, got his:  to travel to Düsseldorf, Germany and paint the red BMW of his friend and gallerist Hans Meyer with the whimsical, bold blackline designs and figures that had made Haring famous in the 1980s and ‘90s. 

 

According to Meyer, in the newly-released DVD of Christina Clausen’s documentary on Keith Haring, the artist completed the car paint-job in fourteen hours, without stopping.  It was as if Haring was on an urgent mission to get this work (and others) done.

 

He was, for in a matter of weeks after painting Meyer’s car, Haring succumbed to HIV/AIDS, another artist among so many others who were casualties of disease in the final decades of the 20th century.

 

Although cut short, Keith Haring’s life was much like the New York he had stepped into and began to conquer in 1982:  full of energy, creativity, and never shut down for the night.

 

Through the memories of family, friends, and associates, as well as the many places where Haring left his recognizable mark, Clausen gives viewers a full accounting of the artist and the sexed-up, drugged-up New York  pop cultural scene, an artistic Pleiades whose stars included Grace Jones, Tony Shafarzi, Bill T. Jones, and the godlike Andy Warhol.  Coupled with an original soundtrack by Angelo Talocci, and theme song by DJ and record producer Junior Vasquez, Clausen’s lively camerawork and archival footage succeed in offering an intimate and respectful portrait of Haring, from his beginnings in Kutztown, Pennsylvania, to his final days as one of the preeminent artists of his time. 

 

Anyone who remembers having stepped into a New York City subway station back in the early 1980s will recall the stylized chalk silhouettes – “silly drawings,” as Haring referred to them -  Keith made on the blank, black ad boards, such as the now-iconic “Radiant Baby” or the barking dogs.  Archival footage of Haring being stopped en flagrant délit and handcuffed by police underscores the trespassive and transgressive nature of his art, that took its cues from the graffiti and street art prevalent at the time. 

 

“Art is for everyone” was the phrase uttered repeatedly by Haring, who acknowledged his own status as one outside of the art establishment, and who was determined to bring his and all art to the people, to tap into the ready-made museum that was the street.  Clausen underscores Haring’s mantra in successive passages in the film as her subject’s artistic vision gradually seeped into the public consciousness, producing posters, clothing, and eventually large-scale public sculpture. 

 

Clausen’s gaze does not turn away from Haring’s personal life in its unapologetic discussion of his homosexuality and his place in New York’s underground gay culture, his various lovers, and how his sexuality informed his art.  Much of his early work, which was explicitly phallocentric, revealed both Haring’s sense of humor as well as his insistence on telling the truth about who he was.

 

For me, some of the most affecting passages of the film are of Haring painting, at times like a latter-day Jackson Pollock, bending over the surface destined to receive not the drippings or flung splashes of paint, but rather the thick, dark lines that announce to  the viewer, “This is a Haring.”  As gallerist Jeffrey Deitch observes, the “strong hand” of Keith is always recognizable.  He worked quickly, never making sketches or pre-drawings.  It was automatic art in the fullest sense of the term.

 

Haring’s collaborations with other great artists, such as dancer and choreographer Bill T. Jones (in the piece called “Long Distance,” for example, juxtaposing Jones’ balletic moves against the soft brushstroke swishings made by Haring) are given equal time by Clausen.  The lines that usually divide artists from artists are obliterated in such pairings, suggesting that all art is one.

 

The challenge of being too prolific is also addressed in the film, a question that would eventually (and, perhaps, inevitably) beset Haring.  As an artist whose work was composed of bold lines, he had to figure out where his own line was.  It would mean stepping back from too many impromptu drawings on fans’ clothing or art students’ black notebooks; too much work done for free; not enough limits. 

 

Which is what gave rise, in part, to Haring’s creation of the Pop Store on Lafayette Street in 1985.  Taking Warhol’s idea of the Factory a step further, the Pop Store was a reflection of the shift in youth cultural expression during the latter part of the 1980s.

 

Haring, who would have turned fifty this May 4th, who had entered the world “sunnyside up,” according to his mother, was not to last long enough to continue making us the happy benefactors of his generous spirit.  He wanted nothing less than to create art that remains and is joy-giving.  “Wherever you are is the center,” he is heard to say in a voiceover at the film’s start.  “But I can be in more than one place at a time.” 

 

Only saints are capable of pulling off such a feat, and Haring, by all accounts, was no saint.  Thanks, however,  to Christina Clausen’s inspiring and respectful homage, his art, as radiant and unfeignedly joyful as his crouching babies and barking dogs, is still very much with us and keeps its creator’s legacy strong in our memory.

 

pamelalewis @ stageandcinema.com

 

 
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