SEEING BETWEEN THE LINES
by Pamela A. Lewis
published February 20, 2009
The Universe of Keith
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
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
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