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Exhibition at MKG Hamburg brings together over 100 posters by Keith Haring
The exhibition shows Haring’s stylistic development through his exhibition posters. Photo: Michaela Hille.

HAMBURG.- Keith Haring, born in Pennsylvania in 1958, moves to New York at the age of twenty and immediately falls under the spell of the lively street-art scene. At this point, Pop Art has already been around for some time. Graffiti shapes the face of the city. It takes Keith Haring only a few years to find his artistic path. He develops an unmistakable style that, with its bold lines and singular figures, has close ties to both comics and street art. Less than a decade as a successful artist is granted to him—a decade he nevertheless fills to the brim with an astonishing energy that can still be felt today. In contrast to many of his contemporaries, Haring understands himself as a political artist for his entire life, one who wants to educate others and reach a wider audience with his art. The exhibition Keith Haring: Posters brings together over 100 posters from the collection of the Museum fr Kunst und Gewerbe (MKG), Hamburg. It shows Haring’s stylistic development through his exhibition posters; its broader collection of works presents the artist’s wide topical range, with his repeated engagement in support of human rights, tolerance, education, and AIDS awareness. Numerous smaller objects and marketing products that Haring sold in his Pop Shop in New York City act as complements to the exhibition’s posters. Thanks to Hamburg collector Claus von der Osten, who has gifted these works to the MKG, the selection of objects on show is of unparalleled completeness.

That Keith Haring is still remarkably contemporary even a quarter of a century after his death is a result of his themes and his distinctive pictorial language. He was one of the first to focus on AIDS, inventing motifs for the disease which are still in use today. Human rights are a central concern in his work. And time and again he stands up for children and better educational opportunities, particularly for children from underprivileged backgrounds. With its fixed lines and clear images, Haring’s visual language is quickly understandable and has an immediate effect on the viewer. The incredible assuredness of his drawing is matched by his gift for making even the most complex situations appear easy to represent. Most of his works are by no means as superficial or as simple as they may seem to be at first glance.

Haring’s first posters date back to 1982. If this year there were only four, in the next year he made nine. Before long, the number had risen to 10–20 posters each year. Only two other major figures in American art were so prolific in this area: Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg. Generally, artists’ posters announce their own exhibitions, and the same applies to Haring. Yet of the approximately 100 works made in his lifetime, 23 are dedicated to different sociopolitical topics, and 26 to cultural events; Haring designed only 19 to advertise his own exhibitions. For his posters, Haring deliberately did not develop a new style, separate to the rest of his art. After his first attempts with detailed structures, he opted very quickly for compositions with large figures and bold outlines. In this he was guided by his Subway Drawings; with their simple outlines and centered images, they already had the appearance of posters, in the best sense. They even have the rectangular outline of the image field, a component found in most of Haring’s posters. Photos and diary entries provide insight into how Haring worked. He simply provided a drawing, done with black marker or brush on a reasonably large sheet of paper.

With it, he included instructions for the colouration of particular areas. Though Haring’s posters stylistically do not differ significantly from the rest of his oeuvre, they still possess a number of observable special features. The script, found in this form only on the posters, strikes the eye at once. The patterns, too, are generally simpler than in most of Haring’s drawings and especially his larger paintings. In addition, many of the posters’ representations address their subjects directly and allow a clear interpretation, a characteristic shared only rarely by the independent paintings and drawings. Particularly the posters aimed at children display a downright illustrative directness.

Keith Haring died of AIDS on 16 February 1990, at 31 years of age. After attending a school for graphic design in Pittsburgh, he came to New York in 1978. Hip-hop, which at the time was first beginning to flourish, was his artistic home. Rap, break dancing, and – crucial for Haring – graffiti all belonged to the scene, as did street art in all its varied forms. His friends included graffiti artists like Fab Five Fred and LA II. Some of them, such as Jean-Michel Basquiat and Kenny Scharf, later went on to enjoy international success as painters. In the autobiographical narrative he dictated to friends in his final months, Haring reported a turning point in his career at the beginning of 1980: ‘What I was doing was abstract – reminiscent of the things I had done before. But on some of the spaces I started to make these drawings that consisted of flying saucers that were zapping these animal figures. The saucers were zapping things with an energy ray, which would then endow whatever it zapped with this power. So these zapped things or people or animals would have these rays coming out all around them.’ 1980: these were the first years of the Star Wars saga. Spaceships and energy rays were commonly visualized and discussed. But in Haring’s work, these images quickly opened up a new, distinct pictorial world. All it took was a few weeks in the middle of 1980 for him to find his style. From then on, his art would be determined by the clear line. His subjects are life’s great subjects: love and sex, violence and death. He developed a shorthand for dogs and angels, for good and evil. It is not infrequently assumed that these images must have been quick to compose, because they consist of seemingly simple lines; however, anyone making this mistake at first glance must soon admit that the images nearly always elude attempts at unequivocal definition and description.

Haring discovered a highly original way to spread his art. In New York, it was common to cover old, non-current posters in subway stations with black paper. On these surfaces, he drew his figures with white chalk. The ‘subway drawings’ quickly became known throughout the city. Haring had found a form that clearly belonged to street art; very close to graffiti, it was still new and entirely his own. It was here he tested out many of his motifs, ones he would later use in his painting or in other techniques, formats, and variations. As his ‘tag,’ his signature as a street artist, he chose a crawling infant reduced to a clumsy outline, from which short radiation lines emanate. ‘The reason that the baby has become my logo or signature is that it is the purest and most positive experience of human existence,’ he wrote in his diaries. In 1982, it could be seen in lights: on the massive screen over Times Square. Amidst Coca-Cola faces and cigarette cowboys, the ‘radiant child’ glowed to life again and again above the square. This was the year success set in: after several small self-organized exhibitions, the artist received a solo exhibition at Tony Shafrazi’s gallery, where he had worked for some time as an assistant. The show was more than a surprise success; it caused a stir. At this point, the universality of his work was already clear. Also in 1982, Haring was invited to Documenta 7 in Kassel. In the next year he was part of the Biennial at the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Bienal de So Paulo and had gallery exhibitions in London, Milan, and Tokyo. The next seven years, until 1989, read like a success story: Exhibition followed exhibition.

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June 5, 2017

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