Keith Haring would have turned 60 in two weeks (May 4) hadn’t he died of HIV at the age of 31. But who was Keith Haring after all? If the name doesn’t ring a bell, I am sure most of his artworks will. The father of the radiant baby, the barking dog, the ante litteram smiley face and many other iconic figures (see below), has spent his short life advocating for freedom in the arts.
Today, the Albertina Museum in Vienna celebrates New York Pop scene’s icon Keith Haring with a large-scale exhibit, open to the public until June 24.
I had the pleasure to visit Keith Haring.The Alphabet before tourists, influencers and art lovers started to flock to the Albertina and here’s what I learnt. Also, because I am contributing an article for a blog dedicated to wellness and wellbeing, I picked three among Haring’s Alphabet symbols which, in my opinion, address the topic. (Feel free to dismantle this point of view anytime!) You can either jump directly to those or read the whole blog post.
There are signs of the exhibit right at the museum’s entrance, where you’ll find a massive reproduction of Haring’s hugging figure, and it soon becomes the visitors’ ideal background for selfies. The Albertina shop, at the right of the entrance, has a whole section dedicated to Haring; fans come and go with (Haring’s) tote bags full of goodies.
When I descend the Albertina after curators Dr Dieter Buchhart and Elsy Lahner on March 15, I feel uncannily at home. A series of photographs on my left reminds the audience of Haring’s young appearance and the graffitied Statue of Liberty, which stands before me, inaugurates Haring’s World as I knew it: colourful, blunt and iconic. I was first introduced to his World by a friend back in 2008. He’d recently discovered Haring’s graffitis and couldn’t wait to share his findings. We were two young punks with leather jackets, who smoked and talked pretentiously about Baudelaire. This guy, Keith, was a gay street artist who had been in prison for illegal graffitis: his art spoke a non-verbal language we knew very well.
Haring’s Alphabet is a mystically familiar symbology
As I continue walking my way to the exhibit, I learn that the second room is where Haring’s early artworks are. Although I’ve never seen those canvases before, they look familiar.
“The artist expands awareness, and since the breakthrough is made, this becomes part of the general awareness,” says William S. Burroughs and my thoughts go immediately to him.
Haring’s first canvases were familiar because they depicted some early versions of his iconic figures: the barking dog, the dancing characters, the dolphin and many more. The symbols were born, and so was the Alphabet. The 100 oeuvres showcased at the Albertina present all of the Alphabet leitmotifs, which have been thoroughly explained by the exhibit’s curators. The truth of the Alphabet, however, lies beyond the meaning of its symbols. The Alphabet and Haring’s whole oeuvre has trained our mind to make immediate connections between images and universal definition of concepts like sex, anxiety and the human nature.
Three symbols of Wellness in Haring’s Alphabet
The human nature is complicated, but Haring manages to break it down into simple images. To address the viewer and shake her conscience, Haring goes beyond expressionism. He creates icons linked to his view of the society he lives. What he highlights, however, is revealing of a stressed, anxious and unfair society. Wellness is in danger, and that’s what his artworks keep warning us.
- The Radiant Baby: Life and death is a recurrent theme in Haring’s works. The radiant baby is usually a crawling baby with rays of sun all around him. The baby represents hope and is the driver of a regenerating force to which we should aim.
- The Machine: Haring believes that technology is both monstrous and powerful. He often uses the computer-headed caterpillar to symbolise the leading power; below it, a succumbing mass of individuals. Sometimes, on the other hand, the machine is the symbol of a brand new way of understanding the world. That’s what we think Haring’s first thought was when he first put his fingertips on a Macintosh machine. Haring’s dualism regarding technology leaves us hoping that we are doing the right thing if we share his masterpieces on our Social Media feeds.
- The Cross: Human beings should live in the present and with their feet well planted on the Earth. On Earth, in fact, is where our bodies reside and where we can exist as whole human beings. No gods, preachers, nor heaven should be dictating our conducts.
Keith Haring is undoubtedly this and much more. He’s the precursor of a generation of people who have learnt to communicate with pictograms (think of the emojis we use every day) and is becoming receptive to the most diverse forms of art. Here’s to an artist who still contributes to the way we understand art today.