I was in San Francisco during the holidays and was able to experience The Political Line at the De Young Museum. This retrospective of Keith Haring took a curatorial deep dive into the artist’s creative psyche. The show highlights his portfolio of work that addresses race, power, sex, political conflict, the environment and technology. This is a refreshing departure from his whimsical persona epitomized by the Pop Shop or his brave mission to humanize the ravages of AIDS in the 80’s. The Political Line shows Haring as an artist who emerged from the shadows of Warhol to deftly straddle the line between commerce and his disdain for money and the corruption of power it causes.
In the weeks following my visit to the show I have been reflecting on how art has played a prominent role in crystallizing the emotions circling our current tragedies. Whether it is the distrust and unrest around the U.S. militarized police complex in Ferguson, Mo, the horrific assassinations in Paris, or the tragic, massive bloodshed taking place in Nigeria, artists have played a cathartic role in articulating emotions that are often too difficult to put into words. In this way, Haring’s artistic eye acted as a mirror into the cultural zeitgeist of the time. I was most struck by the elaborate totems and large-scale installations depicting wealth, power and control. One standout piece was “the Great White Way, 1888”.
It is a fantastical piece depicting a vicious cycle of power, corruption, money, false idolatry, enslavement, and brutality. I am not linking to the piece here, as it is simply something that should be experienced in person, nevertheless a simple Google search (NSFW/adult content) will give you a sense of scale.
Here are just a few of my favorite pieces from the show juxtaposed with quotes from Keith Haring’s Journals. I was particularly interested in Haring’s prescient fear of media/technology, which was a prominent theme in the show.
An artist is a spokesman for a society at any given point in history. His language is determined by his perception of the world we all live in. He is a medium between ‘what is” and ‘what could be’.”
“All of the officers who killed Michael Stewart were again dismissed of charges. Continually dismissed, but in their minds they will never forget. They know they killed him. They will never forget his screams, his face, his blood. they must live with that forever.” ~ on Michael Stewart, March 28, 1987
“The image maker may be more important now than at any other time in the history of man because he possesses qualities that are uniquely human. The human imagination cannot be programmed by a computer. Our imagination is our greatest hope for survival.”
Keith Haring: The Political Line is on view at the De Young Museum in San Francisco now through February 26, 2015 (the 25th anniversary of Haring’s death).
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