KEITH HARING

by Bill Lasarow

"Untitled (S-Man)," polyurethane
enamel on aluminum, 24" high, 1987.

 

 

 

"Untitled," gold ink on black
plastic, 21 x 25", 1981.

(Tasende Gallery, West Hollywood) Figures dance, somersault, leap and gyrate in Keith Haring's whimsical large-scale aluminum sculptures. Created during the late 1980s, Haring adeptly transformed his energetic linear style into huge cut-out figures that are painted in brilliant primary colors of red, yellow, blue and occasionally green. Ten sculptures by Haring will be installed along Santa Monica Boulevard (between La Cienega and Doheny) in West Hollywood in conjunction with a mini-survey of the artist's productive though tragically abbreviated career.

Haring's trademark pictographic imagery was developed during a childhood immersed in Disney cartoons and popular culture. As a boy he drew for hours next to his father, finding inspiration in comics and children's book illustrations. His child-like view of the world would never waver, and was further bolstered by his discovery of the writings and art of Jean Dubuffet and Paul Klee while an art student at Pittsburgh Arts and Crafts Center. When he moved to New York City in 1978 to attend the School of Visual Arts, Haring plunged into the frenetic world of East Village night clubs, staged exhibits at alternative spaces, and brought his art directly to the street via his notorious subway drawings.

The subway graffiti, made up of a continuous line of white chalk applied to black paper, freed up his imagery and increased his innate linear dexter-ity. He deftly transformed this street art into jam-packed compositions of great fluidity and energy. One drawing, Untitled [1982], is a tour de force of linear rhythm and movement. Gold figures cavort and frolic against the black ground. Haring's interest in icons and symbols resonates throughout the drawing's odd mixture of crosses, the evil eye, and a telephone sign. The compositional pieces fit together like a jigsaw puzzle gone awry. Another Untitled [1981] drawing reads like a fantastic frieze of line. Two hybrid man/bird figures fight with sticks, while the spectators go flying, arms and legs all akimbo. With his unerring use of line, Haring is able to define and energize his images in one fluid motion.

Other drawings pay homage to Disney cartoons. Untitled [1982] depicts a multiple-headed Mickey Mouse popping out of a box, while in Untitled [1982] a figure riding on a dolphin either repels or attracts a spaceship with his raised stick. Both of these drawings are high contrast. Some filling in of the outline with black ink and areas of stippling takes place. Deceptively simple, these drawings still radiate an intense energy that will immediately grab your attention.
Perhaps the true Keith Haring is revealed in his ironic self-portrait Hee! Hee! Hee! [1985]. The bespectacled, stringy artist laughs at himself, his hand over his mouth, in a deliberate parody of the beloved cartoons.
Two later drawings are breathtaking in his use of pure line. Untitled [1989] features a figure dancing through space in a marvelous contour line; in another Untitled work the figure remains entangled in its curvilinear arms, which grow and loop back through space.

In 1985 Haring had his first sculp- ture exhibit (at Leo Castelli Gallery). He fattened up his lines and recreated his jumping, dancing figures in painted aluminum. He went on to create more than 100 unique motifs in various sculptural forms before his untimely death from AIDS in 1990. These sculptural figures became marvels of three-dimensional animation as they gleefully interacted with space.

Maquettes of Haring's sculpture range from the whimsical Untitled (Figure on a Baby) [1987], to the lively Untitled (Two Figures Dancing) [1987]. All reflect his vital interest in positive and negative space, as is evident in his drawings. The pair of yellow and red dancers thrust their legs into space with great elan, seemingly ready to step off of the pedestal.
Untitled (S-Man) [1987], in brilliant blue, is only one of the many large-scale works created to frolic in various urban sites. Haring pared down the figure to focus on its curved arms, which flow in and out of space. Like giant pop-up images, these figures take on an enchanted life on their own as they engage in their own eternal games.

Because of Haring's acknowledged commercial popularity, it is sometimes difficult to separate his artistic vision from the trappings of mass appeal. This thoughtful collection of drawings, paintings, and sculpture reveals the depth of this artist's exceptional talent, and makes the argument that Haring was able to move easily between fluid drawings and playful sculptures.

"Hee! Hee! Hee! (Self Portrait),"sumi
ink on paper, 22 x 29", 1985.

 

 

 

"Untitled (Figure on a Baby)," polyurethane
enamel on aluminum, 24" high, 1987.