Review: The Universe of Keith Haring
It’s hard not to admire the vitality and prolific creative energies of ’80s art darling Keith Haring, an effervescent presence who’s rarely at rest in this high-spirited tribute to the late popularizer of New York street art. By now, Haring’s barking mutts and tumbling neon stick figures are as ubiquitous as Che Guevara’s image, but his hip-hop and comics-inspired work emblazoned all kinds of Pop Shop merchandise years before his 1990 death, and adorned art galleries and public spaces all over the world. If his goal was to democratize the experience of art, to place it before as many eyes as possible, he surely succeeded. Then there’s his reputation as an outspoken activist in the early days of AIDS, when the culture struggled to come to terms with the “gay cancer.” Christina Clausen’s film deals with both aspects of his legacy, making the case for Haring as a kind of artist-saint who counted Madonna, Bill T. Jones, and Andy Warhol among his friends, but who adored children and remained close to his church-going Kutztown, Pennsylvania, family.
Clausen’s film proceeds at a fast clip, giving us a quick-and-dirty background on Haring’s early home life and artistic development (he went to commercial art school in Pittsburgh, then attended SVA in New York), before zipping through all the high points of his burgeoning career and rise to fame. As Haring himself says, “I was in New York City at exactly the right time and exactly the right place.” Along with archival footage of Haring’s early video art and hit-and-run tagging of empty subway billboards, various talking heads (Fab Five Freddy, Junior Vasquez, Tony Shafrazi) weigh in too, fondly remembering a superprolific guy everyone seemed to love, and explaining how his life and art were shaped by Manhattan’s underground aesthetic and freewheeling gay subculture in the eighties. Haring brought art out of the rarefied galleries and into the public domain, and his vibrant optimism obviously connected with a broad swath of local, nonartistic communities in New York and elsewhere. (Yoko Ono remarks that Haring’s playful art had depth, and “only appeared meaningless.”) But he also earned the opprobrium of many who found his bankable productivity and overexposure problematic and damaging to the art-world scene, and those voices should have had their say here. Still, given his passing from AIDS-related illnesses at the age of 31, the warm, frank testimony of his loved ones is undeniably affecting, and lend the film an elegiac cast that resonates beyond the merely personal.
THE UNIVERSE OF KEITH HARING
(Arthouse Films), 2008. N/R. 90min. Opens today at Cinema Village in New York and on October 31 at Laemmle Music Hall in L.A.