Keith Haring at The Musee d’Art moderne de la Ville de Paris

Keith Haring (1958-1990), if you don’t recognize the name you will certainly recognize his style. The hard lines and primary colours of his paintings and murals are ubiquitous, they adorn t-shirts and lunch boxes and surf boards; Haring is an original and the breadth of his influence is staggering.

In 2013 The Musee d’Art modern de la Ville de Paris devoted a large scale retrospective to this American artists with a clear emphasis on the profoundly political nature and voice of his work. This is one of the biggest Keith Haring exhibitions ever. While his imagery is stark, confronting and original it is these political motivations that make it engaging and that have ensured it is revered still today.

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Haring was a pop idol, he gained popularity and recognition quickly as his giant, emphatic imagery was impossible to ignore. His early works show a loud revolt against the state. An artist attacked by a barking dog, but reprisal through breaking the stick that had just beaten him. He denounces racial and social profiling but equally he condemns those who do not stand-up for their individuality.

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His distaste for overt consumption and greed were unrestrained. The 80’s in the US were a time of excess. Haring launch a revolt against the hegemony of the dollar and the blind need to spend and consume that he saw engulfing those around him.

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He showed with Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Roy Lichtenstein and Robert Rauschenberg. But all the while he was bombing trains and scrawling on every surface he could find. He was renowned for his obsessive need to draw and paint and etch his ideas onto any medium that came to hand.

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He moved to New York in 1978 and at once pounced on every blank piece of space he could find. He would ‘chalk’ the vacant black poster panels; estimates say he did 5000 of them. His art was for everybody; he seemed reluctant to create art that would be restricted to a gallery.

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This little legend is well inspired…

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His collages of cut-up newspaper exhibited a further depth of control of language and satire. He turned the newspaper headline on its head to show the ludicrous banter that is too often taken as gospel.

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He fought racism, the abuses of capitalism; he was an environmentalist and a political satirist. He used his art as a form of communication, his feverish need to display his ideas showed a certain panic at what was going on in the world. His works grew ever larger and more outrageous.

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In his view “a lot of the evil in the world is done in the name of good; religion, false prophets, bullshit, artists politicians and businessman.” His later works showed dramatic scenes of the church and its dogmas, he condemned them as threats to society and the individual.

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Haring denounced the inherent dangers of nuclear power and was quick to lend his voice to the environmental movement, “We have the power to destroy and to create.” In 1982 he financed the printing of thousands of posters to be distributed at a huge anti-nuclear rally in Central Park, New York.

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Haring made no secret of his homosexuality and in-line with excess of the 80’s he was as unrestrained in his promiscuity as he was in his art. With the rise of the AIDS epidemic he threw himself into sexual health awareness producing posters urging safe sex. In one series of drawings he depicts the virus as a giant horned spermatozoon. By 1988 he knew he himself was infected, he used his fame to help publicize this previously taboo subject. He died in New York in February 1990.

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For Harring painting was a political act, and during the last months of his life, an act of resistance against death.

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