A ‘Gnarly’ Bio-show, and Why Keith’s is an Important One — Keith Haring at Tate Liverpool


Please try to see the Keith Haring exhibition at Tate Liverpool. The exhibition is a survey of Keith Haring’s work, the first of its kind in the UK; beginning with his early works, art school works, bin works, subway works, and his later works, sad works, political works, community works and fun works; the show includes over eight-five of them. Including photographs by Tseng Kwong Chi, video art, UV paintings in a blacklight room, small publications, posters, art school scribbles and the hood of a mangled Manhattan yellow taxicab, painted in collaboration with artist LA II. 

The exhibition is introduced, as most blockbuster exhibitions are, with a biographical preamble written on the wall by the entrance. Keith Haring was born in 1958 in Kutztown, Pennsylvania to a Christian family. He tried his hand at 'commercial art’ at Pittsburg’s Ivy School of Professional Art before patching it for painting at the School of Visual Art in New York City. Once past the attendant checking tickets, there’s a video projected on the wall of a post-teen Haring, Pollock-ing some white paint around a room at SVA. From the first few rooms; with the photographs on a slideshow of kids in clubs and Haring’s William Burroughs-inspired, cut-up-technique, newspaper headlines, decrying the likes of RONALD REAGAN ACCUSED OF TV STAR SEX DEATH: KILLED & ATE LOVER gummed up around the city; its apparent that there’s a familiar, nostalgia-inducing energy. Not until now had I considered an artist of considerable stature in art history to have been as chaotic as my peer group in art school. The practice of borrowing ideas from older artists, pasting up work wherever there was room for it, collaborating endlessly and making videos like Haring’s Tribute to Gloria Vanderbilt (Take Two) (1980). 

“I missed Cosmology class. I completely forgot. I never thought about it the whole day till I saw Kenny [Scharf] and he said, ‘God is light.’” Keith Haring, April 14 1980.

Wearing a pink shirt and big thick rimmed glasses, a 22 year old Haring bobs up and down to a New Wave beat, smiling incessantly into the wide angle lens of his camera. He gives some eyes and, as the repetitive track continues, makes out with the camera until the lens is completely distorted by his lipstick and spit. Haring’s work in the beginning feels decidedly lowbrow, he wrote about making art for the masses and that sentiment can be traced throughout his body of work. The art wasn’t separate from the lives of Haring’s friends or neighbours. If you couldn’t see his work and drink and celebrate at Club 57 or Mudd Club where he regularly performed and ran exhibitions, then you could get a badge with the radiant baby on it, like Diane Keaton did – if you happened to manage to catch him drawing on the subway. Otherwise, you could grab a poster at a nuclear disarmament rally in ’82.

 The exuberance and fun of Haring’s practice from his time at SVA to his first few exhibitions at the likes of Fun Gallery and Tony Shafrazi Gallery in 1981-3 was never lost in his overtly political work. The rally at which attendees could receive one of 20,000 nuclear disarmament posters Haring printed for the July 12th 1982 event coincided with his newfound international recognition. Haring’s work, being for the people, being pop, did not exclude the realities affecting those people. Further into the gallery at Tate, past the subway drawings and video tributes, a further understanding of Haring’s priorities is felt. A 1984, untitled red vinyl tarpaulin painting features a naked human figure, with a snake-monster head, fucking a TV with human legs, doggy style; there’s a dollar sign on the screen and it has a TV camera, held up on a noodle neck, for a head. Square and measuring 72 inches, the painting is completely ridiculous and ‘gnarly’ but good fun. There’s video footage on TVs of Haring talking about his mural works, alongside recordings of his work with young kids, and performances by John Sex and Madonna.

In 1984, and in the second to last room of the exhibition, Debbie Dick (1984) makes an appearance. Debbie Dick is Haring's mascot for safe sex; a throbbing, wiggling, white, blonde cock with a cheeky little smile and a fringe set against a blue plane. Alongside Debbie are others, the likes of a Safe Sex poster (1986) – a grinning, naked cock stood upright, on shoes sprouted from its scrotum, holding a condom in one hand and the other pointing to the exclamation SAFE SEX! written above in red. Haring’s advocacy for safe sex on posters and t-shirts, and the introduction of a great, big, black sperm sometimes with razor teeth and a snake tongue, sometimes with devil horns, erupting from an egg and attacking a nearby, once-dancing, figure calls further attention to the immediacy of action that he called for. His proficiency for producing countless works, over the decade, turns sour as it becomes clear – from his journals and the Dante-like horrors of his works from 1987-8 – that he had suspected his eventual fate. “I know my days are numbered. … This is why my activities and projects are so important now. To do as much as possible as quickly as possible.” (Haring, 1987). 

Keith Haring was diagnosed with AIDS in 1988 and died in the February of 1990. The final room of the Tate Liverpool exhibition is entirely devoted to Haring’s final years. Though there are earlier works in the space, such as Untitled, May 29 and Untitled, May 31 (1986), the tone among the work remains bleak. The two canvas paintings, the latter yellow, the former purple, huge and framing the exit to the exhibition, depict chaos and bunny-like demons and a computer with a brain inside, bat-winged angels and angel-winged pyramids. Unlike previous rooms with contextualisation granted in recordings of Haring or interviews about him or performances or in the music pumping out of a blacklight room, the final room is contextualised with footage from protests. Footage of a rally against the US Food and Drug Administration – calling for the increased accessibility of overpriced AIDS medication, and a video called Ashes Action from 1992, where several hundred bereaving activists walked on the White House and threw the ashes of their loved ones onto George H. W. Bush’s lawn, are projected on the wall. The latter action was organised by ACT UP, an international political group fighting for the end of the AIDS epidemic. In the Tate Liverpool, their motto is written opposite footage of their marching members, SILENCE = DEATH – alongside Haring’s addition IGNORANCE = FEAR. 

The Tate at large has a responsibility to show artist activism and activism as art. Considering the parallels; a young woman at a rally tells the camera from the floor “I’m here to get arrested”, a dead ringer of Extinction Rebellion’s aims during the ten day climate protest in April of this year. A a decry from another protestor regarding the price of HIV/AIDS medication from big pharmaceutical companies, again echos the protest of the mega-museum, The Guggenheim’s acceptance of donations from the Sackler’s company Purdue Pharma, the pedlars of OxyContin – a highly addictive opioid being used to treat pain. Organised by PAIN (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now) and spearheaded by photographer Nan Goldin, both the Guggenheim and subsequently Tate have refused further donation from the family. Action evokes change, and while Haring was not around to see it, the inclusion, down on the ground floor of Tate Liverpool, of a clear, acrylic box of blue, pills in plastic packets on the counter, produced by the artist, Joseph Cotgrave, speaks volumes. Pressed on the blue surface is 701, identifying them as PrEP (Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis) an HIV preventative drug. 

It’s difficult to separate Keith Haring’s work from his biography, in writing or curation. In the final room of the exhibition unable to move from the projection of the 1992 Ashes Action. My calves ached from standing and I became conscious, once the videos looped again, that even though I wished to dart back through the exhibition – now realising I had come to the end – I couldn’t. If I were to run past the exhilarating work, past the day glow paintings and little drawings, past Tseng Kwong Chi’s photographs of Haring on the subway or the New Wave bops of Haring’s tribute to Gloria Vanderbilt I’d have done so in agony. Haring is inseparable from his work and his work is too, inseparable, from him; informed by the people around him, and for the them. The Tate guides you through Haring’s work, daring and fun, and in doing so fails to sanction him to the categorisation of frivolity and cuteness (and Uniqlo) but neither that of staunch activism. Though now, particularly, the importance of a large public exhibition of contextualised gay, activist work cannot be understated – nor too can the continued encouragement to demand change.

Keith Haring at Tate Liverpool is open until 10 November 2019. Open 10AM – 5PM everyday.