Seeing Through Haring

His cartoon-like style belies a sharply provocative and controversial view of the world around him. And that world was the Manhattan of the early 1980’s.

By Ayodele Hippolyte - Photos ©Jose Valerio

Replication of Haring Mural photos©Jose Valerio

I had no expectations about what I would see at the Keith Haring exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum. Coming to Manhattan from Saint Lucia, I had never heard of the artist. Andy Warhol was my only reference for the New York art scene and I had stumbled across Jean Michel Basquiat in a late night documentary and was grabbed immediately by his story. So, outside of these two artists, the New York artscape and its inhabitants, past and present, was alien territory. But as I stepped into the first room of Keith Haring: 1978-1982, I was instantly intrigued.

What struck me right away was the sheer simplicity of his work that yet had immense profundity. His cartoon-like style belies a sharply provocative and controversial view of the world around him. And that world was the Manhattan of the early 1980’s. Coming from the Caribbean, my view of this slick metropolis was shaped by years of being told how much more prosperous and alluring this city was than most parts of the world. It had never entered my consciousness that this place, like any other, had a past, a history that held violence, inequality, and oppression. Gazing up at the towering cathedrals of commerce that are Manhattan’s skyscrapers, it is hard to imagine that there was ever any real poverty or misery in any corner of the city. But Haring’s art, with its gritty and unpretentious portrayal of the city, showed just that.

Reproduction of Haring Mural photo©Jose Valerio

I was also struck by Haring’s subway art and the boldness of taking over public spaces to make a statement. It never occurred to me before that what companies were doing with their advertisements on subways and other public spaces was actually quite invasive albeit that they pay to do that. I really liked Haring’s usurping of public spaces such as subways to talk back to bureaucratic and commercial power and say, “We can use this space too. We also have something to say about all this!”. Coming from an island that is just learning to speak its mind, I find this enlightening. I am blown away by the audacity of such an act and I try to fathom Haring’s courage as he persisted in drawing on subways despite repeated arrests.

There was also the explosion of gay culture and with it the excesses of that explosion which Haring has no difficulty showing. This unabashed stare at homosexuality with graphic depictions of sex delivers another blow to my Caribbean consciousness which is still grappling with open homosexuality. Hard to take in, but I look with an uncomfortable fascination. But there is a real point to all of this. What I see in Haring’s work is a bold honesty about the city and its gritty underbelly; the urgency of speaking back to power, whether state or commercial, and, in fact, they are one and the same; and to not hide who you are so that others and society can feel comfortable. I don’t sense that iconoclastic spirit in Manhattan now. But Keith Haring gave me a chance to experience a time in this city when drawing a cock on a subway was way cool.

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