Taking Keith Haring Seriously

“Statue of Liberty” by Keith Haring in collaboration with Angel Ortiz, known by the tag LA II, will be part of the Broad museum’s exhibition, “Keith Haring: Art Is for Everybody.” The show, which runs from May 27 to Oct. 8, will feature more than 120 artworks and archival material. Credit: Keith Haring Foundation, via Rubell Museum

by Robin Pogrebin / NYT

Certain images have become so embedded in our culture we forget that they were initially groundbreaking.

Keith Haring’s work falls into that category. The ubiquity of the graffiti artist’s colorful, cartoonish, kinetic figures — which continue to adorn T-shirts, posters and coffee mugs — can obscure Haring’s history as a serious artist whose activism around AIDS, L.G.B.T.Q. rights and environmentalism was well ahead of its time.

Now the Broad museum in Los Angeles is shining a light on Haring’s contributions with an ambitious show that opens May 27 and runs through Oct. 8, billed as “the first ever museum in Los Angeles to present Haring’s expansive body of work.”

“Everything that Keith, his work and his activism addressed is still really important in our era today,” said Joanne Heyler, the founding director and chief curator of the Broad. “It’s really important that we take artists who have currency in popular culture but maybe don’t always get museum-level examination and treatment and exposure, that we bring together the work in all of its scope and deepen an understanding of Haring beyond the icons that have become part of popular culture.”

Keith Haring, 1983. The artist died at 31 in 1990. Credit: Keith Haring Foundation

The show was developed in partnership with the Keith Haring Foundation, which lent the museum most of the works in the exhibition.

“A new generation will get to experience some of the messages that Keith was putting out there and some of the issues he was addressing that, unfortunately, are still problems today, like police brutality,” said Gil Vazquez, executive director and president of the foundation. “There is a misconception that Keith’s work is simple. It is deceptively complex.”

The exhibition, “Keith Haring: Art Is for Everybody,” features more than 120 artworks and archival material from the artist, who died of AIDS at 31 in 1990.

“Even though he was seriously working for just over a decade, he created a massive body of work in that short amount of time,” said Sarah Loyer, the Broad’s curator and exhibitions manager, who organized the show. “It’s been a process of editing.”

Starting with the work Haring made as a student at the School of Visual Arts in 1978, the exhibition continues through the months just before the end of his life, trying to capture the full arc of his career.

“A lot of the themes that he takes up in the work are social and political themes and issues that we still are experiencing today,” Ms. Loyer said. “He speaks to capitalism, he speaks to white supremacy and patriarchy and, of course, the show includes his AIDS activism.

Ignorance=Fear, Silence=Death by Mr. Haring. Credit: Keith Haring Foundation

“Haring is a big name,” she continued. “But for a general audience, who might know the artist through the commercial work — through the images they see on clothing or out there in the world — we’re trying to give a much deeper dive into the artist’s career. I think it will be exciting and surprising for people to understand that context.”

Compared with today’s frank discussions of sexuality and gender identity, Haring “came from a time when that really wasn’t so prevalent,” Mr. Vazquez said. “Because he was so open, he became a hero.”

Although known mostly for his paintings, Haring also made sculptures, videos, prints, drawings, works on paper and graphic materials. “His line is really his medium,” Ms. Loyer said. “He crosses all these different mediums, but it becomes this through line in his work — the strength of that line.”

The philanthropists Eli and Edythe Broad were early Haring devotees. Six of the eight Harings in their collection will be in the show, including “Red Room.” Credit: Keith Haring Foundation

Having moved to New York in 1978 and become involved in a “do-it-yourself” underground, Haring showed work at Club 57, an East Village nightclub and organized shows at the Mudd Club in TriBeCa.

“He was really trying to make new spaces and work outside of the established art world,” Ms. Loyer said. “From the very beginning he was pushing those boundaries, and he continued to do that throughout his career. There are certainly some people who may have written him off during that time. His work is really serious though, and it deserves attention.”

Being taken seriously was something Haring “struggled with throughout his entire lifetime,” Ms. Loyer continued, “both wanting to be embraced broadly and also wanting to find some level of acceptance within a visual art audience.”

Haring was also criticized for his Pop Shop, which opened in 1986 in SoHo and sold clothing and novelty items.

“The initial reaction was, he was selling out,” Mr. Vazquez said. “But he wanted people who could not afford a $40,000 painting to be able to buy a $25 T-shirt. That’s where his motto came from, ‘Art is for everybody.’”

“Untitled” by Mr. Haring. Credit: Keith Haring Foundation

The ephemera in the exhibition — “an immersion into everything he was producing,” Ms. Heyler said — will include a poster Haring distributed at a 1982 antinuclear rally; invitations to benefits for causes such as UNICEF, the Africa Emergency Relief Fund, and ACT UP; a selection of Polaroids; videos showing collaborations with dancers and musicians; and a bus shelter advertisement for an AIDS hotline.

In connection with the exhibition, the Broad will feature a range of programming, including talks, community-based projects with Los Angeles youth, musical performances and events organized by members of Haring’s circle from the 1980s club scene.

On June 1, for example, the Broad will host a conversation at the Theater at Ace Hotel downtown between the choreographer Bill T. Jones, who collaborated with Haring, and Brad Gooch, who is writing a biography of the artist.

The philanthropists Eli and Edythe Broad were themselves early Haring devotees. Six of the eight Harings in their collection are featured in the show, including “Red Room” (1988) and an untitled piece from 1984. A seventh that is not part of the show will be on view in the third-floor galleries.

To evoke the milieu of Haring’s ’80s New York, the show will include a black light gallery that recalls disco clubs like the Paradise Garage, as well as the artist’s music playlists.

A section of the Broad will be remade along the lines of Haring’s Pop Shop.

“When I look at what popular culture is today, it’s so shaped by the ’80s and to a large degree by what was happening in New York that’s still palpable today,” Ms. Heyler said. “To have created a visual language that 30 years-plus after you’ve passed is still speaking to people, that’s an incredible accomplishment.”