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Wednesday, August 18, 2021

Keith Haring at Fenimore Art Museum

Installation view of Keith Haring: Radiant Vision at the Fenimore Art Museum
photo provided
Keith Haring was born in 1958 (one month before me) and became a defining artist of his generation before he died of AIDS in 1990 at the age of 31. Keith Haring: Radiant Vision, on view at the Fenimore Art Museum in Cooperstown through Sept. 6 Oct. 11, tells the story of how that remarkable career happened, and explores what it meant. The exhibition uses a clever graphic timeline, wall text, and ample quotes from the artist to recount Haring's history, and features a broad and deep sampling of the artist's work (including more than 100 works from a private collection, and a very impressive gigantic etching from the Fenimore's collection).

A news release about the show states that Haring "was arguably the most accomplished and prominent American artist of the 1980s," a claim I can neither fully agree with nor effectively refute. As an exact contemporary of Haring's, I can only say that he never held a lot of interest for me, partly because of the very commercial nature of his work, and partly because, though incredibly successful, he didn't have the chance to reach his full potential as an artist.

Radiant Vision offers an excellent opportunity to see for yourself what you think about a young man whose contributions included helping to bring graffiti art and hip hop into the mainstream, extending the art-for-all populism of his good friend Andy Warhol, and combining art with activism, perhaps more successfully than anyone else, before or since. The latter two achievements are, to me, the more valuable, but all of it is astonishingly impressive for a person whose career lasted just 10 years.

Keith Haring is seen at an early exhibition
of his work at Tony Shafrazi Gallery in New York
photo by Allen Tannenbaum 1982
Haring was essentially a graphic designer whose pictures relied on super-simplified line drawings of iconic symbols to communicate primal messages, just as corporate logo designers strive to do. And he was incredibly good at it. He used pure primary and secondary colors, vivid unmixed paints and inks, big shapes, and empty backgrounds, along with words and symbols, to make exuberant, bold statements about life as he saw it.

As seen in this exhibition, Haring invented his own visual vocabulary - a crawling baby, angular barking dogs, leaping stick figures, etc. - and rode it to vast global dissemination. He also used these skills in eminently worthy campaigns against AIDS, apartheid, and drug abuse, work that is well documented here, and which shows how effective simple graphic art and youthful sincerity can be. 

However, there are a few outliers scattered here and there throughout the exhibition that hint at a much more subtle artist who may have been trying to emerge from behind the public Keith Haring. That artist worked looser, with less clearly defined boundaries, used thinner lines and more shading, and employed a less bright palette to evoke deeper meanings and messier emotions. Some of those works reminded me of Miro' and Picasso and, as I walked around the exhibition, I found that I liked that version of Keith Haring a lot better than the one we all already knew.

One of the best aspects of Radiant Vision is the way it demonstrates Haring's humility and humanity, through quotes on the wall, in which he repeatedly explains how much he wants art to be accessible to all, and through a charming TV show interview in which he asserts an almost selfless modesty, alongside a crystal clear vision. These were the things in the show that did the most to convince me of Haring's significance. Though it goes without saying, it's a terrible shame that he died so young. Despite his own almost superhuman optimism, I simply couldn't shake the sadness.

Checkerboard, polychrome assemblage 2020
by Laurene Krasny Brown
Also currently on view at the Fenimore are a pair of shows that opened a couple of weeks ago and will remain there through Dec 31. Toying with the World: Works by Laurene Krasny Brown and 
Believe In Yourself: What We Learned From Arthur, which features the work of illustrator Marc Brown, stand alone in separate galleries but are closely linked, in that the two artists are a married couple.

Marc Brown is known to anybody with kids through the Arthur books and TV series, and the exhibition does a fine job of sharing the process involved in creating those products. Brown is an absolutely first-rate illustrator and, like any successful commercial artist, he clearly works his tail off. It was great fun to see the thumbnail sketches and story boards that lead to a finished book, but even better to see the exquisitely detailed paintings that are so easily taken for granted once they're on the printed page.

Laurene Krasny Brown is a much more interior artist, working with modest materials to pursue an almost mystical personal vision built around the concept of games. Where I was expecting stuff more childlike, instead I found a persistent exploration of geometric and architectural themes, characterized by a soft palette of early-American colors in paper and gouache. Brown's playfulness was apparent, but tempered by the same seriousness that I've observed in certain active toddlers.

Both shows are well worth spending some time with. By the way, admission to the Fenimore is free for those 19 and under for the duration of these exhibitions - so feel free to bring the kids.

A painting by Marc Brown from Wild About Books


1 comment:

Roger Owen Green said...

Haring's work is recognizable to me from those A Very Special Christmas CDs starting in 1987. It's almost beyond the conversation of "good." It's like how you recognize a Tide container or Coke bottle, EVEN if you don't see the words. Commercial artist for sure.