Keith Haring: Street Art Boy Review

JADE CALDER reviews the 2020 documentary on Keith Haring’s life and work.

For those who are not immediately familiar with the name Keith Haring, a quick search may elicit a Proustian madeleine moment. His art style is immediately recognisable and an iconic staple of the pop art landscape, with its repeated, simple motifs in bold, animated line drawings and bright colours. Looking at his work, it is easily understood that he, like Warhol two decades previously, had intended for his art to bypass the exclusivity of the art word and convey its message to as many as possible (something which is further shown in the documentary with his penchant for using subway advertising boards, billboards and walls). Indeed, the modern ubiquity of his designs from rampant commercial licencing presents the potential danger of the public casually divorcing the art from the fascinating social context in which Haring operated. The bones of his life story I was already familiar with, having visited the retrospective on him which had been exhibited at the Tate Liverpool in 2019. The progression from the Christian camp-going small town boy to the globally successful artistic icon and political activist before his untimely death from AIDS in 1990 (aged only 31 years old) is once again covered in the BBC documentary by the director Ben Anthony, which premiered over the summer.

An exhibition of Keith Haring's early work.
“Keith Haring early years exhibition” by The Pug Father is licensed under CC BY 2.0

In contrast to the exhibition, the documentary allows for a more holistic study of Haring’s life beyond the mere creative output. The conversations with his black and other non-white peers from deprived areas of New York, in opposition to his own sheltered middle class life, raises interesting questions about the glorification of oppression and poverty for artificial street credibility; cultural appropriation for artistic gratification. Whilst Haring himself was wary of it at the time, such talking points are even more pertinent today, from the standpoint of a time when New York City is no longer the bankrupt, anarchic scene it was in the 1970s but in a crisis of over-gentrification and social exclusion.

Perhaps the activist side of Haring could have been fleshed out a little more; at times it felt that there was a payoff between emphasising his humanitarian endeavours (the Keith Haring Foundation, founded by him towards the end of his life, was but a mere postscript) and a focus on the trappings of fame and the excesses of his personal life as a gay man in 1980s New York. However, the latter allowed for an exploration of the tension between pure artistic intent and ‘selling out’, particularly with the backdrop of Wall Street and Reaganomics.

Keith Haring mid-painting in 1986.
Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Indeed, the portrait presented in this documentary has a litany of contrasts in Haring’s life, even from the beginning. The interviews with his conservative, small town parents in Kutztown, Pennsylvania are juxtaposed with the subversive queer eroticism of the Big Apple’s underground. The vivid, childlike artwork being dismissed by the old elites of the art world. The dedication to art and activism – hope in humanity – whilst his own life was being destroyed by the AIDS crisis. Thus, the documentary comes to read as a portrait of the innate frictions in late 20th century America, the frictions which would prove to generate such vibrant artistic icons as Haring. Ultimately, Anthony’s documentary presents the prolific career of an artist whose work had an appeal which was infectious as his lust for life itself.

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