BRUSSELS – The Bozar museum in Brussels is taking a look back on the hectic life and work of American artist Keith Haring (1958-90), whose visual legacy reflects the spirit of the 1980s, his personal fight against AIDS, nuclear war, racism and homophobia.
The director of the retrospective, Sophie Lauwers, describes Haring as a “hurricane” who makes us understand things “in a simple way without being simplistic.”
His cartoon figures, bright colors and barking dogs became world-famous and found a home in political and social activism as well as commercial advertising.
“At a certain moment, he realized that he was also being critiqued for being too commercial because a lot of people think of Keith Haring as the merchandising, the cup of tea.
“But you see in the exhibition that he’s much more than this, and it was never for him about commerce or money, it was really for him about passing the message and trying to access as many people as possible.”
For her, Haring was more than an artist, he was a communicator of social justice who struggled to solve the issues of his era.
Artistic expressions in defense of sexual liberation, and especially for homosexuality, are a recurring motif at the Bozar exhibition.
The visitor encounters intimate and erotic drawings that express the playful and provocative energy Haring discovered in New York in the early 1980s, an environment that allowed him to live openly as a gay man following his upbringing in conservative Pennsylvania.
He became actively involved in the fight against sexually transmitted diseases such as AIDS, which by 1987 had claimed the lives of 40,000 Americans amid government inactions.
Haring himself died from AIDS-related complications in 1990.
Despite his success bringing him to heady collaborations with the likes of Madonna and Jean-Michel Basquiat, Haring never wavered in his quest to make his art accessible to all.
His street murals and pieces in the New York subway became iconic and in 1986 he was invited to paint the western side of the Berlin Wall.
“He was very cultured. He knew a lot about western artistry, also about African artistry and others like, for instance, the Egyptians,” Lauwers said.
Encouraged by his father and inspired by Walt Disney and illustrators like Dr Seuss, Haring developed his love for drawing during childhood.
His formal education began in 1976 studying graphic arts in Pittsburgh although left after just two semesters when he felt it too commercial.
In the beginning, Haring would cut headlines from newspapers to turn them into political collages such as “Reagan Slain by Hero Cop,” which turned out to be a cheap and effective way to reach a wider audience.
He went on to print posters for different causes, which he printed with his own money and distributed at protests.
Haring not only made social commentary from the safety of his artist’s studio but he participated in activism at street level.
“There are a lot of works where you can really see how he is trying to explain how an artist is really carrying the burden of society on his shoulders,” Lauwers said.