This article is part of our dedicated Museums section on how art institutions reach new artists and attract new audiences.
Certain images are so embedded in our culture that we forget that they were originally groundbreaking.
Keith Haring’s work falls into that category. The ubiquity of the graffiti artist’s colorful, cartoonish, kinetic figures — which continue to grace T-shirts, posters, and coffee mugs — may obscure Haring’s history as a serious artist, whose activism around AIDS, LGBTQ rights, and environmentalism was ahead of its time.
Now, the Broad Museum in Los Angeles is shedding light on Haring’s contributions with an ambitious show opening May 27 and running through October 8, billed as “the first-ever museum in Los Angeles to showcase Haring’s extensive body of work.” .
“Everything that spoke to Keith, his work and his activism is still very important in our time,” said Joanne Heyler, the Broad’s founder and chief curator. “It is really important that we take artists who have currency in popular culture, but may not always be researched, treated and exposed at the museum level, that we bring together the work in all its scope and deepen a better understanding of Haring beyond the icons . that have become part of popular culture.”
The exhibition was developed in collaboration with the Keith Haring Foundation, which has loaned most of the works in the exhibition to the museum.
“A new generation will experience some of the messages Keith put out and some of the issues he raised that unfortunately still are issues, such as police brutality,” said Gil Vazquez, executive director and president of the foundation. “There is a misconception that Keith’s work is simple. It’s deceptively complicated.”
The exhibition ‘Keith Haring: Art Is for Everyone’ contains more than 120 works of art and archive material from the artist, who died of AIDS in 1990 at the age of 31.
“Though he was working in earnest for a little over a decade, he created a huge body of work in that short time,” said Sarah Loyer, the curator and exhibition manager of the Broad, who hosted the show. “It’s been an editing process.”
Beginning with the work Haring made as a student at the College of Fine Arts in 1978, the exhibition continues through the months just before the end of his life, attempting to capture the full arc of his career.
“Many of the themes he incorporates into the work are social and political themes and issues that we still experience today,” Ms Loyer said. “He speaks against capitalism, he speaks against white supremacy and patriarchy and of course the show includes his AIDS activism.
“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 to today’s candid discussions about sexuality and gender identity, Haring “came from a time when that wasn’t very common,” said Mr. Vazquez. “Because he was so open, he became a hero.”
Although best known for his paintings, Haring also made sculptures, videos, prints, drawings, works on paper and graphic material. “His line is really his medium,” Ms. Loyer said. “He crosses all these different mediums, but it becomes this through the line in his work – the power of that line.”
After moving to New York in 1978 and becoming involved in a DIY underground, Haring showed work at Club 57, an East Village nightclub, and hosted shows at the Mudd Club in TriBeCa.
“He was really trying to create new spaces and work outside of the established art world,” Ms. Loyer said. “From the very beginning, he pushed those boundaries, and he continued to do so throughout his career. There are certainly some people who wrote him off during that time. However, his work is very serious and deserves attention.”
To be taken seriously was something Haring “wrestled with all his life”, Mrs. Loyer continued, “wanting both to be widely embraced and also to find some degree of acceptance within a visual arts audience.”
Haring was also criticized for its Pop Shop, which opened in SoHo in 1986 and sold clothing and new items.
“The first reaction was that it was sold out,” said Mr. Vazquez. “But he wanted people who couldn’t afford a $40,000 painting to be able to buy a $25 T-shirt. That’s where his motto came from: ‘Art is for everyone.’”
The ephemera in the exhibition – “an immersion in everything he produced”, Ms Heyler said – will include a poster Haring circulated 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 featuring collaborations with dancers and musicians; and a bus shelter advertisement for an AIDS hotline.
In connection with the exhibition, the Broad will feature a variety of programs, including lectures, community projects with Los Angeles youth, musical performances and events hosted by members of Haring’s circle from the 1980s club scene.
For example, on June 1, The Broad will host a talk at the Theater in Ace Hotel downtown between 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 early Haring devotees themselves. Six of the eight Herrings in their collection are on display in the show, including “Red Room” (1988) and an untitled piece from 1984. A seventh not part of the show will be on display in the third-floor galleries .
To evoke Haring’s milieu of 1980s New York, the show will feature a blacklight gallery reminiscent of disco clubs like the Paradise Garage, as well as the artist’s music playlists.
Part of the Broad is being recreated along the lines of Haring’s Pop Shop.
“When I look at what popular culture is today, it was so shaped by the ’80s and a lot of what happened in New York, that’s still felt today,” said Ms. Heyler. “To have created a visual language that still speaks to people more than 30 years after you graduated, that’s an incredible achievement.”