Politics at Play: The Sculptures of Keith Haring

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Keith Haring, Untitled (Figure on Baby) [1987], aluminum with polyurethane enamel, 267 x 191.2 x 124 cm. NGC. Gift of Alan Tanenbaum, Toronto, 1999. © The Foundation of Keith Haring

They have been well-loved and boasted the scrapes, scratches and nicks to prove it. But after “a major clean-up,” a fresh coat of paint and a thorough wax job, Keith Haring’s iconic sculptures are ready to be put out to play once more.

“As I removed the old wax, I realized the sculptures’ finish was pretty worn because people like them a lot,” says National Gallery Conservator of Contemporary Art, Geneviève Saulnier. “They’re very colourful, and people like to climb on them. But it was just wear and tear.”

The two life-sized, three-dimensional aluminum sculptures—Untitled (Figure on Baby) [1987] and Untitled (Ringed Figure) [1987]—have been in storage since 2004, when they were last shown at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. Newly spruced up, they are on display in the Winnipeg Art Gallery’s rooftop sculpture garden until 30 September 2013.

National Gallery Associate Curator of Contemporary Art Jonathan Shaughnessy says you could argue that Haring’s work is the epitome of public art, created by an artist who strove to make his work mainstream.

“These works are aimed for public use,” Shaughnessy says. “Keith Haring took up Warhol’s legacy to make art and public life one and the same. He made art to be populist, but it was good art. It was aimed to spread a message, and that was certainly behind these sculptures.”

In the late ’70s, Haring ran with a gang that included Andy Warhol, Madonna, Yoko Ono and Jean-Michel Basquiat in the emerging New York underground art scene. He started out studying graphic advertising, but was unhappy with the artistic limitations in commercial design. He studied fine art at New York’s School of Visual Arts, became obsessed with semiology, and experimented with performance art. But Haring’s signature work was his street art.

“He came out of the graffiti world,” Shaughnessy says. “Then he got his start and got more publicly noticed, because he graffitied on old blank billboards and subway stations. These sculptures emerged from those figures. So before he became a fine artist, so to speak, he was already really versed in what street art was and how to bring a message to the street.”

Keith Haring, Untitled (Ringed Figure) [1987], aluminum with polyurethane enamel, 243.5 x 190 x 124.5 cm. NGC. Gift of Alan Tanenbaum, Toronto, 1999 © The Foundation of Keith Haring

Haring’s work ranges from street graffiti to album cover art for Madonna to huge sculptures in galleries around the world. Madonna also used Haring’s art as an animated backdrop to her Sticky and Sweet tour in 2008.

Haring famously opened The Pop Shop in 1986—a boutique in downtown Manhattan—then a second one in Tokyo, featuring his unique icons on T-shirts, coffee mugs, buttons and posters. It was a flagrant thumbing-of-the-nose at the art elite.

“The Pop Shop was defiant in that he was told it would basically crush his art career,” says Shaughnessy. “You don’t open up a store to sell trinkets and goods if you want to be considered a fine artist, a high-brow kind of artist. So that crossover into the mainstream for many of those artists was really an act of defiance, to jump into where they saw culture going, which was much more into the mainstream.”

Haring died in 1990 from AIDS-related complications, but he left a charitable foundation and a legacy that continues to thrive, says Winnipeg Art Gallery curator, Paul Butler.

“I really respect his commitment to the causes he supported, his activism, his AIDS awareness work,” Butler says. “That continues. I also love the duality of Keith Haring. It’s very simple and playful and kids, all the way to your grandparents, can appreciate the work. Then, on another level, it’s very serious, dealing with really important issues.” 

Shaughnessy agrees that this is feel-good art with a political message. “I love those sculptures,” he says. “Seeing them in the lab actually made me happy. I would just go and visit them, because there is a really humanist message that comes through in those works.”

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