SAN FRANCISCO — At the end of the 2012 documentary How to Survive a Plague, we see a accumulation of ACT UP protestors advance on the nation’s basic with the ashes of their dead, a counterprotest to the exhibition of the AIDS Memorial Quilt on the Washington Mall. A affiliate of the advance tells us that while the AIDS Quilt is important, it makes admirable the animal absoluteness faced by the millions still dying. Pouring the ashes on the White House lawn, these active activists affectation a still all-important question: how can one be an ethical attestant to a pandemic? Or, to borrow from Douglas Crimp’s capital 1989 article “Mourning and Militancy”: what is the adapted way to ache and admit one’s “terror, rage, guilt, and sadness” about the affliction of HIV/AIDS?
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As a academic of beheld ability and amusing movements, questions like these anatomy so abundant of my analysis and teaching. Yet in my classes on art and the AIDS crisis, one artisan has rarely (if ever) been featured: Keith Haring. After visiting Keith Haring: The Political Line, now in its final anniversary at San Francisco’s de Young Museum, I apprehend aloof how amiss I accept been about Haring all of these years.
I didn’t abstain teaching Haring because I didn’t apperceive about him; rather, I anticipate I had a affectionate of Haring fatigue borne of oversaturation. I was built-in in New York in 1982, the year that Keith Haring had his aboriginal abandoned appearance at Tony Shafrazi’s gallery. His assignment was all over New York in the 1980s and aboriginal ’90s; the murals, alms sketches, and banal items (Swatch watches, T-shirts, magnets) were so abundant a allotment of the burghal that it was accessible to discount them as a aborigine allotment of the actual aberrant burghal landscape. Over the years, I forgot what his assignment stood for, if I anytime absolutely accepted it then. His doodles as I bethink them looked happy, abounding of life, and aloof too cheery. As works of beef art, they acquainted wrong, not about affronted abundant compared to ACT UP’s accessible die-ins in advanced of the White House and the FDA.
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But to see Haring’s assignment afresh at the de Young reminded me of two things: First, that all-embracing adorableness and joy can be a abolitionist act of anomalous protest, a claiming of one’s ability of actual at a time back the apple was cogent you that you adapted to die. Second, that his achievement was far added adverse than the added all-over images would suggest, abnormally back affected in their adapted amusing amends context, as curators Julian Cox and Dieter Buchhart accept done here.
Taking up the de Young’s lower attic galleries, the works beat with their aggregate and scale. And beat they should, for the amusing crises on which Haring foolishly commented in the ’80s abide burning affairs today: the homophobia and affectation of the Catholic Church, racism, the AIDS crisis, the blackmail of nuclear warfare and ecology destruction, badge atrocity and surveillance culture, and the accretion technologization of accustomed life.
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Unlike the squiggly abstracts and animated dolphins I bethink from Haring’s accessible art, abounding of the pieces in The Political Line are apocalyptic, dark, and aloof apparent twisted. “The Last Rainforest” (1989), one of Haring’s final paintings, fabricated afore he died at 31 from AIDS-related complications, is Hieronymus Bosch’s “The Last Judgment” remixed for the television age. A cacophony of unrelenting, awful images assaults the eye, with the excesses of our avant-garde ability sketched aloft a neo-expressionist accomplishments of acrid red and yellow. A peaceful Buddha babyish sits lotus-style at the center, reserving acumen for our absent apple and conceivably alms added alleviation than Bosch’s affronted Jesus. The 14-foot-tall “The Great White Way” (1988) is a pink, penis-shaped cipher of the means that whiteness is circumscribed as institutional power: through money, religion, and animal violence. Alike added banal and adorning pieces like Haring’s obsessively fatigued sculptural collaborations with Angel Ortiz (aka LA II) adjure afterlife by demography on the forms of faux-Egyptian sarcophagi and Grecian black urns. It was in encountering, assuredly and in person, the ample blush triangle of “Silence=Death” (1988) that I understood: behindhand of his bartering success, Keith Haring mattered again and he affairs now because of his allowance as a analytical witness.
In alike his best blithesome assignment — the angels, dogs, and abstracts captivation hearts, the icons so calmly depoliticized and reproduced on posters and, now, iPad covers — Haring seduces you into attractive appear the bordering and the ugly, and abnormally appear the confusion that AIDS wrought on anomalous communities. How abolitionist an act of witnessing this was at a time back Ronald Reagan, Ed Koch, and the FDA capital annihilation added than for you to attending abroad from the asleep and dying and to ambit yourself from the alleged “gay cancer.” How important Haring’s assignment charcoal today, back adolescent bodies alone bethink Magic Johnson and the success of antiretroviral drugs, not the ongoing, accidental accident of so abounding millions more. Keith Haring lived after accommodation and produced art after censure. I cartel you to try to attending away.
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Keith Haring: The Political Line continues at the de Young Museum (50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco) through February 16.
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