Critical DMs: Keith Haring at the Walker Art Center

Piece of red art
"Red Room," Keith Haring.
Courtesy of the Walker Art Center

Critical DMs are lightly edited Slack conversations by members of the MPR News arts team about Minnesota art and culture.

This week, arts editor Max Sparber and senior arts reporter and Critic Alex V. Cipolle discuss “Keith Haring: Art Is for Everybody,” which opened Saturday at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.

The exhibit is a retrospective of the prolific pop artist who created iconic art filled with vibrating, heavily outlined figures: crawling babies, UFOs, television sets and pyramids. In 1990, Haring died at age 31 of complications from AIDS.

This exhibit was first organized by The Broad in Los Angeles and offers a career-wide retrospective including Haring’s early work when he used chalk to create graffiti-style images on unused New York subway posters. In this iteration, the exhibit also includes work from a residency the artist did at the Walker Art Center in 1984 that included the creation of an original mural.

Cipolle: Okay. Critical DM time. I feel like I need to listen to some music while we chat. Was it just me or did Keith Haring have a few moments with Run DMC? I remember that from last night. And Madonna.

Sparber: He was in the mix.

Grace Jones too. He did her costume for “Vamp,” a movie I think I am the only person who ever watched it.

Actually, not a costume. He just painted her.

Cipolle: Grace Jones. Unparalleled.

Art at an exhibit
Polaroids of Keith Haring with Madonna and Andy Warhol at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis on Thursday.
Max Sparber | MPR News

Sparber: I feel like Haring represented a unique moment in the New York underground, where if you started getting attention, suddenly you could hang out with anybody.

Cipolle: Yeah, we saw some ephemera from some of the parties he threw, which seemed epic, like at Paradise Garage.

Sparber: He was in graffiti and hip-hop circles, he was friends with Basquiat and Warhol — he worked with celebrities!

Cipolle: And he was a KID.

Sparber: So young.

Cipolle: Making these relationships and garnering fame and critical claim in his early 20s.

Sparber: If he was still alive, he would only be 65 or 66.

Cipolle: It’s a great loss. And his short career he is probably one of the most prolific artists of the 20th century.

Sparber: His work is so instantaneously iconic. The moment you see a Haring, you know it’s his.

Cipolle: Unmistakable. I love his wiggle marks — whether that’s signifying dancing or movement or an actual sort of atomic energy.

Sparber: Yeah, the Walker has a short animated video he did, and it’s the first time I realized that a lot of these cartoon characters he drew are dancing.

Even his dog man, who is always a figure of menace, busts a groove.

Alex Cipolle: The videos may be my favorite part of the exhibition. Specifically, the ones showing him working in the New York Subway.

Working so fast that the cops wouldn’t catch up to him.

Sparber: I love that. We actually see him arrested.

Art at an exhibit
Keith Haring’s arrest record at the Walker Art Center.
Max Sparber | MPR News

Cipolle: Yeah, a news segment introduced by Dan Rather. Rather starts it by saying that graffiti artists have two things in common “anonymity and lack of talent.” Lol. Egg on his face.

Sparber: His subway graffiti is such an essential part of his legend.

But also his development as an artist, it’s where he seems to have developed this whole vocabulary of figures he used throughout his career.

How much of his work had you seen before, and how did you feel seeing so much of it in one place?

Cipolle: I was about six or seven when I first saw Haring’s work, which would have been around his death in 1990. I just remember seeing his wiggly figures on sweatshirts and tees everywhere back then. And as a kid, they had so much joyful and silly appeal.

And honestly, I think I’ve seen Haring’s work more on clothing than I have in museums. Maybe one or two paintings at a time in museum collections. So this was truly glorious seeing so much concentrated Haring in one spot. A dayglo phantasma. 

What about you? What’s your Haring story?

Sparber: There was a book called “Art After Midnight: The East Village Scene” by Steven Hager that came out in 1986, which is probably about when I bought it from Dreamhaven when it was in Dinkytown.

It was a book about New York’s underground art scene of the late seventies and early eighties — N.Y. punk, the party scene, all that. It was written at the moment when the scene was transforming, exiting the underground, and Haring is a pretty big character in it. It caught him right at the moment of his breakthrough.

I think it was the first art book I ever bought for myself, and I was fascinated by that scene. My family is from New York, and so I was there every summer and sort of saw it in passing when I was a boy.

And these artists were only about a decade older than me and were still working. Haring was doing his Walker residency, etc. So unlike all the artists who I grew up hearing about, who were dead or old and had made their mark a long time before, this was the first art I was really aware of that was happening at the moment. So it was very exciting for me.

Haring was incredibly important to me back in the eighties. And I don’t think a week has gone by since I haven’t thought about his work. So it was really nice to reengage with it.

Cipolle: What we bring to these exhibitions shapes the experience so much.

Sparber: It’s true. This one was filled with nostalgia for me. I thought it was beautiful and sad.

Cipolle: I agree that it was beautiful and sad. When I was first seeing Haring, was also when I was first hearing about the AIDS crisis and trying to understand what it meant as a kid. So as a kid looking at Haring, it was a mix of fun and fear.  No matter what his work is commenting on — sex, love, AIDS, homophobia, nuclear war — it is full of jubilation.

And as we learned from Haring’s sister, Kristen Haring, at the exhibition preview last night, Haring was exposed to heavy or “adult” issues himself as a kid when he was delivering newspapers by bike and reading the headlines.

Sparber: There is a video in the show, a dance called “Secret Pastures” by The Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, which the Walker brought to Minnesota in partnership with the Ordway, that really drove that home.

Haring did the set and fashion designer Willi Smith did the costumes. In the eighties, Willi Smith was one of the most successful fashion designers in America. I love his stuff — they had WilliWear at Dayton’s, which I couldn’t afford, so I would look for it at thrift stores. It was a real score when I found it.

And Smith died of complications of AIDS, and I feel like he is not well-remembered now. Arnie Zane died of AIDS. Haring died of AIDS.

Three of the four artists in that video, gone.

It really was a disease that laid waste to an incredibly important and vibrant arts community.

Art at an exhibit
Keith Haring-illustrated poster for the 1984 Walker ArtFest, pictured at the Walker Art Center.
Max Sparber | MPR News

Cipolle: It was obliterating. I mean, Haring died six years after his Walker residency at the age of 31. Another one of my favorite vignettes from the exhibition is the wall of Haring’s artwork and posters for ACT UP and other AIDS awareness and support groups.

Sparber: Yes. It’s incredible to see how plastic his art is. Autobiographical, political, sometimes graphically sexual. He refused to separate any aspect of himself from his art.

Cipolle: And he refused to have his art separated from the people.

Sparber: I watched his sister watching the movie of Haring creating his mural at the Walker, now long gone. I felt like I was witnessing something very private.

I feel that way with a lot of his art.

I don’t necessarily know what his hieroglyphs mean, but they feel incredibly personal and important.

Cipolle: That is a tender part of his exhibition, his time at the Walker. And that mural, which was painted on the walkway that formerly connected the Walker to the old Guthrie building, is now gone. This exhibition really touches on the ephemeral quality of his art.

Sparber: It seems right. His subway graffiti was meant to be temporary. He stopped doing it when people started cutting it out and collecting it. 

He was so prolific that he could create art that was meant to live for a short while and then disappear.

Which ends up being a strange and sad metaphor for his life.

Cipolle: It would be interesting to know the number of his artworks that have evaporated in the churn of time.

Which I don’t think we can know.

But I like to think about it.

Art at an exhibit
Keith Haring using chalk to create graffiti in a New York subway, pictured at the Walker Art Center.
Walker Art Center

Sparber: I think it is literally possible there is work he created here, tucked in somebody’s scrapbook, forgotten.

Or painted over.

Hiding under a layer of paint in a suburban school, where he led a class.

Cipolle: I’m guessing he would love that. And the possible discovery of it some day.

Sparber: I’m going to find one. I have a new mission.

Cipolle: I believe in you.

Sparber: Keith, you’re coming home with me.

This activity is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment's Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund.
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