Shotgun Reviews

Keith Haring: The Political Line at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris and Centquatre

Shotgun Reviews are an open forum to which we invite the international art community to contribute timely, short format responses (250–400 words) to an exhibition or event. If you are interested in submitting a Shotgun Review, please follow this link for more information. In this Shotgun Review, Kanika Anand reviews Keith Haring: The Political Line at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris and Centquatre.

Keith Haring. Unfinished Painting, 1989; acrylic on canvas; 39 x 39 in. (100 x 100 cm). Courtesy of Keith Haring Foundation

Cohosted by Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris and Centquatre in Paris, The Political Line is one of the largest retrospectives of Keith Haring’s work. Spanning his career from 1978 to his untimely death in 1990, it comprises over two hundred works on paper and an impressive series of sculptures.

For Haring, making art was a public performance; its outcome was accessible to all and its content was topical. As a tribute to the activism in his art, The Political Line is thematically divided by the recurring subjects he addressed: social justice, excessive state control, abuses of capitalism, racism, religious dogma, the threat of nuclear war, and the vices of mass media. His final campaign, which was for safe sex among gay men, began in 1988 when he was diagnosed with HIV.

Haring’s works are defined by a frantic and impulsive energy that repeats itself in figurative outlines and gestures that loop into one another. These forms create a sense of urgency in the same way that bold or capital letters do when used in text. Universal signs and symbols are placed within a new context, provocatively revitalized by a hard-hitting vigor. A barking dog is humanized as the evil leader of the pack; a crawling baby radiates innocence; snakes and spaceships suggest apocalyptic hell, and green rivers of envy denounce the supremacy of the dollar.

Haring’s use of caricatured figures and ironic humor in his early works gives these critiques an optimism suggestive of a rebellious, youthful energy. But his later works reveal a growing despondency taking over his idealism. Although the sharpness of his critique never lightens, his  visual language suggests a shift toward darker commentary. Monstrous creatures spewing consumer commodities or a bleeding globe, as seen in Michael Stewart–USA for Africa (1985), become more common than witty collages of newspaper cutouts and homoerotic studies.

Keith Haring. Michael Stewart–USA for Africa, 1985; enamel and acrylic on canvas; 116 x 145 in. (295 x 367 cm). Courtesy of Keith Haring Foundation

The exhibition serves as a retrospective of political thought in America and its active subversion through the 1980s, as witnessed and animated in the streets, in clubs, and  in subways. Perhaps it is a timely reminder, a way to question today’s economic recession and political unrest, the sentiments behind the Arab Spring or the Occupy movements?

While Centquatre hosts monumental works, including the twenty-five-foot-high Ten Commandments (1985), a stark personal take on the depravity of religious faith and lifestyle depicted on arched panels, the themed sections at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris end with Unfinished Painting (1989). Replete with the iconic drips and loops that he claimed reflected an unrestrained form within a defined space, the painting signals an abrupt ending to a frantic energy, leaving the visitor with a mixed sense of guilt and dismay.

Keith Haring: The Political Line is on view at Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris and at Centquatre through August 18, 2013.

Kanika Anand is an art historian and curator based in New Delhi and Grenoble. Having worked with contemporary art galleries and projects for five years, she is currently a participant in the Curatorial Program at the École du Magasin, Grenoble, France (201213).