“Keith Haring: Art Is for Everybody,” opening May 27 at the Broad Museum in Los Angeles, shows that the 1980s art star worked as if there were no tomorrow. By the time he died at age 31 in 1990, of AIDS-related complications, he had created thousands of works, ranging from vibrant murals inspired by comic strips and graffiti to horror-tinged visions of human cruelty.
In his early work, Haring pared figures to their essences using sharp outlines and bright, solid colors. A set of three lines radiating from a figure indicated movement, with more lines added to suggest emotions like exuberance or despair. Audiences loved the way he could summarize a complicated feeling or political thought with witty brevity, and his visual vocabulary became instantly recognizable.
It was also highly marketable. The Pop Shop, a store Haring opened in New York’s SoHo in 1986, sold T-shirts, buttons, posters and other items featuring the artist’s designs, with proceeds going to charity and AIDS-related causes. Haring also became known for his public art. A photo in the exhibition shows the artist looking pleased in front of the 170-foot mural he painted at New York’s Carmine Street pool in 1987, enlivening a wall with a person riding a flying fish, a fish eating a human, two mermaids and a figure whose arm is a snake. Despite the sometimes violent imagery, these blue and yellow figures have an airy cheer that echoes the graceful paper cut-outs of Matisse.
In the mid-1980s, curator Sarah Loyer points out, Haring’s work took a turn away from his private lexicon and toward a greater emphasis on the troubles of the world. In his poster “Free South Africa,” from the apartheid days of 1985, a black figure yoked to a rope tries to trample on a much smaller white figure holding the rope’s other end; in one untitled variation, the white figure’s end of the rope turns into a snake’s head that proceeds to eat him.
In a 1984 painting, a toothy, piglike monster, its eyes lined up Picasso-like on one side of its head, vomits a green stream of worldly goods: TVs, computers, tape recorders, clocks, calculators. Soft white figures emerge from the stream to suckle from the pig; presumably they will grow up to produce more goods themselves. And in a 1989 picture, a spike runs through a bleeding globe of Earth, while another spike has torn a gaping wound in a human figure’s foot. From the gash pour drops of blood and a stream of tiny green people, waving their arms in apparent helplessness.
While Haring rarely explained his pictures or even titled them, the image could be seen as a reference to the wounds of the Crucifixion. The artist’s spirituality was complicated: He was a great partygoer and celebrator of graphic sexuality in his paintings, but he took religious imagery seriously. His “St. Sebastian” (1984) replaces the arrows that pierce the saint in many religious paintings with airplanes.
Also on view at the Broad is “Moses and the Burning Bush” (1985), which depicts the moment when God declares himself to the prophet. Ms. Loyer notes that the painting seems to have two levels, with a black-and-yellow stringlike pattern partly obscuring the red-and-yellow figures of Moses and the bush. They seem to be imbued with the same divine flame.
The 1980s were a terrible time to be a young gay man in New York. The city’s annual death toll from AIDS was in the thousands and rising, and few treatments existed. “I don’t know if I have five months or five years, but I know my days are numbered,” Haring said in early 1987. “That is why my activities and projects are so important now.”
By 1989 he was sick. That year, besides four solo shows and numerous murals, Haring created one of the last pictures in the Broad exhibition. Unlike many of his works, he gave this one a title, “Unfinished Painting.” It begins as one of his signature cluttered, mazelike visions, but after covering about a quarter of the white canvas, the painting stops. Only streaks of blue paint run down the white surface to the bottom, like tears.