September 7, 2019

TOP OF THE POPS

The late artist Keith Haring gets a closer look at the Arlington Museum of Art.

Keith Haring’s iconic, faux-naïve style took him from the subways of his adopted New York City into the toniest galleries in town during the go-go ‘80s. And without this street painter-turned-art world wunderkind, we might not appreciate legends such as Banksy, Kaws, and Takashi Murakami quite as deeply.

The focus of “Against All Odds,” a small but impactful show at the Arlington Museum of Art, Haring’s canvases remain engaging for both their whimsical subjects and activist undertones. His work is populated with three-eyed men, flying saucers, and radiating babies, but it also digs deep into the AIDS crisis, apartheid, social discrimination, and drug abuse.

Born in Reading, Pennsylvania, Haring followed closely in the footsteps of another native son—Andy Warhol—and relocated to New York in the late 1970s. Emerging at a creatively fruitful time, he fell in with the likes of Warhol, Jean Michel-Basquiat, Madonna, and Kenny Scharf. Sadly succumbing to AIDS at the age of 31, Haring passed away 1990. Yet his legacy of “art for all” remains as current and engaging as ever.

Curator/Arlington Museum of Art board president Chris Hightower first considered showing Haring when a grade school-age resident checked out a book about the artist from the local library.

“The son was so enamored with the stuff, he asked his mom if they could see an exhibition of Haring,” he recalls. “She Facebook messaged me and that seed had already been planted in my mind.  I thought it would never happen, but then I met with a local non-profit looking for an LGBTQ exhibit for the 50th anniversary of Stonewall. The non-profit’s head said it absolutely has to be Haring.”

Searching for a vast array of paintings, Hightower discovered the Miami-based Rubell Family Collection, which includes dozens of Harings, including The Story of Jason series and Twenty Drawings created in the memory of Studio 54 owner Steve Rubell (both included in the show).

Because Haring was so prescient about making art affordable to everyone—his Pop Shop sold T-shirts and tchotchkes years before museums wanted us to exit through the gift shop—Hightower says he possesses an egalitarian appeal.

“I think he recognized that there was a pop culture piece (in his work) that was open to the public. He wanted people to engage with his art, not just fine artists, but the public. It allowed him that entrée where he could speak directly to the people rather than through art critics. He didn’t produce pop art; he used pop art to tell his story and push his audience. His art has been accessible, and it remains accessible.”

Before his untimely death, Haring set up a foundation in his name to support non-profit organizations that assist underserved children, as well as AIDS prevention, education, and care. The museum is also screening the 1990 documentary Drawing the Line for viewers to take a deeper dive into Haring’s altruistic oeuvre. —Kendall Morgan

The Details: Keith Haring: Against All Odds closes this Sunday, September 15 at the Arlington Museum of Art. 201 West Main Street, Arlington.