Keith Haring’s creative impact was influential, and he broadly changed the model of what it means to be an artist. Today that model is not just coopted, it’s a memetic standard. But the curious thing about a successful meme is that when its impression becomes ubiquitous, the origin is often forgotten. Curators Bill Arning and Rick Herron grapple with this dilemma and attempt to bridge the gap between Haring’s work and legacy with the exhibition Powerful Babies: Keith Haring’s Impact on Artists Today at the Spritmuseum in Stockholm.
In his essay for the exhibition catalog, Arning makes two often-missed but brilliant points. First, to judge any one of Haring’s pieces as a discrete object is to miss the point, because the art object is a statement of its time. Haring’s work encapsulates a specific time in NYC’s youth-art-clubbing-activist-gay culture, and to fully appreciate it, one must consider the totality of that scene, in which art extended beyond the object and mixed with the realm of the everyday. (In addition to his paintings, Haring put his iconic line drawings on T-shirts, buttons, posters, billboards, and in magazines; in 1986, he opened the Pop Shop, a commercial venture that sold his images as everyday, affordable items.) Second, Arning points out that Haring’s oeuvre is easily contextualized in our present age of of Relational Aesthetics, which makes it difficult to comprehend the prejudice against the work during Haring’s life. Arning and Herron took the totality of Haring’s history, narrative, and methods, and used them as a framework for selecting the twenty-two artists in this exhibition.
Haring’s legacy is present in two ways: the literal and the memetic. The literal handles the ways in which artists have continued Haring’s strategy of physical expression, be that on a painting or a T-shirt. The memetic deals with the ways in which artists have absorbed and then pushed beyond Haring’s relational view of life-as-art-as-life. Powerful Babies focuses on the literal aspect, as it’s the more obvious of the two. However, some of the strongest works in the show take Haring’s relational strategy and fold it onto itself.
Klara Lidén untitled 2011 work (from the series Poster Painting) achieves this through a double critique of public space and the art object. The work is an extension of two previous but separate actions in which the artist had wheat-pasted blank white paper over street advertisements, and another in which—in a single night—the artist removed all of the billboard posters in Stockholm. For the untitled piece, Lidén collected flyers and poster advertisements and pasted them into a four-inch layer of mass advertising, with the top layer being blank. By laminating advertisements in to an art object, she negates the function of advertising, and in doing so invigorates the viewer’s consciousness of a ubiquitous presence. The object is simultaneously a fragment of culture and an embodiment of the greater narrative of advertising.
Jaimie Warren’s video You Are Not Alone: Self-Portrait as Michael Jackson in a Recreation of the Genealogical Trees of the Dominican Order (2014) offers a setting for an 1980s-MTV-style music video within an early Renaissance painting. Warren takes the messianic lead as Michael Jackson, and along with around thirty-five pop-culture friends, performs her way through a few songs until a final conflict with Freddy Krueger occurs. Locating contemporary nostalgia within “proper” art, the artist makes plain our collective social projections of the past, and the result is a mesmerizing and hilarious deconstruction of cultural value.
Allen Grubesic furthers the conceptual framework around commercial identity and art with I DIDN’T DO IT (2015). Two identical five-foot-wide black canvases, with the title printed in white capitals, are hung in a column. On a shelf below sits a pair of white leather Nikes, but in place of the trademarked swoosh there is the image of Magritte’s infamous non-pipe. The substitution of Nike’s icon with iconic art becomes an artistic intervention into reclaiming identity. By using Magritte’s image, Grubesic layers the humor of “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” onto Nike’s identity-ethos and renders the object back to a mere shoe. With the “I” in “I didn’t do it,” the artist takes the negation of “Just do it” beyond the generic and makes it personal, and by doing so, he inverts the critique of the artist’s role in branding an identity.
Haring was able to create a paradigm shift in the art world by pushing the boundaries of what should be considered art, and in the process he opened the role of the artist. The 1980s may seem open and accepting because of Haring’s personal successes, but for those who remember, the art world was not hospitable to artists making work that was too street, too activist, too commercial, too populist, or to artists who were openly gay. Many of the artists who engaged in these pursuits were ignored. Haring’s achievements weren’t without struggle, but his struggle helped broaden the scope for diversity in art, as well as what could be considered art. Powerful Babies reminds us of the impact of Haring’s work and connects his legacy to art making today.
Powerful Babies: Keith Haring’s Impact on Artists Today is on view through April 3, 2016, at the Spritmuseum in Stockholm.