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.