Graphic Language: Albertina presents Keith Haring

By Alex Morrison
Keith Haring Untitled 1982

Keith Haring, Untitled (1982)

Vienna - Keith Haring once said that an image is most powerful when it can be read by everyone. The American artist, whose bold colors and outlines emerged out of New York’s street-art scene in the 1980s, wrote in his journal in 1978: “I am interested in making art to be experienced and explored by as many individuals as possible… with no final meaning attached.”

This desire to communicate with the masses was paired with a battle against injustices such as apartheid in South Africa, nuclear proliferation and stigma surrounding the AIDS epidemic, the latter of which was to claim his life at the age of 31. They led Haring to create playful and incisive commentaries populated with instantly recognizable symbols: barking dogs, crawling babies and UFO attacks.

Albertina, Vienna

Exterior of the Albertina, Vienna. © Harald Eisenberger

To mark what would be Haring’s 60th birthday, an exhibition opening at the Albertina in Vienna on 16 March will delve into the meaning of these symbols and the remarkable impact they have had on society today. Keith Haring: The Alphabet will feature around 100 of the artist’s drawings, paintings and sculptures, spanning his short but prolific career.

“Haring is a forerunner of our way of communicating today, a time when we are sending 5–6 billion emojis around the world,” says Dieter Buchhart, curator of the show. “He studied semiotics at the School of Visual Arts [in New York], so he was very aware of what language is. He developed his own language, a kind of universal image language, which can be compared to emojis.”

Curator Dieter Buchhart of Albertina. Photo © Mathias Kessler

Haring was fascinated with the art of ancient Egypt, which he encountered on regular visits to the Metropolitan Museum in New York, and this is reflected in works such as his vase from 1981 [Untitled]. Black and gold images present recurring political motifs: a radiant baby clambering across a television screen cautiously projects hope for human progress; a deified calf parodies our mass worship of gods and things. “Egyptian hieroglyphs were very inspiring for him; you could say he created his own,” says Buchhart.

Keith Haring Vase

Keith Haring, Untitled (1981). Courtesy of Larry Warsh and the Albertina

Haring’s Pop-like characters, often painted on tarpaulin, draw on advertising and popular culture. The Andy Mouse series from the mid-1980s, versions of which will be on sale at Sotheby’s on 27 March, merges his good friend Andy Warhol with the Disney cartoons of his childhood. It reflects his “great respect for Warhol” as an artist and businessman, while also standing as a critique of “money, economy, capitalism”, according to Buchhart.

Keith Haring Andy Mouse

Keith Haring, Andy Mouse (1985) © Keith Haring Foundation

Haring’s subway drawings, which he created between 1980 and 1985 using white chalk on the black paper posted over unused advertising space in New York’s underground, underpin the exhibition. Robots dangling humans by their legs warn of the unpredictable nature of technology, while a giant figure held on a leash stamps on his minute master, encouraging us to fight back against oppression. “This was perhaps the biggest project in public space. It’s where he developed his alphabet, and is the forerunner of the intervention art of the 1990s,” says Buchhart.

Keith Haring

Keith Haring, Untitled (1982). © Private Keith Haring Foundation

The speed at which Haring had to create these illicit drawings has earned him parallels with one of history’s greatest painters. “You can compare him to Pablo Picasso in the way he did his drawings because he would start and he wouldn’t step back and look. He would just, without a sketch, finish it up,” says Buchhart.

Keith Haring, Self Portrait

Keith Haring, Untitled (Self-Portrait) (1985) © Keith Haring Foundation

Putting together a show of this sort is not as simple as it once was, because owners are more cautious about lending. “It is not like in the 1980s or 1990s, where we would easily have got whatever we wanted. It needed a lot of effort to pull it off and get the right works, the great works,” says Buchhart. Thanks to lenders such as the Haring Foundation, the Rubell Family Collection in Miami and the publisher Larry Warsh, this effort was a success. “We have the Statue of Liberty [a painted fibreglass statue made in 1982], which is hardly ever sent out, and large-scale drawings which are shown for the first time.”

Keith Haring, Portrait 1989

Portrait of Keith Haring (1989) © Gottfried Helnwein

The result is a show that seems perfectly fitted for the Albertina, home to one of the world’s largest collections of graphic works. “The Albertina is one of the best museums in the world, and Haring one of the greatest linemakers who ever lived. Every single work is treated as a masterpiece,” says Buchhart.

Keith Haring: The Alphabet, Albertina, 16 March – 24 June

Keith Haring, Andy Mouse, 1986 will be included in Prints & Multiples, London, 27 March

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