Akron Art Museum spotlights Keith Haring’s rise in the ‘80s and activism
Keith Haring’s pop art continues to show up on everything from sneakers to watches to T-shirts.
His whimsical designs have broad appeal and endure more than 30 years after his death in 1990 from complications related to AIDS.
At the Akron Art Museum, “Keith Haring: Against All Odds” showcases how a young artist from Pennsylvania made his mark on the contemporary art scene in New York during the 1980s. The exhibit also highlights Haring’s activism through art, which continues today through grants from his foundation.
“It’s an unfortunate truth that a lot of the issues that Haring felt very seriously about, whether it's LGBTQ+ inclusion, whether it's environmental protection, whether it's just generally being anti-war or anti-drug addiction, all of these things remain really relevant in our world,” said Jeff Katzin, curator at the Akron Art Museum. “I think that the balance that he brings through his work is really helpful.”
One of the signature pieces in the exhibit is a tarp painting that features two figures dancing with a large red heart.
“It’s just an image of love and positivity and energy and movement,” Katzin said.
The painting is on view in the exhibit until May 15, when it travels to another Haring exhibit in Los Angeles. Another large tarp painting will replace it as the exhibit, organized with the Rubell Museum, runs through September 24 in Akron.
The show also spotlights several of Haring’s subway drawings, which helped launch his art career in the early ‘80s. Haring created thousands of chalk drawings in the New York subway system using the black paper covering old advertisements as his canvas.
“That was so exciting to him, because he could do it in front of people,” Katzin said. “He started doing it more and more and doing it at rush hour on purpose.”
Haring also drew influences from other contemporary artists, such as Jean-Michel Basquiat and Andy Warhol. One of the galleries within the exhibit includes works by both of these artists and others alongside Haring’s pieces.
“He saw Warhol's art during a high school trip to Washington, D.C., and it stuck with him,” Katzin said. “I'm sure that he was really excited by the mid ‘80s when he got to meet Warhol and become friends with him.”
As Haring gained critical acclaim for his work, he wanted it to also be available to the masses. In 1986, he opened the Pop Shop in New York’s Soho neighborhood, where anyone could pick up a T-shirt or poster bearing his designs.
“It's not just a matter of making money through selling some T-shirts, but it was really a way for him to make his art accessible and to reach as many people as possible,” Katzin said.
The Akron Art Museum recreated their own version of the Pop Shop within the Haring exhibit and enlisted local artist Ron Copeland to paint the space in Haring's style.
Another signature part of the exhibit is one of Haring’s last works, “Untitled (Against All Odds),” created the year before he died at age 31. The series of 20 drawings is accompanied by an introduction from Haring, who wrote “the drawings are about the Earth we inherited and the dismal task of trying to save it – against all odds.”
He also said he painted them successively in one afternoon, listening to Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” album as well as Bob Marley songs.
“The series delves into economic exploitation, violence, and especially threats to the environment. All things that Haring touched on throughout his career,” Katzin said. “Even in this moment where he was facing the end of his life and he knew that he was, he ends it with an optimistic message of continuing to fight for the future of humanity – against all odds.”