‘Keith Haring: The Political Line’: Crossing Boundaries

Feb. 4, 2015, 4:06 p.m.

On view at the de Young Museum in San Francisco until February 16, “The Political Line” explores the work of maverick American pop artist Keith Haring. Haring’s graphic, large-scale paintings have become icons of politics and New York street culture in the 1900s. “The Political Line” traces Haring’s progression from a subway graffiti artist to one of the most outspoken artists and social activists of the 20th century, noting the presence of political undertones and satire in his work.

The exhibit is arranged chronologically, a natural extension of the narrow, corridor-like structure of the gallery space. From his early subway chalk sketches to his enormous, paint-splattered tarps and canvases, it is interesting to note how the complexity of composition and color scheme in Haring’s work gradually deepens. Haring’s early work, consisting largely of gestural charcoal sketches, contrast starkly with the expansive paintings that characterized the latter parts of his career. Though the layout of the exhibition is not explicitly defined, there is a noticeable gradient when it comes to the scale of Haring’s works across time.

As the first major Keith Haring show on the West Coast in nearly two decades, “The Political Line” enables viewers to get up close and personal with Haring’s most iconic works. The topography of Haring’s large-scale paintings is surprisingly smooth, showcasing the pop artist’s technical skill. In his painting entitled “The Great White Way,” he juxtaposes religious symbolism — namely the Christian Cross — with the imagery of the penis; etched onto a 14-foot-tall, phallus-shaped canvas, “The Great White Way” exemplifies the artist’s razor-sharp line quality and his penchant for crude humor in his artwork.

Levity and satire are defining features of Haring’s work. Haring’s style is hard-edged with cartoon-like qualities, often featuring bright color schemes loaded with primary colors. Perhaps, paradoxically, Haring uses humor to address heavy topics, such as racism and imbalances of power in a capitalistic society. In his 1968 piece “Prophets of Rage,” Haring depicts a black figure shackled by chains alongside a decapitated white man, making a statement about turbulent race relations in the United States. In other cases, Haring takes cartoon celebrities, such as Mickey Mouse, and portrays them as grotesque caricatures, condemning popular culture. Fiercely opposed to racial intolerance and ecocide, Haring employs graphic, outlandish imagery to draw attention to issues he is passionate about.

“The Political Line” is on view until Feb. 16, 2015 at the de Young Museum.

Contact Eric Huang at eyhuang ‘at’ stanford.edu.

Eric Huang is a junior at Stanford University hailing from Irvine, California. An aspiring computer science major and art practice minor, Eric's passion for visual arts manifests itself not only in his practice, but also in his writing. To contact Eric, shoot him an email: [email protected].

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