Given the art world’s current penchant for recycled concepts and pirated imagery, it is perhaps inevitable that a man who lists his heroes as Andy Warhol, Dr. Seuss and Walt Disney should become the most-celebrated populist artist of the 1980s. Unfortunately, Keith Haring’s often provocative fusion of graffiti, R. Crumb and Mesopotamian hieroglyphics is recognized less for its highly original treatment of sexual and political neuroses than for its ability to critique and blatantly exploit the trappings of capitalism.
This is hardly surprising given Haring’s obvious debt to Warhol, the master appropriator of hype. Haring’s simple but effective comic-book commentaries, originally painted on school walls and New York subway platforms, have now given way to selling personalized trinkets and baubles at The Pop Shop and promoting his latest creation--"Andy Mouse.” The latter is a graphic exercise in mutual self-aggrandizement that merges Warhol with Mickey Mouse in an unabashed paean to money and commercial exploitation.
Yet the interest of Haring’s oeuvre lies less in his derivative mass marketing of junk culture than in the aesthetic contradictions between high and low art. With their black and white or lurid Day-Glo colors, simplified “everyman” figures, science-fiction paraphernalia and psycho-sexual signification, Haring’s works clearly belong, like Andy Mouse himself, on lapel buttons or the pages of Interview magazine. Instead, Haring usually works on a large scale, engulfing the viewer with an infantile world view, where the fear and paranoia of the precocious child take on the grandiose aura of the “significant” museum piece.
Haring is literally attempting to transform popular culture into high art, illustration into the painterly realms of Rembrandt or, heaven forbid, Warhol! Whether the end result is subversive or merely stupid seems unclear to both Haring and the art establishment, but the resulting dialectic is, if not conceptually challenging, at least entertaining and immediately gratifying. Now that the boundaries between art, rock ‘n’ roll and Madison Avenue have completely disappeared, “fun” is obviously the latest, highly lucrative bottom line. (B-1 Gallery, 2730 Main St., to July 3.)