Public Art, Remade by Keith Haring

Christopher Knight is a Times art critic

Sometime early in the 1980s, after the great wave of King Tut mania had receded into fond memory, American art museums began the regular practice of setting up souvenir shops at the end of whatever big traveling exhibition happened to be on view. Exploiting the latest techniques in the psychology of impulse-buying, museums' retailing departments would go to great lengths to "theme" the temporary, makeshift shop. The mandatory exhibition catalog would be for sale, providing a veneer of intellectual respectability, but so would jewelry, clothing, children's toys, note pads, refrigerator magnets and any other knickknacks that could be tarted up with loose associations to the art on display in the galleries.

Today these crass exhibition stores are ubiquitous, but I confess I've never quite gotten used to them. Never, that is, until now.

At the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, where the retrospective of artist Keith Haring (1958-1990) is on view through Sept. 8, the exhibition store has reached a new apotheosis. This one seems not just acceptable, but downright necessary. It actually helps you understand Haring's art.

In what surely ranks as a museum first, the Haring exhibition store is not located at the show's exit--it's inside the show, in the second gallery from the end, as part of the curatorial display. In 1986, Haring opened his first Pop Shop in New York's SoHo (a second one opened later in Tokyo). Taking Claes Oldenburg's famous "Store" to the next level, the Pop Shop carried T-shirts, hats, condom wallets, lapel buttons and other manufactured goods decorated with the artist's punchy, logo-like designs, all immensely appealing to kids, teenagers and other twentysomethings like himself (he was then 28).

The small Pop Shop in the retrospective is, by comparison, a rather modest affair (condom wallets are not available); but the booth is staffed and functioning and features a cheerful sign insisting on "cash only" transactions. In the hallowed galleries of an art museum, you're invited to slide your cash across the counter and walk away with a trademark "radiant baby" or "barking dog" affixed to your bosom.

The relationship Haring forged between his art and commerce was peculiar, unembarrassed and politically savvy. It is one reason for his work's significance. Haring thought of himself as a public artist, but never in a one-dimensional sense of having to be publicly funded and thus bureaucratically hogtied. He had neither time nor temperament for that.

Some of his art was free, drawn on the quick in white chalk on plain black advertising cards in Manhattan's subway corridors, or made with children as outdoor mural projects, or broadcast on the big Spectra-Vision light board for the throngs passing through Times Square. As his fame and celebrity grew, his paintings on canvas and tarpaulin sold for increasingly big money to rich collectors, including some collectors mainly interested in art as financial speculation. For the zone in between the free and the dear, he created the Pop Shop, where authentic art could be had for the price of a T-shirt or cap.

One of the most radically appealing features of Haring's work--and a feature the retrospective resoundingly reconfirms--is that, artistically speaking, no qualitative difference separated a Haring canvas priced in the tens of thousands of dollars from a Haring lapel button selling for 65 cents. If you placed high value on the evidence of an artist's hand displayed in a one-of-a-kind object, you'd have to pay the price for exclusivity. If you placed high value on topicality, group identity and well-designed objects of mass production, you'd pay a different, more widely diffused price. And if you were simply a citizen of the world going about your daily business in the subway, you paid no price at all for Haring's art.

(Incidentally, 10 large outdoor sculptures by Haring have been installed in public sites throughout San Francisco, in a separate show organized by the city's arts commission. In the fall, those sculptures will travel to the city of West Hollywood.)

His cartoon renderings in chalk, squeezed in between successive rounds of commercial subway advertising, militated against any intrusive sense of official monumentality. Haring is about as egalitarian an artist as America has yet produced, and the period ably surveyed by the show, which was organized by Elisabeth Sussman for the Whitney Museum of American Art, is unimaginable without him.

Haring's career was meteoric and brief (less than 10 years passed between the moment his first graffiti-drawings began to draw notice in the subway and his Feb. 16, 1990, death from AIDS-related illness). Yet he's as emblematic as one of the barking dogs or radiant babies he drew with such aplomb--emblematic of many of the better impulses of the 1980s, a decade shadowed by greed, intolerance and demented Reaganite fantasies of recapturing a mythic Lost Golden Age of America.

Haring's art is not all sweetness and light--not all dogs and babies. He could be eye-bogglingly ferocious in his imagery when the subject demanded it.

Among the most remarkable works in the show is a huge, garishly colored picture from 1985, its 10-by-15-foot acreage executed in a raucous, underground-comix style. A five-eyed, pig-snouted, Bible-thumping monster is set against an ecclesiastical field of purple and yellow. The creature has two mouths--one speaks out of a television set on his face, the other speaks out his butt--and its many serpentine tongues variously grab clusters of dollar bills and wield a pair of scissors, with which a nearby figure of a dancing man is being castrated. Over in the corner, a tombstone-like cross is quietly planted in a steaming human brain.

Haring's wildly energetic rant against televangelism as a money-grubbing modern evil representing the death of intellect and the suppression of sexuality is anything but subtle. Even today, it conveys the awful sense of urgency of the moment of its creation. (Remember the date: 1985 was the year Pat Robertson, homophobic honcho of the Christian Broadcasting Network and host of the hugely profitable program "The 700 Club" first began making noises about a post-Reagan bid for the presidency.) As a public artist, Haring was acutely aware that art could be powerful in galvanizing a constituency, and his constituents would be found in a thriving, expanding youth culture that refused to roll back the clock on hard-won freedoms.

In an American art world otherwise besotted with the shibboleths of European Marxist theory, Haring's art has something subversive and cogent to say about the effective uses of commerce and democracy. It also insists that fun can be serious business: Emerging in a period dominated by Neo-Expressionism, an often gassy art of macho posturing, his emphatically Pop version of the style embraced playfulness and pleasure as artistic engines.

The retrospective at SFMOMA tries to evoke the 1980s context in which Haring worked. Cases of juvenilia and personal memorabilia line the walls. Nine chalk drawings salvaged from the subway are hung in a darkened corridor, illuminated only by bare lightbulbs dangling from cords. Network news clips about Haring and the urban graffiti phenomenon are looped on a TV monitor. One jam-packed room simulates a dance club environment, complete with flashy videos, black-lights and blaring music.

But it doesn't work. Inside a museum, and absent the animating presence of the late artist, the curatorial gimmicks feel stagy and forced--sort of like when your parents dress up as punks for the office Halloween party. Only the Pop Shop, with its built-in allusion to a museum store, feels absolutely right.

Still, Haring's knowing style of tribal urban primitivism is strong enough to come through loud and clear. His artistic engagement with commerce and fun in the insistent service of democratic liberty resonates, establishing a legacy well worth cherishing.

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"KEITH HARING," San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 151 3rd St., San Francisco. Dates: Through Sept. 8. Closed Wednesdays. Prices: Adults $8; seniors and students $4; members and children free. Phone: (415) 357-4000.

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