Haring’s Outlaw Graffiti Lose Street Smarts in Brooklyn

``Untitled'' (1982) by Keith Haring. The Sumi-ink-on-paper drawing, nearly 18 feet across, is typical of Haring's homemade "hieroglyphics." Source: Brooklyn Museum via Bloomberg

Pop artist Keith Haring (1958-90) was an avid scenester and Warhol wannabe, trying his hand at everything: performance art, videos, posters, sculptures, books, animations, paintings and drawings.

He curated shows, filled notebooks with pedagogical musings and blatantly marketed himself. He even had his own store in New York’s SoHo area.

A show at the Brooklyn Museum focuses on the artist’s early days, when he was making his name in the late 1970s and ‘80s defacing downtown New York with his inimitable cartoon pictographs.

Haring’s frenetic line drawings of dancers, crawling babies, talking televisions, bestiality, symbols, aliens and penises enlivened the East Village.

Although he was arrested several times, graffiti was not a hot-button issue. K-Mart and Starbucks had yet to drive the artists, junkies and prostitutes from Alphabet City with skyrocketing rents.

Haring’s outlaw work moved from dilapidated walls into chic, SoHo galleries and uptown museums.

Hipster Scene

The Brooklyn Museum has attempted to split the difference by turning the space into a nostalgic, hipster scene that plays up the period’s clubs, streets, music and atmosphere.

The curators acknowledge both the transient character of Haring’s work and its graphic, merchandising charm. They also attempt, unsuccessfully, to add Haring and graffiti to the Western canon.

At the entrance to the show, enlivened by the sounds of Devo, Grace Jones, David Bowie, the Bangles and the B-52s, you can go directly into the gift shop or into the galleries.

Inside the crowded, salon-style exhibition, walls are painted bright red and lime green. Collaged flyers are plastered floor-to-ceiling. Videos and archival material, such as Haring’s sketchbook pages and photographs of the downtown club scene, invigorate the show.

Yet we are offered more pop culture here than art. Haring is fun, talented and entertaining, often sexually, socially and politically provocative. He tackles homosexuality, AIDS, the pope and Reagan.

Barking Dogs

In one sketchbook entry, hearts and erect penises fly through the sky like a volley of cruise missiles. And in the Sumi-ink-on-paper “Untitled” (1982), Haring’s homemade hieroglyphics transform the head of Medusa into a pack of barking dogs.

But his pictures -- one of which spreads 56 feet -- feel hurriedly performed rather than composed. They sprawl like meandering wallpaper.

Haring began as a Neo-Expressionist, and the best of these drawings are influenced by Pollock and de Kooning. In the large, graphic, black-red-and-orange work on paper “Untitled” (1979), Haring playfully orchestrates his calligraphic figures and squiggles into decorative surfaces.

But more often than not, his marks become jazz hands. Without much frontal pressure or feel for the rectangle, they devolve into mere patterns.

Haring was in top form when he drew on walls, dumpsters and on the black paper covering old ads in subways. These comical, energetic yet plainspoken drawings were often inspired by their adjacent posters.

The exhibition includes slideshows of these subway drawings in situ, some of which capture the artist working as middle-aged commuters glare suspiciously.

A number of the chalk drawings fill the show’s penultimate gallery. But only one is paired with its original advertisement: a blown-up Penthouse magazine cover displaying an almost nude Pia Zadora.

Sexual Charge

Haring’s neighboring chalk drawing depicts a figure made out of lightning bolts -- a cartoon character with his finger in the socket. Like a lot of his graffiti, this sexually charged pairing of art and ad made me laugh out loud. It also made it clear that in a show about street art, context matters.

At the Brooklyn Museum, Haring’s work feels sanitized, vestigial, entombed. Its inspirational sources, outlaw energy and surprising juxtapositions are all missing.

Neither graffiti nor art, here Haring’s work remains in limbo.

“Keith Haring: 1978-1982” runs through July 8 at the Brooklyn Museum, 200 Eastern Parkway. Information: +1-718-638-5000; http://www.brooklynmuseum.org.

(Lance Esplund is U.S. art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Muse highlights include an interview by Manuela Hoelterhoff and Jeremy Gerard on theater.

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