Few artists make it into the Guinness Book of World Records. Keith Haring did.
He inspired the largest commercially available jigsaw puzzle on earth -- 32,256 pieces covering an area of 17 feet (5 meters) by 6 feet.
The Haring show at the Musee d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris is setting another record: With some 250 items, it’s the largest ever devoted to the graffiti artist in Europe.
Fame came fast in Haring’s short life.
After moving from his native Pennsylvania to New York in 1978, the 19-year-old quickly became the darling of subway commuters: They loved his graffiti of radiant babies, glowing hearts and cute dogs furtively chalked on walls and billboards.
Elaborating his subway drawings in gaudy pop colors, first on vinyl tarp, later on canvas, the local celebrity soon attracted the attention of international trendsetters.
In 1982, Haring was invited by Documenta in Kassel, Germany, the world’s most prestigious show of avant-garde art. In 1984, the Venice Biennale feted him as one of the champions of street art.
In 1986, prodded by his friend and mentor Andy Warhol, he opened a “Pop Shop” in New York’s Soho district, selling reproductions of his iconic images printed on T-shirts, toys, mugs and posters. Two years later, another Pop Shop opened in Tokyo.
In 1990, a few weeks short of his 32nd birthday, he died of AIDS-related complications.
The Musee d’Art Moderne show stresses the subversive and political side to Haring’s art. The works are grouped around specific themes: his gay activism and his aversion to capitalism, racism, religion and nuclear power.
The Tokyo Pop Shop and some outsize works are on view at the Centquatre, 104 Rue d’Aubervilliers, a former funeral hall and now a cultural center.
During his early youth, Haring had amused himself with chalking penises near Tiffany’s, the Museum of Modern Art and other pillars of the establishment. Later, he celebrated the joys of gay life before he joined the crusade for safe sex.
Business and religion often appear hand in hand as dollar signs and crucifixes used as weapons or protruding from the mouth of an evil animal. Having himself been a Jesus Freak in his teens, Haring exorcized his youthful aberration with relentless attacks on Christian hypocrisy.
He was also obsessed with Apartheid in Africa and racism in the U.S. A photo in the catalog shows him distributing homemade posters saying “Free South Africa” in Central Park.
The 1983 death of the black graffiti artist Michael Stewart in the custody of the New York City Transit Police shocked Haring profoundly: A giant canvas shows a naked black man strangled by white hands while crosses rain down from the sky.
On another canvas, we see a naked woman with a computer in the place of her head while a long-toothed monster looks on -- a warning against the impending cyber age.
By using simple, easily readable icons, the catalog tells us, Haring provokes our imagination and invites us to avoid cliches and stereotypes. That seems far-fetched.
The truth is that Haring’s cartoonish style and the narrow repertory of his images demonstrate the limits of his talent, not the profundity of his message.
Even less convincing are his attacks on capitalism. Like his friend Warhol, Haring was a marketing genius who shrewdly profited from the system he pretended to despise.
“Keith Haring: The Political Line” runs through Aug. 18. Information: http://www.mam.paris.fr.
For more information about the jigsaw puzzle, go to http://www.ravensburger.com.
(Jorg von Uthmann is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
Muse highlights include Richard Vines on food, Martin Gayford on European art and Jeremy Gerard on U.S. theater.