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Even if you don't know Keith Haring's work, you've probably seen it - big, colorful, simple shapes and forms; the kind of bold graffiti art that inspired Haring in the first place. A new exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum traces Haring's artistic roots from the beginning of his career, when he arrived in New York in the late 1970s; through his rise to international acclaim, four years later. This show features a series of rare drawings that were Haring's breakthrough in the art world. From New York, Tom Vitale has the story.

TOM VITALE, BYLINE: Keith Haring's career began in the underground, after coming to New York as a 20-year-old art student from Kutztown, Pennsylvania.

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KEITH HARING: When I first got here in '78, the art on the trains - the full cars - was sort of at an incredible peak. And you could go in the subway for 15 minutes and see better art than you could see all day long in a gallery.

VITALE: In 1983, Keith Haring stood on the street outside the Whitney Museum of American Art, and told me he was floored by the hip-hop scene that was sweeping the city - break dancers, rappers, DJs, and graffiti artists who turned subway cars into enormous canvases. It inspired him to create his own graffiti - simple, cartoon-like figures in motion, offset by radiating lines. Then Haring had a eureka moment. He discovered the empty panels on the subway station walls, where the Transit Authority put black paper over old advertisements.

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HARING: When I first saw the first one, I just immediately went up above ground and bought chalk, and went back down and started drawing. And after that, I kept seeing more and more of them, and kept doing more and more drawings. And after a certain point, it became less of a hobby and became a responsibility, because people were waiting to see them.

VITALE: Haring drew 30 or 40 panels a day, two or three times a week. Each drawing was seen for a day, a week or a month, until a new ad was pasted over it. And that didn't bother Haring.

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HARING: After a certain number of people have seen it, it's already fulfilled its purpose, really. I mean, especially in the subway, 'cause thousands of people go past them every day. So even if it's only up for one day, it's already been seen by enough people to justify its existence - or justify the time I spent making it.

VITALE: Haring would draw fast - just a couple of minutes on each piece - because he could've gotten busted for vandalism. Along the way, he created a lexicon of images that became famous around town: barking dogs, break dancers, UFOs, boomboxes, and his signature tag - a person crawling on all fours, which eventually turned into a baby and was labeled "Radiant Child" or "Electric Baby."

These works were never meant to be collected. But millions of people saw them, and some people took them, says Brooklyn curator Tricia Laughlin Bloom.

TRICIA LAUGHLIN BLOOM: I think sometimes, if it hadn't been on for too long, just a putty knife around the edges - you could pop it off. Other cases, you can see the drawings got torn in the process of being extracted.

VITALE: Soon, gallery owners and museum curators took note.

ELIZABETH SUSSMAN: I only saw him in action once. And I can say that the vitality, and the immediacy of the way he worked, was truly extraordinary.

VITALE: Elizabeth Sussman is talking about the way Haring transferred his underground art into the galleries. Sussman was curator of the last big Keith Haring exhibit in New York, 15 years ago at the Whitney Museum. When he got a commission, Haring would slap on a pair of headphones, turn up the Devo or Kraftwerk playing on his Walkman, and draw for hours at a time.

SUSSMAN: He would just go all out. So it wasn't a prim and proper installation that you might have seen in SoHo; something, you know, high-minded and conceptual. It was all out. And it was painted on tarps; every inch of the wall was covered. It just seethed with vitality.

VITALE: The new exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum combines both aspects of Haring's work. There are 31 of the unsigned chalk drawings on black paper from the subways, on loan from private collections. And there are scores of larger works. Project director Tricia Laughlin Bloom points to one created for a Connecticut museum in 1983.

BLOOM: So this piece is called "Matrix," and it's 50 feet long and 6 feet tall. It has a cinematic quality that way - it's all black and white, and you have this almost psychedelic interweaving of human figures and snakes and televisions and dogs and babies and brains and dollar signs, all kind of pulsating off of the page.

VITALE: That street aesthetic, and way of working, was a breakthrough in the art world at the time, says the Whitney's Elizabeth Sussman.

SUSSMAN: Maybe we've taken for granted, in a way, this street art and murals and populism and club art, and all of that. It's now almost what you would expect from an artist. But that has a history that begins with Keith Haring.

VITALE: The artist himself had mixed feelings about showing his work in established venues. When I spoke with Haring on a May afternoon two weeks after his 25th birthday, he had just finished two large murals for the Whitney spring biennial. He had arrived. Yet he spent that morning underground, creating three dozen new drawings on the Lexington Avenue IRT line.

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HARING: In some ways, it's the most pure situation for someone coming across and running into it, and not knowing where it came from or how it got there - or if it's even supposed to be art. One of the most limiting situations in showing things in a gallery, or a museum, is it's already in a situation where all the walls are white, and people are sort of conditioned to thinking that anything inside there is art.

VITALE: Keith Haring said above all else, he wanted to create art that surprised people. He died of complications from AIDS in 1990. He was just 31 years old.

For NPR News, I'm Tom Vitale in New York.

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