Saturday, December 20, 2014

Keith Haring at the deYoung

On a recent visit to northern California I was lucky to see the extraordinary exhibit of over 100 works from Keith Haring, the extraordinary artist who made his mark in the art world in the early 80s by painting silhouettes of little babies and men all over the subway.  I was living in Manhattan then and clearly remember seeing these images, talking to friends and work colleagues puzzling over whom was doing it and — what did these characters mean?

The deYoung Museum is hosting the US premiere of Keith Haring: The Political Line filled with visually exuberant images — whether in neon colors or stark black & white.  Haring made his views and his voice heard by creating (often at rapid speed and with no pre-planning) childlike scenes that upon closer examination made you stop short and think twice.

I knew about the work long before I actually knew anything about the artist.  I was surprised to learn that he was from Kutztown, Pennsylvania, went to the School of Visual Arts — literally around the corner from where I lived, and sadly, died from AIDS at the too-young age of 32.  But in his short life, boy, did he produce…


Years and years and years ago, my sister took me to the White Elephant Sale of the Oakland Museum of California where (before they had their own building to use for the sale) there were warehouses of treasures to be found and one I found — a Keith Haring address book that I've used ever since, even though the cover's fallen off and the alphabetical tabs are now hard to decipher.

My only other Keith Haring acquisition was just a few years ago at a Housing Works thrift shop on the upper West Side of Manhattan at Columbus & 74th.

It was a quick stop before heading to the airport and the place was mobbed.  Couldn't imagine why, but turned out they were having a huge sale and the place was crammed with sharp-eyed pickers (like me).  People had plastic laundry baskets filled with stuff so I didn't have much hope of finding a gem and just as I was about to abandon my search and head out of the store (because my bags were packed and we were due to leave for the airport) there I saw it — a large black-metal-framed square of Keith Haring's fancy.  Though it had no price, I grabbed the 24" square with it's broken glass and wormed my way to the check-out line frantically looking at the time.  Finally, the cashier looked at me and said, "The glass is smashed — we can't sell it that way," but I pleaded that I didn't care, couldn't get it on a plane in a frame, and was going to pitch the glass anyway.  

"Six dollars" she deadpanned and I gladly coughed over the cash and flew out the door mentally scrambling, I almost NEVER check baggage and already had two carry-ons.  "How was I EVER going to get this on the plane??" 

Two stores on the block and no luck finding a place that sold a shipping tube.  Running down Columbus Avenue my eyes scanned both sides of the street and then, thanks be, I saw a tiny, hole-in-the-wall framing shop!  I burst in to the small cramped space covered in frames when the owner came out to the counter (which was a wooden surface that spanned the complete width of the store, about 7 feet at most) and stared at me. Before he could say a word, I spewed forth with my story, the plane, carry-on, and the urgency of getting a tube I could fit the poster in.

Without any hesitation, this gentle gentleman flipped up his wooden counter and stepped out from behind it.

"I will help you," he calmly informed me in a thick Indian accent, as he took my treasure with him back behind his counter and proceeded to remove the broken glass, disassemble the frame, roll the poster, and climb up over his head to search the small loft of supplies he had tucked away above us.  He came down with two tubes, one was too short; the other was perfect.  Ignoring my chatter about metal edges, damaging the poster, tight spaces on the plane,he began to tightly wrap the four pieces of the frame and its hardware into the tube and because the cap wouldn't fit, added some foam padding inside taped at top to protect me from the sharp ends.  

Digging in my purse I only had $8.00 left to give him.  As he took my crumpled bills, he smiled sweetly and waved me on my way. It was a miracle.

Now hanging over a doorway (reassembled and protected by new glass) this cheerfully alive Keith Haring is mine all mine.


No stranger to pulling out the stops, Haring had the gift of drawing your eye into his worldview and bringing you over to his side — even if you weren't comfortable there…

SO, if you plan to be in San Francisco, you owe yourself the treat — this exhibit runs through February 16, 2015.  

And if you can't visit in person…well, there's always shopping online.
Visit the deYoung