Keith Haring, the 1980s art star who captured the energy of the streets and issues of his day in works filled with signature visual language, is freshly revisited in a new exhibition.
Making its U.S. debut at the de Young Museum, “Keith Haring: The Political Line” – guest-curated by Dieter Buchhart in collaboration with Julian Cox of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco – contains more than 130 works by Haring, who was known for his cartoonish style, for combining brutal imagery and positive spirit, and his distinctive symbols. His “Radiant Baby,” barking dogs, flying saucers and bloody crucifixes are images suggesting birth, death, war, sex and other aspects of human experience.
Haring, who died of AIDS in 1990, was not only a culture celebrity represented on T-shirts, but also a serious and significant political artist.
The multimedia de Young show, based on a 2013 exhibition presented in Paris, includes passionate, ambitious and fun works, organized according to the social-justice concerns Haring depicted. Most works Haring left untitled so viewers could produce their own interpretation.
In “Untitled (Apartheid),” from 1984, Haring addresses South Africa’s apartheid system. A large black figure is noosed by a small white figure, but is by no means responding passively.
AIDS is the subject of “Silence=Death,” a 1988 painting of a pink triangle, which calls attention to the struggles of people with AIDS and condemns the ignorance and fear surrounding the disease.
Abuses of capitalism are represented by a piglike monster devouring people in an enamel-on-metal work.
In an “Andy Mouse” portrait – a fusion of Andy Warhol and Mickey Mouse – Haring affectionately but critically examines the commercial success of Warhol, his friend and mentor of sorts.
Public art projects – including subway drawings, sketched in chalk on black paper placed over expired ads in New York City stations – are a focus of the show. They emphasize the artist’s strong public art advocacy and illustrate how graffiti artists and works such as Christo’s “Running Fence” impressed Haring.
Haring also explores how classical ingredients can figure into contemporary art. Greco-Roman elements appear in his pottery; hellish Bosch-like imagery distinguishes the intricate painting “The Last Rainforest.”
Nuclear proliferation and the hypocrisy of organized religion are other issues Haring addressed, as well as the dangers of modern technology. A human figure with a computer where the brain should be catches the eye in one prescient work.
Other public Haring works are in San Francisco. His sculpture of dancing figures, once at the Moscone Center, has been moved to the de Young to complement this show, and his “Life of Christ” altarpiece is at Grace Cathedral.
IF YOU GO
Keith Haring: The Political Line
Where: de Young Museum, 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive, Golden Gate Park, S.F.
When: Daily, except closed Mondays; through Feb. 16
Tickets: $21 to $46
Contact: (415) 750-3600, www.famsf.org