Keith Haring and The Rhythms of Painting
— By Michael Krimper | May 22, 2012
All is rhythm, the entire destiny of man is a single celestial rhythm, just as the work of art is one unique rhythm. – Friedrich Hölderlin
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In the first film recording of his work, Keith Haring is painting himself into a corner. He’s listening to Devo while applying strokes of thick black paint onto a white canvas that covers the entire floor of an enclosed room. Dipping the paintbrush into the tube, Haring looks calm, as if he’s reached a state of meditative equilibrium; but when he gestures to rapidly mark the surface of the canvas–crawling on the floor just like one of his “radiant baby” paintings–his bodily disposition is decidedly furtive, yet without the slightest hesitation. As I watched in a bit of a daze, I began to notice a kind of rhythmic dance between Haring’s gestures and the bursts of synthetic melody and distorted guitar strums blaring out of the nearby stereo. He seemed to be channeling the frenetic pulse of post-punk signature to New York around the cusp of 1980. In some way, I thought, music, or a musical mood and stylistics, was prior to the visible imagery on the canvas.
After reflecting for a bit on the collection of Keith Haring’s early works (1978-82) on exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum (until July 8th), I am still arrested by this sense of rhythm, something that I had overlooked before in his paintings. Though what do we really know of his work? Much of my access to the art of Keith Haring is utterly diluted, passed down through the many samplings in popular media, including more than a couple music video re-appropriations in recent years. And it’s even more covered up by the commercial overhauling of his imagery, whose iconic figures and typologies have come to shape a great deal of the visual language behind contemporary marketing of popular culture. This, though, is partially Haring’s fault, as he established Soho’s Pop Shop in 1986 precisely for the purpose of providing an affordable commercial art for the people.
Working through the muck is much of the same problem for anyone who was not around and immersed in that critical moment in New York over three decades ago when street art emerged on the city’s trains, spread on subway tunnels and ruined walls. With the recent re-emergence of street art, or rather, street-inspired art in museums and auction houses, these questions are ever more relevant. How do we recover something of what this art is without falling into the same stagnant cliches? Without relying on the same myths of its origin stories? Without capitalizing on the aesthetics of street art? By making it easily available for consumption just like any other product of entertainment? I take back my previous comment, this is an issue for anyone and everyone who cares about this art.
At the risk of making some incomprehensible remarks, I’d like to venture that there is something more revitalizing about Keith Haring’s work than simply and only the figures that comprise his iconography. And thus something beyond (or before) that in his visible branding which is so often capitalized upon.
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On a textual reading of Haring’s paintings–given over to the eye–his imagery illustrates, on the one hand, a suspicion of the violent forces at the disposal of dominant social institutions and governing bodies (inscribed into televisions, dollar signs, pyramids, and his coiling snakes, which were oftentimes sketched in chalk on subway walls next to advertisements for various hygiene products). In a constant struggle with these consolidating powers of the state and corporate media are, on the other hand, bodies at play and dance. These bodies are often jumping, running, breakdancing, and while absorbed in their propulsive movement, in communion with barking dogs or UFOs (the unknown and unnameable), whose shooting rays charge humanity with a surge of mysterious energy represented by lines of electricity, repulsion and attraction.
Perhaps the sacrifice before the great beast of the Hydra locates most essentially this strife between stagnating systems of power and the self-restoring rituals brought about by human play (a strife mirrored by the editorial of this online experiment which bears the same name.) Rather than tearing asunder the sovereign beast who guards the threshold of the unknown, one of Haring’s human figures holds another to imminent sacrifice at the altar. Such a ritual in the face of death approaches the limits of self-abandonment already depicted by ecstatic dancing, playing, twirling. And so, it draws us towards a loss that figures as the fractured core of a great deal of popular music.
This loss moves in other directions, too. For me, Haring’s rays recall Walter Benjamin’s reflection on the loss of the “aura” in modern art. Such a loss, according to Benjamin, coincided with the emergence of mass commodification, whose mode of reproduction tailored everyday life to the measure of the unit, which undermined in turn the world-disclosing temporality constitutive of the work of art. Haring makes an effort to revive the aura from its sustained decay, exemplified perhaps most symbolically by the radiating baby. The cartoonish glow of the child introduces the possibility of the radically new, a chance for a future beyond what we can expect or imagine in terms of our own voluntary projects, today. But these radiating lines are hardly productive of any singular destiny and tradition all by themselves. Instead, they indicate traces of yet another intangible quality in Haring’s art, one that may conjure the renewal to which his art persistently makes entry and claim. There resides that “unique rhythm” suggested by Hölderlin.
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First, though, let’s pin down the tangible. Underlying these bodies at play is a kind of universalism that corresponds pretty directly with a turn in American popular media to address any subject, despite race, gender, sexual orientation, or religion. For this reason, Haring’s paintings have an emptiness about them. They resemble cartoons but without the defining features of what would form a cartoon character, say the delimited ethos of Mickey Mouse. In the end, this looseness also addresses the viewer, allowing us to fill in any gap to the story or defining characteristic to a figure. We are invited to put our own signatures onto the art, a proposition that is just as dangerous as fascinating.
But this typical reading of the universal iconography represented by Haring’s art overlooks the musical. At the very beginning of the exhibition, there is one painting that shows Haring’s alphabet, a series of geometrical images whose arrangement and rearrangement circulate among the lines and curves that comprise his figures, types, motifs. They circulate, however, in Haring’s work through a kind of repetition coinciding with rhythm–the difference of the same to itself–evoking a musical vibration prior to textual or symbolic inscription. And this rhythming of black paint and white gaps, between percussion and space, also conditions that expressivity or energizing quality that is transferred to us so viscerally when we look at a Keith Haring painting.
Haring makes other indications of musical wordplay in some of the lesser known works featured in the exhibition. In one video, he enunciates words with such decisiveness, that their semantic structure seems to fall apart in an abrasive stuttering, dissolved into the gesture of the lips whose breath is strangely withdrawn and left in suspension. Here the force of an arrhythmic interval breaks through, just as it occasionally erupts in Devo and so much other New York post-punk, ultimately interrupting both expressivity and meaning. We are arrested in a rhythm before the play of continuity and discontinuity. In another video, Haring applies rapid brush strokes around his friend who sits on a stool and reads poetry, initiating again an audible mirror to the intangible rhythms brought to bear on the materiality of painting. Once finished, there is a gap in the center left by the absence of the stool where poetry was once announced–what I take as the invisible caesura un-working silently underneath and within Haring’s paintings.
Some of the more intriguing pieces were a collection of cut-up newspaper clippings. The rearranged words formed hysterical headlines, overturning familiar formulas constitutive of news slogans into unnerving phrases. “Reagan Slain By Hero Cop,” read one, and “Ronald Reagan Accused of TV Star Sex Death,” read another. Such deconstructive wordplay corresponds pretty closely with a similar playfulness in New York subway graffiti art where the geometric scripture belonging to letters was twisted, manipulated, and exaggerated to the extent that words lost their role of conferring meaning. Although the signature of graffiti art proceeded from name recognition, the name itself was exploded, and within the traces of the erupted symbolic, the intangible quality of a musical style–what really left its mark in graffiti–recovered, intensified, made expressive. Style made the name; style even essentially constituted the name as a unique work of art.
In his journals on display, Haring insists on being influenced by the the post-war French writer, Roland Barthes, whose later writings also sought after that which transgressed traditional linguistic theory, namely a musical semiotics. Barthes writes that he wanted to explore “the body in a state of music.” Near the end of the exhibition, I put on the headphones for one final video, Haring’s “Tribute to Gloria Vanderbilt.” Not knowing exactly what to expect, I watched Keith Haring dancing frantically, swaying back and forth, wriggling violently, occasionally kissing the camera, a wide smile on his face. Perhaps out of an all too natural impulse of mimicry, I started swaying too, suddenly unaware of the crowds of people meandering around me. Maybe the secret to Haring’s art resides somewhere here: A musical stimulus awakens the emotive mood of some sort of resilient promise that had been there before but fallen dormant. But in its patient waiting, it drew resources for an imminent release that introduces an unlikely playfulness, and renews.Tweet