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Keith Haring: The Political Line

photos: Keith Haring Foundation

“Art is for everybody.”
— Keith Haring

Last month, the de Young opened California’s first Keith Haring exhibition in over two decades. Over 170 works focusing on themes relating to social justice and political concerns shed light on a particular aspect of Haring’s personality and all-too-short life and career.

Born in Pennsylvania in 1958, Haring moved to New York City to study painting. There he became known for his public art, a distinctive graffiti-inspired style developed in the 1980s in the subways and streets of his adopted city — maze-like hard-edged lines delineate human figures, barking dogs, spaceships, and symbols in whimsical, vibrant colors that created an immediately recognizable style and defined his singular creative vision.

Haring’s images incite and illuminate — with no small amount of humor — his concerns about nuclear proliferation, capitalism, inequality and related issues pertaining to race, class, and sex. Diagnosed with AIDS in 1988, he was a safe-sex promoter who became an early advocate of HIV and AIDS awareness. In his Silence = Death series, figures are shown covering their eyes, mouths and ears. Haring chose to make his diagnosis public knowledge and integrated it into his art instead of concealing his condition. This experience led to paintings that explored topics of birth, life, and transformation. In 1989, he founded the Keith Haring Foundation, a nonprofit that supports children’s education and AIDS and HIV prevention and care.

The Political Line is based on guest curator Dieter Buchhart’s exhibition, which was presented at the Musee d’art moderne de la Ville de Paris in the summer of 2013. Buchhart worked with the de Young in collaboration with Julian Cox, the founding curator of photography and chief administrative curator at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

Murals, paintings and archival material including diaries and sketches enhance the personal, intimate mood of the exhibition. Keith Haring contributed to the visual culture of San Francisco by creating public art in the form of murals and outdoor sculptures, including his triptych altarpiece “The Life of Christ,” which is installed in the AIDS Chapel at Grace Cathedral.

Keith Harding: The Political Line at the de Young Museum (50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive, Golden Gate Park, 415-750-3600, runs through Feb. 16.

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Sharon Anderson is an artist and writer in Southern California. She can be reached at