Arcadia University Art Gallery Presents 'Keith Haring: Subway Drawings' Now Through April 27
Glenside, Pa.–April 5, 2011–Arcadia University Art Gallery presents “Keith Haring: Subway Drawings,” now through April 27. This exhibition celebrates the thirtieth anniversary of the emergence of these seminal works by the late artist who was from Kutztown, Pa. Arcadia University Art Gallery is located in the Spruance Fine Arts Center, 450 S. Easton Road, Glenside, Pa.
Gallery Hours: Tuesday and Wednesday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Thursdays from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Fridays from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.; weekends from noon to 4 p.m. and by appointment.
The twelve examples on exhibit date from 1980 to 1983, the most prolific period of a project that generated thousands of drawings, all executed with chalk on black sheets of paper used to cover un-renewed advertisements in the New York City subway. The endeavor began serendipitously when Haring noticed one of these blank panels in the station at Times Square and immediately went above ground to buy some chalk. The resulting process of drawing on these panels, a “hobby” that Haring later called a “responsibility” fueled his early work. In the words of Kermit Oswald, the subway became a “nursery, an incubation place that forced his hand.” Cultivating the project remained an important activity for Haring until 1985, long after he had achieved international critical and commercial success.
Often produced before an audience of commuters, which might include police who could ticket him for vandalism, the drawings emerged at a rate of sometimes 40 a day. When not torn or cut from their locations by admirers, they would eventually be covered with new ads. The routine disappearance of these works, in fact, became an incentive for their replenishment and a catalyst for constant reinvention. While many were documented by photographer Tseng Kwong Chi (whom Haring would phone upon returning to his studio to provide their locations) most of the drawings went unrecorded, thus creating one of the most epic and ephemeral projects in the history of the city.
The examples included in this exhibition can be regarded as relics of “an ever-changing exhibition available to the public 24 hours a day for the price of token,” as curator Barry Blinderman wrote in 1990. Unsigned and undated, they are distinguished as much by Haring’s unmistakable hand as they are by the tireless vigor that guided it. In a preface for a 1985 exhibition catalog, artist/poet Brion Gysin referred to Haring’s broad, unblinking line as “carved…like the one the man made when he first used it to cut what he wanted out of the air in the back of a cave.” (Haring never relied on preparatory sketches for his works on paper, canvas, or the many commissioned murals he realized before his death at the age of 31 due to AIDS-related complications in 1990.)
Encouraged by his father, who entertained Haring from an early age by drawing cartoon animals with him; Haring drew incessantly as a child and eventually came to think of the activity as a “way of commanding respect and communicating with people.” By the time he was eighteen, Haring’s work had become more abstract, geometric, and focused on spontaneous gesture. Discouraged by two semesters at the Ivy School of Professional Art in Pittsburgh, at the age of twenty he moved to New York City to continue his education at the School of Visual Arts. Inspired by Eastern calligraphy, he started to experiment with painting on large sheets of paper, often videotaping the process or engaging passersby who, standing at the wide doors of his street-level studio on 22nd Street, stopped to watch him work. “This was the first time I realized how many people could enjoy art if they were given the chance,” Haring wrote.
Haring became captivated by the “commitment to drawing worthy of risk” that for him was one of the many attributes of the work of graffiti artists gaining acceptance at the time. Not wanting to imitate their efforts, and mindful of the science of semiotics to which he had been recently introduced, Haring started to regard the subway as a laboratory for communication and engagement. Motivated by the contact with a diverse (non-art) audience the Manhattan Transit Authority enabled, Haring regarded the MTA as an ideal platform for experimenting with a vocabulary of readily identifiable figures, such as the radiant baby, the barking dog, the hovering angel, and the flying saucer, among many others represented in this exhibition. Constructed entirely from outlines, each of these characters are staged within a frame lining the perimeter of every black sheet, a unifying trope of Haring’s work that could reference the television screen, the proscenium, or box from a comic strip. Due to prolific repetition and inexhaustible permutation, these characters assumed the identity of potent signs that could address a range of themes, both topical and universal, in a manner ideally suited to the pace and viewing conditions of commuters.
Manifesting a return to expressive figuration in the art world of the late 1970s (as well as in Haring’s own practice), the subway drawings also represented a unique conflation of studio practice and public art, cartoons and graffiti. Although Haring never identified himself as a graffiti artist, he was arrested many times for defacing public property. (Whatever damage he may have done was superficial and reversible and many of the police that handcuffed him became his fans.) The largest work in the exhibition, technically not a subway drawing, vividly underscores the difference between graffiti and Haring’s singular endeavor. This plywood panel—with its wheat-pasted poster advertising a performance by Larry Rivers and a flier about “high risk groups” for AIDS—is as much a time capsule of the early 1980s as it is the record of inadvertent collaboration. Tagged with spray paint and magic marker, it includes a procession of Haring’s babies and dogs as well as multiple tags by SAMO (a.k.a. Jean-Michel Basquiat), whom Haring met and befriended in 1979. Hovering above the word “AARON” (a reference to Henry Aaron), and the top of one of Basquiat’s signature cars, floats the distinctive three-pointed crown.
Ultimately, Haring’s subway drawings were a synthesis of performative process, automatic writing, and democratic access. Critical to understanding Haring’s overall career and his efforts to connect street culture, fine art, and commercial practices (manifest most boldly by the 1986 opening of his “Pop Shop”), they have proved to be influential to subsequent generations of artists—from merchandise-savvy Takashi Murakami to street artists such as FAILE, Banksy, Shepard Fairey, and Swoon, among many others. While all of these artists fuse idiosyncratic, graphic style with iconic characters using forms of prodigious public address, Haring’s work remains distinctive in its celebration of the primacy of unmediated, spontaneous drawing.
Media Contact: Donna Whitlock, Arcadia University, 215-572-2969, email@example.com
About Arcadia University: Arcadia University is a top-ranked private university in metropolitan Philadelphia and a national leader in study abroad, ranked #1 in undergraduate participation in study abroad (Open Doors 2010). Arcadia University promises a distinctively global, integrative and personal learning experience that prepares students to contribute and prosper in a diverse and dynamic world. U.S. News & World Report ranks Arcadia University among the top regional universities in the North, as one of the top study abroad programs in the nation, and as a “top up-and-coming school.” The Physical Therapy program is ranked 7th in the nation.