One Fine Show: ‘Keith Haring: Art is for Everybody’ at the Walker Art Center

The exhibition, which brings together more than 100 of the late artist's works, invites us to get to know the man behind the merchandise.

Keith Haring, Untitled, 1982; Baked enamel on metal. Douglas M. Parker Studio, courtesy of The Broad Art Foundation © Keith Haring Foundation

Welcome to One Fine Show, where Observer highlights a recently opened exhibition at a museum outside of New York City—a place we know and love that already receives plenty of attention.

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The next time you visit the Museum of Modern Art, I suggest a swing through the gift shop. There you will find Yankees caps with the MoMA logo along the side—for fans of well-funded legacy institutions, perhaps—and t-shirts by the artist KAWS. The last time I was there, these t-shirts were accompanied by a little paper notice in a plastic sleeve, the kind that usually holds drink specials, clarifying that this merchandise was from KAWS’s show at the Brooklyn Museum and that KAWS has not had a show at MoMA.

We may have the estate of Keith Haring (1958-1990) to thank for the idea that merch is more important than institutional support, but a new show at the Walker Art Center, “Keith Haring: Art Is for Everybody,” invites us to get to know the man behind the Swatch watches and the sex toys.

Collecting more than 100 works from the artist’s short career, the show was originally organized by the Broad. As the title suggests, a museum show for Haring almost runs contrary to his philosophy, which saw him practice his art across New York’s streets and nightclubs. He was arrested numerous times for making chalk drawings on disused advertising in the subways. If only he could have lived to see the disgusting recipe videos that now occupy those sacred spaces.

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Haring was able to disseminate his work so widely, before and after his death, because he was an inventor of icons as much as he was a draftsman, riffing in a language that consisted of aliens, dogs and, of course, radiant babies. The wall texts point out that while the characters were created by a white guy from Pennsylvania, they’re in conversation with the Black and Latin American graffiti found in New York in the 1980s.

But of course, they go with anything from folk art to the rest of art history. They’re extremely durable, to the point that it’s hard to talk about the individual works. I enjoy the one where the dog is zapped by a UFO and begins to radiate: untitled, from 1982. Another untitled work from the same year riffs on the same themes, only in that one the guy is riding a dolphin. You see what I mean by durable? Mix and match however you like, it always works.

One discrete work was his Pop Shop, of which much ephemera is on display here. Haring started it in 1985 because he was tired of people cutting his work out of the subways and wanted an easier way to bring his work to the people. Therein you see his t-shirts and skateboards—like the babies, these seem to radiate the imprimatur of the artist. You can feel him seizing the means of production here.

Keith Haring: Art is for Everybody” is on view at the Walker Art Center through September 8.

One Fine Show: ‘Keith Haring: Art is for Everybody’ at the Walker Art Center