Kerry Downey: At first, Keith Haring’s artwork might strike you as fun or even whimsical, but when you really start to look at it, you see he’s exploring a lot of complex ideas around identity, sexuality, and politics.
*Art Historian, Alex Fialho:** I’m Alex Fialho. I am a curator and art historian based in New York. Keith Haring was really inspired by New York. Graffiti, hip hop culture, the energy of breakdancing, you see all of that in a piece like this.
I think of New York City as really, a center for a lot of gay life and gay expression, and I think that that’s a big part of the energy that Haring’s bringing, a sort of queer expression and graphic-ness around that.
Kerry Downey: We found this old tape of Keith Haring talking about his first months in New York.
Keith Haring [archival]: From the beginning you couldn’t go to the post office or the grocery store without cruising or without being cruised there; without being totally aware of sex somehow. The subject matter of many of the drawings that I was doing // became completely phallic. Partly really consciously as a way of sort of asserting my sexuality and forcing people to deal with it.
Alex Fialho: There’s one central part that has a really sexual scene happening. It’s sort of Mickey Mouse in the testicles of a large phallus, and three figures are having sex on top of this phallus, there’s a sort of smiling face, in another area looking over that scene, and I think that really to me points to the ways that Haring is thinking about sexuality and suggestiveness, and body language in an interesting moment in New York City in the 80s, both in a moment of Gay Liberation, and also a moment of the beginnings of what will become the AIDS epidemic. His free expression, and his verve and liveliness to make sexuality and sex central in his work feels really important in that moment in particular.
To be a queer person amidst the AIDS epidemic, was such a harrowing time. There was so much death, so much loss, and I think something like this angel flying with the heart in the middle, over this sea, really points to the ways that he’s beginning to think about mortality.
This whole piece feels like a vision. It’s a vision of apocalypse, a vision of the streets of New York, a vision of Haring’s imagination. Haring is responding to a lot of the politics of his moment through his work, but the ways that he’s using drawing, and line, and symbol, and cartooning, and just the energy coming from the work is really one of radical joy.