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Friend of the Little People

In a professional career that lasted just more than a decade, Keith Haring not only proved to be one of the most prolific American artists of his generation, he also forged one of the most instantly recognizable, unmistakable styles in contemporary art. With thick, bold strokes, he created a series of cartoonish figures that will forever be associated with his name: radiant crawling babies, barking dogs, flying saucers and airplanes, winged pyramids, frolicking dolphins, and the jaunty little humanoids that became more and more central to his work.

Haring put these same few figures to remarkably varied use in a wide range of sometimes overlapping media. In New York in the '80s, his art was virtually unavoidable. The famous subway pictures, drawn with breathtaking speed in white chalk on black paper panels, ensured his widespread exposure to an audience not likely to visit an art gallery. Like the guerrilla street artists he admired and by whom he was influenced -- Jenny Holzer and Jean-Michel Basquiat among them -- he delighted in subversive art. At various times he mischievously modified signs and advertisements and painted lines of his trademark babies across police barricades.

The first American retrospective of Haring's work, originally assembled by New York's Whitney Museum of American Art and called simply "Keith Haring," is on display through April 19 at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA) in North Miami, and it provides an often exhilarating overview of the artist's meteoric career. (He died of AIDS-related complications in 1990, at the age of 31.) The show includes more than a hundred works, supplemented by a wealth of memorabilia from Haring's life: family snapshots, childhood drawings and poems, pages from notebooks and journals, correspondence, psychedelic drawings (from his Deadhead era), even driver's licenses and other such mementos. This juxtaposition of life and work, which might seem forced and indulgent in another context, is especially fitting for an artist as public and highly social as Haring.

The MoCA show, presumably following the Whitney's lead, has come up with a suitable environment for displaying the work of an urban artist who seemed more at home on the streets and in the subways than in the rarefied realms of the New York art scene. There's a sweet playfulness to the little neon-pink, crawling-baby stickers on the museum's concrete floor, pulling viewers into the exhibit. Stretches of chainlink fence separate sections of the galleries, and high-energy music pulses from strategically placed speakers. Some works rest on unfinished wooden platforms, as if they've just been uncrated.

A few of the walls are blanketed from ceiling to floor with drawings and paintings that play off one another, and as you move deeper into the show, you're confronted with increasingly large works, many of them painted or drawn on the massive colored tarpaulins that Haring discovered courtesy of the utility giant Con Ed, which uses them to cover equipment. One untitled piece from 1981 is rendered in felt-tip pen on a vintage refrigerator door. Another piece of art from the same era is a baby's crib, crawling with squiggly drawings in felt-tip pen and enamel paint. And suspended from the ceiling on a platform in the middle of one gallery is a large white papier-mache elephant, a gift from Andy Warhol that Haring covered with his signature figures.

In the ultimate nod to Haring as club-scene kid in '80s Manhattan, there's a separate pavilion room that has been transformed into a faux disco. The Grace Jones music video "I'm Not Perfect (But I'm Perfect for You)," which Haring helped Jones direct, blares from a pyramid-shaped bank of video monitors, while colored lights flicker across the room in sync with the music. The walls are covered with more art, including a large, stunning black-and-white image of the dancer-choreographer Bill T. Jones, whose entire body was painted by Haring and then photographed by Tseng Kwong Chi, a frequent documenter of Haring's activities. Off to one side of the "dance floor" stands a replica of the Statue of Liberty, painted in bright neon colors.

Surely Haring would have been thrilled with the splashy vulgarity that characterizes some of this retrospective, just as he cheerfully collaborated in the shameless commercialization and mass production of his work that are such troubling elements of his legacy. Ever the populist, he professed to be reclaiming his art for the general public before it was appropriated by others. One can view the garish outcome of such a sentiment with skepticism without questioning the artist's sincerity.

Among the most intriguing, least compromised pieces on display are a trio of terra-cotta pots that Haring painted, again with his usual cluttered maze of living creatures, symbolic items, and simple doodles. They're surprisingly effective, in part because they so perfectly embody the artist's penchant for using found objects in service of his studied primitivism. If Marcel Duchamp hadn't beaten him to it by rechristening a men's urinal Fountain, Haring might have done the same thing, although he probably would have covered it with his drawings.

The most striking of the terra-cotta pots is one whose vaguely phallic shape is reinforced by the more explicitly phallic drawings that cover it. Which brings up an aspect of Haring's work that a lot of commentators have gingerly tiptoed around without ever fully addressing, except in tepidly moralizing tones. Haring was openly, unapologetically gay, and much of his art is a whimsical yet defiant celebration of human sexuality in all of its diversity, not to mention perversity. He merrily portrayed his little pictograph men and women masturbating, giving birth, and engaging in intercourse, and he just as readily set out to shock by depicting bestiality and elaborate orgies. Despite such bluntness, most of the pictures are oddly benign. It's hard to imagine anyone being seriously scandalized or offended by this cartoon sex.

As a gay man in New York City during the '80s, Haring was acutely aware of the specter of AIDS (and as a journal entry from 1987 makes heartbreakingly clear, he fully expected to succumb to it eventually). In 1988 he learned he was HIV-positive, and his work from the last couple of years of his life is wildly erratic, fueled no doubt by the conflicting emotions his illness must have generated. Around this time he started his Pop Shops in New York and Tokyo, the better to market the mass-produced merchandise bearing his imprint, and he became an aggressive advocate for AIDS education and awareness. Some of his work from this period -- the large, round, multicolored acrylic on canvas called Monkey Puzzle, for instance -- seems little more than decorative. The edge is gone, leaving Haring as an empty brand name.

And yet there's another strain in Haring's late work that's undeniably powerful, if uneven in its impact. Faced with AIDS, he turned out some of his most emotionally urgent works. Never an artist of great subtlety, he went for the jugular in such pieces as 1988's Prophets of Rage, a large acrylic on canvas tarp that's a laundry list of heavy-handed symbolism: a giant pair of dice, a heart pierced by a dagger, a human figure in leg shackles, a broken cross, a decapitated body gushing blood.

A sense of his own impending mortality also focused Haring's energies, sometimes to a harrowing degree, enabling him to turn out some extraordinary final works. In content The Last Rainforest, an acrylic on canvas from 1989, isn't far removed from some of its predecessors; birds, animals, and contorted human bodies cavort in a hallucinogenic orgy worthy of Hieronymus Bosch. But there's a richer-than-usual range of imagery, and it's invested with considerably more emotional intensity than the earlier paintings. Superimposed on a labyrinth of yellow lines on a vivid red background, the figurative elements of the painting take on dramatically more depth than most of Haring's other work.

The same is true of Unfinished Painting, another acrylic on canvas from 1989. Yet another assemblage of Haring's little people, in black and silver and purple, begins in the picture's upper-left corner, only to end abruptly a few inches in, with only thin trickles of paint running down the rest of the canvas to hint at what was still to come. It's a stark reminder of an artistic life cut short.

"Keith Haring" is on display through April 19 at the Museum of Contemporary Art, 770 NE 125th St., North Miami, 305-893-6211.

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Michael Mills

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