By KATHARINE J. WRIGHT • Special to www.AllOTSEGO.com
Artist Keith Haring died more than 30 years ago, but his work appears as hip as ever.
“Keith Haring: Radiant Visions,” an exhibition devoted to the artist’s brief but productive career, opened at the Fenimore Art Museum last weekend to acclaim. Even those born after his untimely death from AIDS in 1990, recognized Haring’s iconic linear drawings from recent product collaborations with Converse or Uniqlo; visitors who were actually alive in the 1980s smiled as they recalled spotting Haring’s characteristic “Radiant Baby” motif on the streets of downtown Manhattan, on murals for public buildings across the country, or in his products for sale in Haring’s own “Pop Shop” store.
The exhibition, curated by the Fenimore’s Director of Exhibitions, Chris Rossi, is crafted from the collection of Cooperstown locals, Gary Cassinelli and Nicholas Preston. Cassinelli began buying Haring’s work after meeting the artist in the mid-1980s. He said he was immediately inspired by Haring’s singular creative talents and rare commitment to charitable causes. The second generation Pop artist was, as Cassinelli said, “an incredible person, who created a style of art so uniquely different and simple yet so incredibly strong in its message.”
Indeed, though his work was highly coveted on the art market, Haring maintained that his favorite projects were the mural collaborations he completed with local school kids or the posters he designed in support of charitable causes. Touching examples of his altruism abound in the show: visitors, for example, may have spent years listening to the bestselling “Very Special Christmas” albums without ever realizing that Haring designed their celebrated “mother and child” cover art.
Cassinelli and the Fenimore educational staff have taken pains to honor Haring’s commitment to community by devising programs and activities for hundreds of area school children. An entire gallery has also been set up as a studio space for budding creatives to try their hand at making their own drawings; despite changing COVID protocols, museum staff developed safe strategies to ensure visitors can still enjoy this space and its attendant activities in a way that would make Haring proud.
Overall, more than 100 of Haring’s works are arranged in the Fenimore’s large temporary exhibition galleries. Because Haring died at 31, his mature career spanned a mere 10 years. However, Haring crafted a personal style so distinctive it can be recognized in an instant, even translated through the variety of mediums on display in the show, including chalk drawings, lithographs, silkscreens, etchings, posters, sculptures, and, of course, original items bought from the Pop Shop like watches, buttons and hats. Bold lines, pictographic symbols and vibrant colors make Haring’s work appear, miraculously, at once a quintessential product of the 1980s and, yet, resiliently contemporary today.
Perhaps the aesthetic and cultural durability of Haring’s work is due to the unfortunate persistence of many of the social justice issues the artist sought so valiantly to address. Among the most moving works in the show are the suite of prints titled “Free South Africa,” which depict a black figure fighting to free himself from a noose held by a (notably smaller) white man. Haring made the images in 1985 to raise awareness for the anti-apartheid movement and spotlight what he marked as the “horrific details (behind) the abuse of power and the misuse of people.” Given the racial reckoning that rocked America in recent years, such reminders remain distressingly timely even today.
With its reputation as a champion of historical art, the Fenimore’s willingness to exhibit work that challenges political and cultural norms is admirable. On view alongside the moving and clear-eyed exhibition of Ansel Adams’s photographs of the Japanese-American incarceration camps from WW2, “Keith Haring: Radiant Vision” shines as a world-class presentation of a
renowned artist who, even decades after his death, appears as important now as ever before.
Katharine J. Wright is an independent curator and scholar specializing in contemporary American art based in New York City. She served as a Consulting Curator for Keith Haring: Radiant Visions. The exhibition was organizing in conjunction with Pan Art Connections, Inc.