By JIM KEVLIN • Special to www.AllOTSEGO.com
‘Though he died in 1990, in many ways Keith Haring is still alive. His art is everywhere. There are Haring T-shirts, Haring shoes, Haring chairs. You can buy Haring baseball hats and badges and baby-carriers and playing cards and stickers and keyrings.
“Keith Haring’s work pops up all over the place – his radiant baby, the barking dog, the dancer, the three-eyed smiling face. Simple, cheerful, upbeat, instantly recognisable …
“But Haring did much more than provide cute cartoons … His art faced outwards. He wanted to inform, to start a conversation, to question authority and convention, to represent the oppressed.”
The Guardian, June 2, 2019, on opening of major Haring exhibit at the Tate Liverpool
The Fenimore’s come a long way, baby, from “Grandma Moses: Grandmother to the Nation,” 15 years ago, to Keith Haring, the highlight of the museum’s 2021 season.
If Grandma Moses harkened back to simpler times, Haring’s concerns – though he died on Feb. 16, 1990 – are center stage in the 21st Century.
“It’s a whole new ballgame,” said Fenimore President/CEO Paul D’Ambrosio. “It’s very different from what you’d expect from The Fenimore.”
The Fenimore’s season begins April 1, but anticipation is centering on “Keith Haring: Radiant Vision,” which will open May 29, Memorial Day Weekend, and run through Sept. 6, Labor Day.
It will include more than 100 pieces, D’Ambrosio said.
Born on May 4, 1958, and raised in Kutztown, Pa., Haring studied art at the University of Pittsburgh, but by 1978 he had moved to New York City, where he began creating graffiti – at first, chalk drawings on black, unused advertising backboards in subway stations, according to accounts of his life.
“It was made in the streets, it was made in the subways,” said Erna McReynolds, the retired Oneonta financial adviser who is co-sponsoring the show with husband Tom Morgan. “People carted it home and framed it. This is living art.”
Beginning in 1982, Haring’s works – simple images and strong colors were their hallmark, taking up where Andy Warhol’s pop art left off – were being exhibited in major New York exhibits, and in Germany, in Brazil, in New York, in London, in Venice, in Australia, everywhere.
“It’s a liberating kind of style,” said D’Ambrosio. “Because of its simplicity, it doesn’t require any elitist notion or many years of training to understand.”
In particular, “because of its energy, it strikes a chord with young people,” he said.
McReynolds added, “It takes art from being something fusty and covered with cobwebs, which (young people) may think when they hear ‘museum’.”
Through Haring, “they may learn how art can relate to their world,” she said.
By his mid-20s, Haring was a wealthy man. As early as 1982 at a show in Soho, he sold a quarter-million worth of paintings, CBS reported at the time. And that was just the beginning.
Throughout Haring’s career, his social activism guided his art. A gay man, his works elevated consciousness about the AIDS/HIV epidemic and safe sex. He designed a Free South Africa poster in 1985, five years before Mandela was freed. In 1989, he painted “Tuttomundo” (All World) on a convent wall in Pisa.
His Keith Haring Foundation, founded in 1989, ensured solutions to the issues he cared about would continue to be pursued, AIDS/HIV awareness, but also education for disadvantaged youth. He died the following February at age 31.
Since, two collectors of his work, Gary Casinelli, a friend of Haring, and Nicholas Preston, moved to Central New York, where they met Erna and Tom Morgan, who were stunned by the extent of their collection.
“It was incredible,” said Erna. “I don’t know all the pieces they have. You might have a cupboard, and he painted the cupboard. He painted everything in sight.”
The Morgans, who serve on The Fenimore board of trustees, posed the idea of an exhibit to D’Ambrosio, and were energized by his enthusiasm. “It takes a lot of forward thinking,” she said.
Three years ago, D’Ambrosio met with Cassinelli and Preston, and the steps were taken that led to “Radiant Vision.” (Originally, the exhibit was planned for 2020, but was delayed a year by the pandemic.)
“I was astounded,” said D’Ambrosio. “I didn’t know of any other private collection of Keith Haring work – not potentially available for exhibition.”
And “Radiant Vision” is original to The Fenimore. If you go, you’ll be among the first people to see it. Later, it will go overseas, then to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and to other prestigious venues in the U.S.
“How often do you see Keith Haring?” D’Ambrosio asked. “I’ll go to New York and see one or two pieces. MOMA, if they happen to have one out. At the Met. Here, you’re going to have 100 of them in one place.”
The museum obtained a $120,000 state grant to promote the show, so patrons will be visiting from near and far. (The Fenimore’s protocols – face masks, social distancing, hand-sanitizing stations – are designed to ensure patrons’ safety, even as vaccinating accelerates.)
Among the novel promotions, Angel Garcia, 29, a Brooklyn muralist, will paint a mural in late June in Pioneer Park, to lure visitors in the downtown to the lakeside museum. (See related story).
But D’Ambrosio is most intrigued about what impact the exhibit may have on young people, as young as teenagers, and the museum is training two high school students to do tours, with the idea they will connect with their peers.
“Among teenagers, there’s incredible interest in Keith Haring as an artistic rebel,” said the museum president. “They have a particular reverence for things that go against the grain, that go against the establishment.
“It didn’t hurt that Haring was devoted to youth.”
Until now, visitors under 12 get in free. This year, it will be 19 and under. “Any teenager can come to the museum and see this exhibit for free,” D’Ambrosio said.
The idea, of course, is that, sold on Keith Haring, young people will be sold on art, becoming lifelong museum frequenters.
“We could have a superb summer,” he said.