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Drawing the Line: A Portrait of Keith Haring

This documentary uses archival footage of Keith Haring to explore the artist's life. Haring was a wunderkind of the pop art and graffiti scene in New York in the 1980s. His imagery has become iconic worldwide for its bold lines and political messages, especially around the AIDS crisis, which caused his untimely death in 1990.

AIRED: March 30, 2020 | 0:28:37
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TRANSCRIPT

♪♪

Narrator: The early 1980s, a time of prosperity,

a new hope for the American Dream.

And now it's all coming together,

greatness lies ahead of us.

Narrator: But it was poverty emerging in the streets.

A need for social change was being expressed

by young people making their mark on the walls of the city.

No one knew more about making a mark

than the graffiti artists in New York.

♪♪

In the midst of a complex and sophisticated society,

the cave drawing was making a comeback.

♪♪

Were they public announcements sponsored by the city?

Or symbols of some cult?

They weren't Factory, printed like ads,

they were drawn in chalk.

Someone had stood there and drawn them on the spot.

Amid the drudgery of getting to work,

these strange visions were wide awake

and they made an entire city wonder,

where were these drawings coming from?

♪♪

In the middle of a new decade

in a vibrant East Village art scene...

Keith Haring, 21 years old.

♪♪

Keith: Most of it at that time was really about having fun

and we had no idea-- I don't think

anyone did at that time--

that what we were doing was in any way

going to be important or influential

or going to have some effect on all of our lives

or lives of other people in the city.

Narrator: Art was breaking out of the gallery,

signs of creative energy

were out on the street.

And Haring, the man behind the subway drawings,

was showing us that energy

popping out everywhere around us.

Keith: I just by accident noticed

the first empty black panel on the subway

'cause I was riding the subway almost ev-- every day

to go to work, and I saw this empty black panel

and immediately sort of flashed in my head

that it's the perfect place to draw.

Narrator: But not for the New York City police department.

Haring was arrested for criminal mischief.

♪♪

But nothing could stop Haring from drawing all over the city.

His images started to appear everywhere.

♪♪

Keith Haring was born in 1958

in Kutztown, Pennsylvania.

He grew up in the '60s in a middle class American family

influenced by Walt Disney and his father,

an amateur cartoonist.

♪♪

Haring was too young to take part

in the political turbulence of the '60s,

but that same spirit was to emerge later in his work.

Most of my, I suppose, political concerns

a-- and social concerns

came from, you know, my life experience--

I mean, partly being one of-- I mean, being born in the '60s--

well, late '50s and then growing up in the '60s--

and sort of being around the "counter culture"

but not being able to participate in it

but definitely being very affected by it,

and being at the age at that time

when I was, I think, most impressionable,

you know, and seeing things like the Vietnam War

when I was 10 years old,

and seeing race riots on television

and reading "Life Magazine," things like that.

Narrator: In 1978,

he moved to New York City to study painting

at the School of Visual Arts.

♪♪

New York, where what was considered vandalism

started to look very much like real art.

A feeling of the '60s revolution hung in the air.

It seemed as though these graffiti artists wanted

to make it happen again in the '80s.

♪♪

Tony: What was interesting about this young group

was that they had tremendous stamina, euphoria,

and drive to recreate what they thought

to be the the best things, or the most fun,

or the most innovative things to be done at that time.

They had tremendous energy and vitality,

they had a new message to give,

they had a new vocabulary to sort of communicate,

to broaden, to rediscover, and to elaborate on.

The idea of behaving rather like the older artists

was not acceptable to them.

They weren't interested in it, it wasn't fun for them.

Narrator: These young artists were following in the steps

of the pop artists of the '60s

who broke through the boundaries

of the conventional art world.

Art could no longer be restrained

by the clean white walls of the art gallery.

[ Indistinct chatter ]

Artists like Christo began making art on a scale

too vast to be contained.

Works like "Running Fence"

stretched over 24 miles of California coastline.

For Haring, the impact of "Running Fence"

reflected Christo's desire

to bring people together to create public art.

I believe very strongly that 20th century art

is not a single individualistic experience...

Narrator: Christo involved people

in the creation of his art.

♪♪

Andy Warhol,

the most controversial artist of his time,

mass produced his art as a comment

on the increased mechanization of society.

♪♪

He used the familiar images of popular culture

to draw a greater public into his pop art revolution.

In that way, Warhol is the father

to this new generation of artists

who also seek a direct engagement with the public.

Certainly Keith Haring,

Kenny Scharf, Basquiat,

all attempted to make images that were accessible

and generic enough that they could be accepted by every man

without any critical intervention.

In some ways they bypass the art world establishment.

They attacked the elitism that had dominated art

for the last several decades

by going directly to the people with images

that the people could understand immediately.

Narrator: Birth,

death,

love,

war,

these simple, almost primitive images

appeal to a wide range of people.

Keith: The variety of people that were seeing the work

brought with it a variety of responses

and variety of different ideas about what the work was.

And so it sort of became the perfect environment

or laboratory to work out all these ideas

that I was discovering.

Narrator: Why would the dog be barking at the man

at the Times Square Station,

and worshiped as an idol at 14th Street?

If there was a secret behind the subway drawings,

it was semiotics, the theory of signs.

At the School of Visual Arts,

Haring studied semiotic theory,

and discovered that images can function like words.

He uses images to create a language

like words in a sentence,

the meaning of each symbol varies depending on

how it is combined with other symbols.

Keith: The drawings had become almost a vocabulary.

There were flying saucers, there were pyramids,

things like this glowing rod that sort of was an archetypal--

an archetypal weapon.

I mean, it was anything from the Sword in the Stone,

to Darth Vader's, you know, glowing rod.

It sort of had this timeless,

universal kinda thing where I was trying to,

I think, use things that cut through all of culture

and all of history.

Once I started to realize that exactly

how I was communicating,

I started to be much more aware of what I was communicating

and really trying to sort of be more in touch

with what exactly was going back and forth

and not so much just putting out abstract thoughts,

but really trying to guide people to see particular things

and starting to deal with more social concerns.

Narrator: Haring's work was simple and bold,

instantly recognizable and easy to reproduce.

Inevitably, the media caught on.

[ Applause ]

I think the media has unquestionably played a role

in the career of almost every artist

who works in the 20th century,

but certainly in the last two decades.

And in Haring's case, it's no different.

I think he was catapulted to national recognition

by the-- by the media, and entered the art world

through the world of more public media.

Narrator: Paris,

London,

Brazil.

By 1985, his work started to spring up around the world,

crossing national and social boundaries.

His work became a public voice for the young generation.

♪♪

Haring had entered the art world

through the backdoor of popular appeal.

As he presented several one-man shows

in New York at Tony Shafrazi's up-and-coming gallery,

he gained increasing recognition from the art community.

Then-prestigious art dealer,

Leo Castelli acknowledged the young artist.

Since at the time I was trying,

as I'm always doing actually,

to show also young people in my gallery,

not the always the same old classics,

he seemed a wonderful candidate.

He wanted it to be a great extravaganza

and it was a great extravaganza, he did huge sculptures.

But the miraculous thing that he did is that he painted

the frieze around the gallery.

But the speed with which he did it and the assurance,

without thinking for a moment

or seemingly not thinking for a moment,

was just an amazing spectacle.

Narrator: With formal recognition from the art world,

and continuous media attention, Haring became a star.

Keith: At a certain point, it was almost like

it was bigger than I was.

Where I was sort of almost riding it like a horse

or something, or trying to guide it or steer it

in a direction

but the same time that it was taking me.

Narrator: Andy Warhol became fascinated

with the Haring phenomenon, and befriended the young artist.

In 1986, Haring followed Warhol into the world

of commercial art when he was commissioned

to do an advertisement for Absolut Vodka.

♪♪

[ Applause ]

The Absolut campaign and others like it

offered Haring an irresistible opportunity

to reach a wider audience.

I think that there's a lot of information

that's really important to be passed on to people

and that if it's done in a way that's interesting

or is good quality,

then it makes people even more interested in the thing

that they're seeing or that they're learning.

A lot of my "introduction" into the commercial side

of things has been totally misunderstood

and misrepresented by--

especially by art critics or by sort of critics at large.

I mean, people don't understand that there could possibly

be any other motivation to do something

that reaches a lot of people or to communicate on a...

in a different way, in a new medium, in a new technique.

♪♪

Narrator: The mass appeal of Haring's images

encouraged him to make his most ambitious step

into the commercial world.

In 1986, he opened a shop of his own.

The Pop Shop opened in lower Manhattan.

A wide range of Haring merchandise

became available to shoppers of every kind.

♪♪

Yeah, I would like to get the bouncy thing

with the black shirt.

I like what he draws, I think it's cool.

♪♪

Narrator: Some critics called it a sellout.

The Pop Shop was more really a response

to what was already happening in the world

than it was something that was just an idea

that was initiated on my part.

I mean, The Pop Shop sort of grew naturally

out of what the work was becoming anyway.

The images had become part of the world

and part of a universal culture.

I had to go with that idea and let it happen,

let it become part of culture,

let it become part of the mass culture.

Instead of sort of taking it back into the art world

and hiding in the art world, which is where I was

trying to break out of in the first place.

I don't think that this is commercial at all.

I mean, in the bad sense, he's not commercial at all.

Now, if he opens a store as he did,

that's part of his art as all kinds of things

that Andy did were part of his art.

I think the story itself is a work of art.

For me, one of the ultimate achievements of an artist

is to push forward the boundaries

of what is considered art and what is not.

Andy Warhol did that,

and with The Pop Shop,

with his billboards, Keith Haring is doing that.

♪♪

Narrator: As his fame grew,

Haring welcomed the chance

to bring his work to even more places.

[ Man speaking foreign language ]

Narrator: He mounted international exhibitions

which gave him the opportunity

to travel and experience other cultures.

♪♪

Primitive art such as Aboriginal and African Art,

influenced him deeply.

But ultimately, Haring's dynamics

and language were uniquely his own.

♪♪

He's one of the few artists to have really assimilated

all the accomplishments of Andy Warhol,

to have used what Warhol accomplished,

and mixed it with his own impulses

to create something that in fact was even beyond Warhol.

Keith is also someone who's completely assimilated

the advances of the conceptual artists,

the minimal artists,

and other pop artists such as Roy Lichtenstein.

Narrator: Always versatile,

Haring continually investigates new media and new scale.

♪♪

He was commissioned to build various sculptures

such as this huge piece for a children's hospital

in Long Island.

It was forged in a steel factory

in Connecticut,

and assembled and unveiled at the hospital

in the presence of the young patients.

♪♪

Boy: I think it was very nice of whoever made that statue

to dedicate it to the hospital.

I think that was really nice of him.

I think it stands for peace, love,

children can do wh-- whatever they want

if they try hard enough.

And... that's all.

♪♪

Keith: I think good public sculpture should function

in a way that sort of works with the place where it is.

Instead of sort of opposing it

or sort of standing out from it,

it should sort of function in harmony

with the environment that it's placed in,

and with the community that it's placed in.

And a lot of the sculptures even that I've already made

were made with attention to the fact

that people would sit on them, or climb on them,

or you know, use them to eat lunch on,

or t-- to sit underneath to get shade or to,

you know, so they could be sort of user-friendly.

♪♪

♪♪

Narrator: Haring deals with the issues of today.

In the mid-'80s, the disaster of crack was invading the city.

Haring's work spoke to people living

on the fringes of society-- to children, to minorities.

As Haring gained their respect,

he felt the responsibly to speak out on the issues

that touched their lives.

Keith: From personal experience of a friend that had,

you know, gotten involved with crack

and wanted to have help, and couldn't get help,

and went to city hospitals, city agencies,

kept getting turned away over and over,

Um, I became, you know, really personally aware

of how drastic the situation was at the time.

And the thing that was needed most at that time

was really public awareness

to prevent other people from getting involved in it.

♪ Life is fresh

♪ Yes, you better believe it ♪

♪ Crack is wack, no, you don't need it ♪

♪ Life is fresh

♪ Yes, you better believe it ♪

♪ Crack is wack, no, you don't need it ♪

♪♪

♪♪

Narrator: Even though the social content of Haring's art

is very conscious,

the process is strictly intuitive.

Tony: In Keith's case, the emphasis became the line.

And not knowing precisely where it was going to,

so it was like opening the door to the unconscious.

Whether he's drawing a small drawing,

you know, for a child, or whether he's

doing a major mural the size of a building,

whether it's extremely simple with a few lines,

or tremendously complex,

both symmetry and little deformation,

there is no sketch, there is no preparation.

It has to be started and completed completely unprepared.

You're expressing yourself,

being whatever parts of yourself that is.

Whether that is complete accuracy

or more humanly making, you know, diversions

or not making everything exactly symmetrical,

or everything is not gonna be exactly balanced 100%.

But it will still have that kind of sort of consistency

that is as consistent as you are as a person.

Narrator: Aware of the media attention

that Haring's images attracted,

in 1986, West Germany's museum at Checkpoint Charlie

invited him to make a political statement

on the Berlin Wall.

I went to Berlin for about three days

when I went to do the Wall and unfortunately,

as is often the case,

it was very cold and almost rainy

most of the time I was there.

The rain sort of let up around I don't know,

10:00 or 11:00 in the morning, and so I started painting.

When I began to paint,

the East Germans were peering over the wall all the time.

At first they were curious 'cause they saw

all the people sort of milling around

on the Western side, and the press and things,

so they didn't know exactly what I was going to do.

But eventually after they came out a few times

and realized that what I was painting

was not really derogatory

or was not sort of insulting them in any way,

they just decided to let me alone

and sort of stayed behind the wall the rest of the time.

♪♪

For me, the Berlin Wall was probably

one of the most successful media event things I ever did.

The whole reason almost for doing the Wall

was more for the idea of doing it

and almost as a gesture more than it was

to actually paint a wall.

I mean, there's a wall that represents

the dividing of East and West, and this lack of freedom,

and the conflict that's all over the world.

In some ways, although it is a political act,

it has to transcend politics and be a message to people

and it's about-- about unity no matter,

in the face of whatever kind of struggle or oppression,

there still has to be a power of people.

Narrator: When it came to volunteer projects,

Haring's favorite assignments

were the ones that involved children.

Keith: In a way, it's as important

to maybe communicate to one person,

to one 10-year-old person that's growing up

as it is to try to make any big--

sort of big effect on the entire world.

Narrator: He collaborated with 900 children

to create a banner commemorating

the 100th anniversary of the Statue of Liberty.

The project began with Haring painting

the giant 270-foot image.

As always, with no preliminary sketches or plans.

Keith: If I see that something is sort of--

you know, the wrong scale, or off to the side or something,

it can totally change my idea

of what I have to do to finish the piece

and really make it work, and make it work as a piece.

So almost every piece is sort of an adventure

or is an invention as you go.

♪♪

Narrator: Haring spent three days with children

of every age and social background,

he encouraged them to draw

their own interpretations of Liberty.

♪♪

Keith: I think one of the things that attracted me

to working with children the most

is their honesty really, and their degree of courage

and just saying and seeing exactly what they feel.

♪♪

Narrator: Like Warhol,

Haring broke the boundaries between high and low art.

And by reaching out to the widest audience,

he took the process even further.

The major issue in the art world of the next decade

is very likely to be the conflict

between those who prefer

the traditional old-fashioned art world

with a small audience, serious galleries and museums,

and then the constituency

which Keith Haring is very much the leader of.

Wanting to expand art, expand the art impulse

into department stores, onto the streets,

onto clothes that people wear.

Narrator: But during the 1980s,

the art world moved beyond graffiti art.

While dealers looked for something new,

Haring seemed increasingly isolated

from critical acceptance in the art world.

Barbara: Keith Haring is one of the few artists

who have remained committed to a populism.

That he's, as I've said, bypassed the art establishment

and rather than being pulled in,

he's remained quite an outsider to some extent.

Many of his activities are not appropriable by museums

and private collectors, so that he's remained a loner.

Narrator: But Haring is a survivor.

At the end of 1988,

he presented to the New York City art world

his first exhibition at the Tony Shafrazi Gallery

in nearly two years.

♪♪

It's wonderful, I think he's as important as Andy Warhol.

And I've been a fan of his for many, many years.

Andy Warhol and Keith Haring.

So I think he's terrific.

It's very important, this-- this movement.

[ Indistinct chatter ]

I think his stuff is more in tune with the times

and I think people of all ages can kind of relate to it.

And then the colors kind of come out,

it's got animation and stuff like that and people like that.

It kind of makes you happy even if it's a serious message,

at least you can still be happy about it

because I think the energy vibrates from his work.

Well you would think to look at this respectable,

conservative, English dowager duchess,

that I would not like it, but I love it!

He has commercialized himself tremendously.

But that is the '80s--

commerce, money, yuppiedom,

all those things are very representative of the '80s.

And he has managed, I think, to keep his artistic integrity.

Narrator: Despite his tremendous success,

Haring remains committed to the people.

I mean one of the things I learned from Andy the most,

was sort of about generosity and about humility in a way.

And sort of just watching Andy dealing with people,

and the way that he would deal with people

that were asking for autographs or just asking things.

I mean, I think the role of an artist in any society

is to be a kind of antagonist.

But especially in a conservative society

or in a politically oppressive society,

which is more-- increasingly more

what we're living in all the time.

♪♪

Narrator: Keith Haring, a loner in the art world,

but not to the rest of the world.

Keith Haring, a stubborn optimist about life,

about art, about people.

If you love life, if you appreciate life and humans,

then you should be against anything

that is going against life and against people.

I mean, when something is that obviously wrong,

you have to be against it, you know?

And I think it's partly responsibility

but it's partly just a natural response

to seeing something that's wrong

and wanting to say something about it

or do something about it.

♪♪

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