Although he doesn’t actually pop in until later in the film, Andy Warhol is a permanent, lurking presence in Christina Clausen’s The Universe of Keith Haring. He was the silver-haired mentor-in-absentia to Haring, the tenaciously talented kid who embodied Warhol’s philosophy of art as work more than almost any other modern artist of note. In some ways, the two couldn’t have been more different. Haring was a skinny club denizen with a goofy forehead and giant glasses, as brazen about his homosexuality and opinions as Warhol, with his mystique of smartly attired shadowy ambivalence, remained reticent. Haring’s art was a circus-like explosion, while Warhol’s (candy-colored as it often was) took a darker, ironic stance.
But the artists’ similarities went deeper than their differences. Raised in small Pennsylvania towns by religious, salt-of-the-earth parents, both men fled to New York at the first opportunity, and there they would remain. Celebrity-obsessed, the two charted similar trajectories between the worlds of art and pop culture, hauling the two together at every conceivable opportunity. Both could easily be classified as workaholics, and though Haring’s was a more individually-focused style (he never seemed to have or desire the fleet of assistants that Warhol did), they each created a flood of work with a certain Detroit-style industriousness.
The Universe of Keith Haring
Keith Haring, Andy Warhol, Yoko Ono, Jean Michel Basquiat
US theatrical: 24 Oct 2008 (General release)
Clausen’s film, a collage of interviews with friends and family spliced in with a wealth of film footage showing Haring in the act of creation, is best when appreciating the heat and passion driving this intense outpouring of art. Haring’s time in the art world was relatively short: he enrolled at New York’s School of Visual Arts in 1978 at the age of 20 and died in 1990, two years after being diagnosed with AIDS. Although the film isn’t too clear with its timelines once Haring gets to New York (there are brief references to Reagan taking office, but after that it’s just a blur of clubs, lofts, gallery shows, and music), it’s clear that taking a day off wasn’t really ever in the cards for Haring.
This kind of blur of creativity is rarely rendered in the world of art documentaries, which tend to be staid things intent only on burnishing their subject’s reputation. While that hype is in evidence here (a frequent curator of museum audiovisual exhibitions, Clausen seems at times to be crafting her film more for that kind of venue), what sets The Universe of Keith Haring apart from so much of its ilk is the generous evidence it provides of Haring in the act of creation itself.
The film is packed full of footage of Haring making art, dashing across a long canvas or wall, speedily but carefully drawing in with a thick black marker the strong lines of dancing figures in cartoonish landscapes that epitomized most of his work. You might have to go back to 1956’s The Mystery of Picasso, by Henri-Georges Clouzot—where the similarly workaholic artist just paints and paints, while Clouzot watches and narrates—to see such an unalloyed presentation of an artist at work.
One particularly thrilling sequence shows Haring in the subway during the ‘80s, walking up to a blank poster space and just freestyling a perfectly-conceived drawing in minutes (the steadiness of his hand is something to behold, with never a misplaced stroke). Afterward, he talks to an old lady who was curious about what he was doing, and gives her a button with another drawing on it. Not only is it an impressively spontaneous creation, but an act of actually putting his marker where his mouth is.
All too many modern artists only speak of being “influenced” by graffiti and other street art but would never actually befriend those artists (like Haring did with Fab Five Freddy, who makes an appearance) or put themselves in the street to take part in such creation and possibly getting arrested (as we see Haring does). The vibrantly cartoonish and carefully controlled chaos of Haring’s art seems perfectly in synch with the graffiti splashed all over the city at the time; one interviewee tellingly remarks that the whole Manhattan art world at the time was “living off the fumes of graffiti.”
The Universe of Keith Haring also does better than most documentaries of its kind in appreciating the ferment and addictive chaos of the particular art scene its subject was stewing in. Ranging from clips of Haring’s early performance art (a mnemonic piece about his father done mostly in Morse Code seems particularly of the time) to later sequences such as: Grace Jones performing in tribal body art, drawn by Haring; Bill T. Jones dancing quietly while Haring paints in the background’ and Madonna doing an early 1984 performance at a Haring birthday bash. The film is awash in the kind of angularly asymmetric hothouse creativity then pulsating through downtown Manhattan’s loft-and-gallery culture. The film narrowly overdoes on “wasn’t it great?” nostalgia, particularly the more of Haring’s friends it brings out to reminisce about scenester hangouts like Club 57, Paradise Garage, and Mudd Club. But Clausen mostly steers away from such wallowing, zeroing in instead on Haring’s art, and its production.
The work itself, though, is something else. Some might argue that Haring could produce so much art because it was all generally the same (the motifs of dance, dogs, hearts, and mutating figures are repeated almost ad nauseum); and they wouldn’t be totally wrong. In fact, its very simplicity is what helped allow Haring to create a mini-industry of mass-produced T-shirts, buttons and books for sale in his own New York store, an idea that must have had Warhol slapping his forehead in exasperation. But after viewing Clausen’s film, whatever one’s opinion is of Haring’s work itself, his drive and determination remains not only impressive but still somehow less crass and money-obsessed than the art of onetime Haring cohort and interviewee David LaChappelle. (Haring’s impressive charity-work resume and generous habit of giving people whole small drawings as autographs certainly helps.) For all the frankness about commerce and popularity here, there is also a refreshing optimism in Haring’s art that one would have a hard time finding in much pop art, before or since.
There are times when The Universe of Keith Haring seems poised to enter more rarified territory, particularly near the conclusion when the question is raised of whether art is something created or whether the artist is simply a conduit for something they barely comprehend. This would have been a fascinating avenue of exploration, particularly given Haring’s spigot-like level of output and unbelievably precise style of instantaneous delivery. But it is more than enough that Clausen’s film is able to present its artist, this avatar of nerd-cool weaned in the shadow of Warhol, entirely on his own terms. Instead of arguing for Haring’s place in the pantheon, however, the film’s admittedly glancing and even shallow approach simply splats Haring and his work out there in large undigested globs, to be appreciated or ignored, in the way of all art.