Director Christina Clausen’s documentary The Universe of Keith Haring starts out rather slowly, following Haring’s life from paper routes in Kutztown, Pennsylvania, to art school to New York night life, through interviews with his parents, sisters and childhood friends. Clausen also interviews friends and contemporaries like Fab 5 Freddy, Junior Vasquez, David LaChapelle, Kenny Scharf, Bruno Schmidt and Samantha McEwen.
Fortunately, the pace picks up once Clausen lets the fabulous video footage of Haring at work and at play take the lead. The video is interspersed with assorted archive audio interviews with Haring, along with interview segments of family and friends, and the film comes alive with Haring’s evident enthusiasm for life and all things.
Early video shows Haring painting a room-sized piece on his floor in time to the beat of some of his favorite music. Later footage includes several scenes of him drawing his famous subway signboards, getting arrested for it and explaining to passersby his reasons for expressing himself in this way. Throughout the documentary, we can see the evolution and refinement of Haring’s repetitive, symbolic, semiotic style. Black and white or sometimes striking primary colors were used to give the pieces a sense of motion that is almost like animation. Even in the earliest footage, this distinct quality is already apparent.
Haring’s artistic style is as distinctive as it is deceptive. One of the points brought up again and again in The Universe of Keith Haring by several of the interviewees is how instantly recognizable his work is. In fact, one person compares Haring’s “hand” to that of an iconic musician, in that you only need to “hear a few bars” to know it’s him. And that’s true. Still, some would attribute the iconic status of Haring’s images mainly to their simplicity and to their broad visual appeal. And people of all ages and from all walks of life are attracted to his work. That’s true, too.
Obviously, there is an unmistakable quality behind every one of his pieces, but it’s not only his particular way with form and movement, it’s not just the seeming simplicity of his lines that continues to draw people to his work nearly 20 years after his death. Although much of his work did present political or social commentary, with themes including racial harmony and sexual freedom, as well as his work with Act Up, both before and after he was diagnosed HIV-positive, it’s not about the message; it’s about the irrepressible energy behind the message, the intention behind the art, the inherent expression of joy. That’s what attracts people.
Yoko Ono offers perhaps the most enlightening comment of the entire documentary when she explains that while Andy Warhol liked making meaningless art from a meaningful tradition, Haring made art that may have looked meaningless, but was actually quite meaningful. Haring himself describes his art, specifically his subway works, by saying, “[I got] letters, stories from people of specific times when they came upon a drawing and it filled this gap that was waiting to be filled. It made something…make sense. It made a moment for them which will stay in their memory forever. That’s what all art is supposed to do.”
Haring created art that is memorable because it was immediate, irreverent and yes, joyful, and he made it accessible to all. The Universe of Keith Haring provides viewers intimate access to the exuberance and vitality of Haring, as well as insights into the lasting impact of the artist and his art.