Volume 20, Number 49 | THE NEWSPAPER OF LOWER MANHATTAN | APRIL 19 - 26, 2008
Downtown Express photo by J.P.Richardson
Keith Haring’s mural at the Tony Dapolito Recreation Center swimming pool in the West Village
Keith Haring’s nonstop pop
By Rania Richardson
Conjuring the excitement of an era through an artist’s work, “The Universe of Keith Haring” is as much a biopic of pop culture in the 1980s as it is a portrait of Haring himself. Set to the music of the B-52s, Devo, and other “new wave” bands, director Christina Clausen relays Haring’s artistic life in Manhattan and his influence around the world. New video interviews and archival footage feature friends and colleagues such as Kenny Scharf, Madonna, Bill T. Jones, Yoko Ono, Tony Shafrazi, and his fellow pop celebrity from Pennsylvania—Andy Warhol—to create a complete picture of the artist in his heyday.
Footage and audio excerpts from interviews conducted with Haring illustrate the development of his style that merged art with graffiti, and his iconic “radiant babies,” “barking dogs,” and all manner of phallic and homoerotic images rendered in cartoon-like fashion. Anecdotes from his supportive albeit conservative family reveal the genesis of his creativity. When Haring moved to New York, he became a fixture on the downtown scene, with St. Mark’s Place at its epicenter. In 1986 he opened Pop Shop on Lafayette Street to merchandise his work. His 1990 death from AIDS at age 31 ended an era, but his spirit lives on in cities around the world where he used the urban environment as his canvas. Among Haring’s public projects on view in the West Village are murals for the Carmine Street public pool and the LGBT Center. The latter features restroom art that is unmistakably orgiastic.
Born in Denmark and now a resident of Rome, filmmaker Christina Clausen was first introduced to Haring’s art when she was in high school. She has previously worked in setting up audiovisual museum exhibits, Austrian and Swiss television, and made her directing debut in 1998 with “Germans in Italy 1943-1945.” Since 1991, she has worked for Italian public television. We spoke with Clausen about her attraction to Keith Haring, and the process of making the film.
On discovering the artist:
When I was in still in high school in 1985, I went to the most beautiful museum in Denmark—Louisiana Museum—where Haring was at the entrance painting directly on a wall. I remember thinking it was cool to see an artist painting live in a museum and I was impressed to see how he drew the line.
On Haring’s appeal:
I find Keith Haring’s work extremely universal. It is for everybody. I feel it is as if it is an extension of the prehistoric line, which is updated in Haring’s art. He expresses immediate and primitive signs that remain FRESH in eternity. Many people might only know his more childlike drawings—barking dogs and radiant babies—but his issues go far beyond. He deals with serious issues such as death, AIDS, money, and religion.
On making the film:
Every step in doing this film has been fun. I actually started mentally thinking about doing a film on Haring 10 years ago when I first stepped foot in the Keith Haring Foundation on Broadway. I was curating a small video section for an exhibition that was to be held in Rome, and I discovered the enormous archive of interesting footage there. Moreover, I became aware that the original audiotapes of John Gruen’s five-day-long interview with Haring, used as the basis for his book, “Keith Haring: The Authorized Biography,” were all there. I knew right then I wanted to do a film on Haring one day, but I just was not ready and busy doing other things.
On being a director:
I love to enter another person’s universe, a bit like what all of us do when we read a good book. I often find it hard to accept the narrator’s voice in documentaries. The challenge is to find an alternative and to keep the rhythm visually on a gripping level. I also certainly find the music extremely important in a film, to maintain a good narrating rhythm.
On viewing art:
The best place to see art is in the artist’s studio. That’s when you can enter his universe. I also like to see art where you do not “expect” to find it, and you might even become part of it, like in happenings and performances. I go to art fairs (Armory/Art Basel/Pulse), but even if it is on a high level, I often end up feeling it is like going to a supermarket. The good thing about it is that you always meet a lot of friends.
Arthouse Films, a distributor of documentaries on artists, recently acquired “The Universe of Keith Haring,” for theatrical release later this year.