Ecstatic: Keith Haring at the Akron Art Museum
To a younger viewer, the work of Keith Haring might read more like Instagram than Street Art. Trendy current commercial success stories like Timothy Goodman and Mr. Doodle proudly carry on the tradition of laundering the vernacular of graffiti and reselling it back to the masses as a slice of an Experience.
Haring’s aesthetic is really popular again: his figures are engaged in relatable behaviors, his work is big, splashy, and fun. It works because you want to be around it. And in Keith Haring: Against All Odds, by emphasizing Haring’s public statements, collaborations, and conceptual framework, Akron Art Museum, in collaboration with the Rubell Museum, makes a great case for Haring’s continued relevance.
Formally, Haring’s work is oozing with life and joy. Colorful dancing figures look as at home blown up to cover a museum wall as they do as palm-sized vinyl stickers placed around town at RTA bus stops, a nod to the primordial graffiti soup from which they were born. These stickers grab your attention, giving the stops a distinctive playfulness that’s so welcome on the streets of Akron.
Drawn with big brushes or chunky chisel-tipped markers, the even line widths of most of Haring’s work make installations in space dynamic. Stepping into the simulated Pop Shop –with graphics painted by local artist Ron Copeland–makes you feel like you’re entering the 2D universe of Keith Haring’s mind, becoming a doodle yourself. The lines collapse the space, so that any variation in width is your only visual clue that perspective still exists in this room. But current museum goers weren’t disoriented. They knew just what to do: the phones were out, capturing proof for social-media that the visitor did a thing today.
The truly disorienting part of the Pop Shop homage is that it is not a functional gift shop. It’s hard to fight the urge to break open the plexiglass box of enamel pins on the wall and leave the museum $15. I engage with the art by desiring to own a piece of it, and in this room, that’s the prevailing thought: I want. But you can’t actually buy things. Yet the idea of creating official works of art at lower price points for mass consumption as the way to democratize art is the height of ’80s logic, and it was perhaps Haring’s biggest inheritance from Warhol. The didactics lean into the interpretation at face value, which feels retrograde.
Collaborating with the Akron-Summit County Public Library to create a reading room of books and materials that could theoretically be checked out and taken home is another nod towards the supposed democratization Haring sought through his works’ commercialization. But while viewers can’t take the actual books from the gallery home, they can reserve other copies through a QR code and read them later. The process is a little unsatisfying, but makes sense logistically, and is a chance for more people to actually, eventually, read the books put out in a museum show’s reading room. It’s a great idea I hope gets some use, and I’d love to see it continue for future shows.
The joy of Haring’s work is dancing through pain, a point the museum makes in all caps. Haring was only 31 when he died of AIDS, which makes his accomplishments all the more incredible. The largest room of the gallery is devoted to showing Haring’s collaborations with the larger art community he existed within.
The larger conversation happening in New York’s art scene in the late 80’s is one that still rapturously inspires, and the “Keith Haring Among Friends” room is where Akron Art Museum’s curation and contextualization really shines. Basquiat’s “One Million Yen” and Jenny Holzer’s enameled “People like to breed animals…” and “It’s not fun watching people wound themselves…” feature didactic explanations that do a great job capturing quotes and stories from Haring (“He really was my favorite painter” Haring says of Basquiat.)
This contextualization says “art community” in a way that simply stating “He was part of a larger art community” never could. With his works juxtaposed with those of friends from that time and place, visitors can easily picture Haring at 24, at 28, at 30, meeting these people and making work in reaction to their work. It feels like how art-making feels, and emphasizes all the ways he both borrowed from and rejected the decisions his peers were making.
Good art is a vehicle for your imagination, and imagination is critical for change. You never ask how to get from Point A to Point B if you don’t first imagine yourself at Point B, and decide you have to go. But imagination alone can’t carry you there, only inspire you to keep moving.
Akron Art Museum has been through significant change since director Jon Fiume took the helm following the resignation of Mark Masuoka amid allegations of racism and sexism in 2020. In Against All Odds, Akron Art Museum has filled their space with subtextual messages to the Northeast Ohio arts community — including collaborations with the Public Library and the RTA–to demonstrate that this is a museum for the people of Akron. It really feels genuine and well-timed, and in keeping with the stated goals of Haring’s work.
It’s not hard for me to imagine a future where former employees of a place still want to visit institutions they fell in love with before they worked there, a sort of Point B where museums recognize their former desk workers, janitors, and docents will still be a part of their local art-viewing community for decades.
If museums can picture it, and value their staff in that way, they can help heal the arts community they exist for and within. Keith Haring: Against All Odds offers a glimpse that vision.
Christina Turner is an artist and designer living and working in Akron, OH.