Keith Haring’s Humanity Heads to Paris

Keith Haring’s art is like a visual punch in the face. A true trailblazer during New York City’s street culture movement in the 1980s, the inimitable graffiti virtuoso’s playfully subversive imagery slapped society with a unique call-to-action that cleverly commanded open and direct discussions about sex, racism, war, power and violence. Following his untimely death in 1990 at the age of 31, the artist’s signature silhouettes, iconic bold lines, and legendary phrases live on through thoughtful brand collaborations managed by the Keith Haring Foundation, as well as exclusive exhibitions at major museums across the globe.  

A social activist at heart, Haring’s powerful political messages are as impactful today as they were at the height of his career. To celebrate his legacy, the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris (Museum of Modern Art of the City of Paris) and Le CENTQUATRE present one of the artist’s largest retrospectives to date. The Political Line runs from April 19 through August 18and boasts nearly 250 striking images on canvas, subway walls and tarpaulins, including such works as A Pile of Crowns, For Jean-Michel Basquiat (1988), Brazil (1989), and Andy Mouse – New Coke (1985), a tribute to Haring’s close friend and mentor, Andy Warhol. The CENTQUATRE art space will showcase 20 large-format works, most notably The Ten Commandments (1985), which is a mighty set of 25-foot panels that cleverly merge Biblical references with socio-political iconography. In short, it’s bucket list-worthy for Haring diehards.

keith haring brazil

Brazil, 1989, Glenstone, © Keith Haring Foundation

Dedicated to supporting art initiatives around the world (projects include Miss Van’s exhibition in Los Angeles, Fuzi UV TPK’s tattoo residency at New York’s The Hole Shop, and Barry McGee’s retrospective at the Berkeley Art Museum in California), premium denim and lifestyle brand Citizens of Humanity (COH) is sponsoring the exhibition and will also host a special children’s program to salute the partnership. "I am inspired by people that follow their own ideas and create what no one has before them," explains COH founder, Paris-born Jerome Dahan. "As a child, I didn’t have the opportunity to be exposed to ‘art’ as it was defined inside a museum or gallery. Contemporary art, which feels far more accessible, was one I connected with. When I came to the states, I found the look and voice of artists at the time particularly interesting and inspiring, as they were rewriting the rules and, for the first time, were so much a part of popular culture. Haring defines a true artist to me; he had a strong vision, incredible courage, and spoke from the heart." Dahan has paintings from both Haring and Basquiat in his home collection.

"As a team, we wanted to support an exhibition that showcases the work of a man who truly was a Citizen of Humanity and who helped draw attention to social issues that are important to all of us," explains COH president, Amy Williams. "To do so in Jerome’s birthplace, during the 10-year anniversary of our brand, makes it even more important." In addition to the artist’s undeniable draw, Paris, contemporary art and charity are three elements that attracted COH to sponsoring the exhibition. Over the last year, the brand has been working to develop and share their story while expanding presence in France, a place that is very much a part of their DNA.

Haring’s connection to France includes a 1985 exhibition at the CAPC Musee d’Art Contemporain (Museum of Contemporary Art) in Bordeaux and a vibrant 1987 mural on the exterior of Necker Children’s Hospital in Paris. Although his international presence is certainly revered, the artist was a New Yorker through and through. Born on May 4, 1958 in Reading, Pennsylvania, in 1987 Haring dropped out of the Ivy School of Professional Art in Pittsburgh after two semesters when he realized that he wasn’t interested in becoming a commercial graphic artist. Later that year, he moved to New York City and enrolled in the School of Visual Arts (SVA), where his love affair with street art first sparked. Swiftly making a name for himself through rapid, mind-blowing public paintings in subways (this was around the time his infamous "Radiant Baby" figure was born), by the 1980s he was making waves with fellow 20th century game-changers like the aforementioned Basquiat and Warhol, and collaborating with a host of acclaimed audio angels. Memorable designs include a leather jacket donned by Madonna in 1984 during her performance of "Like a Virgin" for the TV dance show, Solid Gold, and brilliantly eccentric outfits sported by the one and only Grace Jones in her 1986 music video for "I’m Not Perfect (But I’m Perfect for You)." (There’s also body painting involved and cameos by Haring and Warhol. That video will change your life.)

Living friends of the artist continue to sing his praises. Queen of New York’s underground scene in the ’80s and FUN Gallery co-founder (her memoir, FUN Gallery…The True Story, is a must-read) Patti Astor recalls her first encounter with the artist: "I met Keith on Astor Place in 1980. He was wearing his distinctive Day-Glo painted googly eyeglasses and asked to take my picture. What a lucky day for me! We were privileged to show Keith and [famed Lower East Side graffiti artist Angel Ortiz] LA2 at the FUN Gallery in February of 1983. If there is one artist who epitomizes the breakthrough spirit of the early ’80s—a moment when your ‘art’ and your impact on the culture were inseparable—it is Keith. I think of him every day."

Hollywood-born, Brooklyn-based art legend Kenny Scharf was friends and roommates with Haring and appears in the 2008 documentary, The Universe of Keith Haring. He shares Astor’s sentiment: "Although Keith and I were the same age, I always felt that he was my guide and teacher. I learned so much from him and still use his advice today. Thank you, Keith, forever."

The Political Line runs from April 19 through August 18, 2013 at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, 11 Avenue du Président Wilson, 75116 Paris, France.