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Broad exhibit showcases Keith Haring, innovative pop culture artists from the '80s

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

A Los Angeles museum is exhibiting the work of Keith Haring. He's an artist whose work many people have seen, even if they only vaguely know the name. The exhibition serves as a reminder of Haring's pop culture talents, and NPR's Mandalit del Barco had a look around.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: The show "Keith Haring: Art Is For Everybody" immediately transports you to New York City in the 1980s with music from his old mix tapes on speakers above. It opens with photos and a CBS News clip from 1982 of the then-24-year-old artist working furtively underground.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHARLES OSGOOD: He stalks the New York City subways, waiting for his chance to strike.

DEL BARCO: Inspired by hip-hop graffiti artists who spray painted subway cars, Haring used chalk on empty black advertising panels on the subway platforms. He drew simple, outlined figures - most often a crawling, radiant baby and a barking dog.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KEITH HARING: You don't have to know anything about art to appreciate it. There aren't any hidden secrets or things that you're supposed to understand.

OSGOOD: But he's got to be careful because technically, what he's doing is illegal graffiti. Sometimes he is arrested. Haring doesn't think he is defacing anything. He believes it is art, and many subway riders seem to agree.

DEL BARCO: Haring's art was popular aboveground, too, on street murals, on T-shirts, buttons and other merch sold at his famous Pop Shop in Soho and on big, plastic tarps sold for millions. The Broad Museum has recreated his first major gallery show, says curator Sarah Loyer.

SARAH LOYER: You can see in this painting, for example, break dancing figures. We have one spinning on his head with these lines showing motion. So they're really joyous imagery.

DEL BARCO: Haring's work fills nine gallery rooms at the Broad and includes a mini Statue of Liberty he decorated with graffiti artist Angel Ortiz and pottery embellished with his own hieroglyphics.

KENNY SCHARF: He created his own language with his own symbols, which is genius.

DEL BARCO: Kenny Scharf was another iconic artist of the 1980s. He became close friends with Haring when they studied at the School of Visual Arts.

SCHARF: It was amazing to witness 'cause I was his roommate at that time. And when he started doing those drawings, it was like he was everywhere.

DEL BARCO: Haring was also a huge fixture in downtown New York nightlife. He partied with people like Madonna, Andy Warhol and Fab 5 Freddy at places like Club 57, which was run by performer Ann Magnuson. Scharf and Magnuson remembered downtown New York in those days as a rundown dystopia and a creative playhouse for cutting-edge art, music and performance.

SCHARF: Daytime, nighttime, we were dancing. And Keith was very silly and fun. Like, a lot of laughing.

ANN MAGNUSON: We were in the Technicolor Munchkinland world of our own making, and then the Black Death swept in.

DEL BARCO: AIDS began to take the lives of so many friends, and Haring made it one focus of his work. He created posters and art for the activist group ACT UP, which demanded government help for people with HIV and AIDS. Scharf says Haring wasn't afraid to speak openly.

SCHARF: He came right out in Rolling Stone and said, I have AIDS. And, like, that was incredibly brave. Can you imagine opening about yourself as a gay person with AIDS back then? People were afraid even to be near someone with AIDS. Literally, he was shunned except by his closest friends.

DEL BARCO: Haring died of complications from AIDS in 1990 when he was just 31 years old. His activist art, which went beyond AIDS, is a major focus of the new exhibition. Some of his work skewered President Ronald Reagan and capitalism. He warned about nuclear weapons, and he protested apartheid in South Africa. His work remains relevant, says Gil Vazquez, who heads the Keith Haring Foundation.

GIL VAZQUEZ: A lot of the things that Keith spoke up for - LGBT issues - or spoke up against - racial disparities, police brutality - these are things that persist. You know, his art still really resonates.

DEL BARCO: The new Keith Haring show is just across the street from another exhibition of the late artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, two groundbreaking pop culture New York artists from the '80s. They both died young but are still creating a sensation.

Mandalit del Barco, NPR News, Los Angeles. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: May 25, 2023 at 12:00 AM EDT
A previous version of the headline misspelled the name of The Broad museum as Brode.
As an arts correspondent based at NPR West, Mandalit del Barco reports and produces stories about film, television, music, visual arts, dance and other topics. Over the years, she has also covered everything from street gangs to Hollywood, police and prisons, marijuana, immigration, race relations, natural disasters, Latino arts and urban street culture (including hip hop dance, music, and art). Every year, she covers the Oscars and the Grammy awards for NPR, as well as the Sundance Film Festival and other events. Her news reports, feature stories and photos, filed from Los Angeles and abroad, can be heard on All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Weekend Edition, Alt.latino, and npr.org.