Film Review: The Universe of Keith Haring

Christina Clausen’s documentary captures an exciting New York artistic period, with the phenomenon that was Keith Haring at its epicenter.

The Universe of Keith Haring celebrates a man whose work was probably the most easily accessible in the history of art. But was it art? However you may feel about his cartoonish versions of basic stick figures—the radiant babies and barking dogs—Haring’s story was a remarkable one, a shooting-star outgrowth of the ’80s Downtown New York zeitgeist, which was truly the last burst of Manhattan artistic creativity.

Christina Clausen‘s documentary is a briskly paced, affectionate tribute which makes full use of interviews with Haring intimates (although I could have done without that introductory artsy zeroing in on the interviewees’ eyeballs). His fascinating life was a beacon to all aspiring artists seeking to conquer Gotham, from his experimental days at the School of Visual Arts to his arrest-prone guerrilla graffiti moments in the subway which first brought him literally into the public eye, and subsequently into Big Art Daddy Andy Warhol’s court. Haring’s early Dadaesque short films at SVA are included here, and bespeak a definite off-center talent somewhat more suggestive than his drawing.

Yoko Ono seems to have had a special mystical connection to the artist, which she says came to the fore after his tragically early death from AIDS at 31, in 1990. Haring’s former roommate, Samantha McEwan, with whom he once wanted to raise a child, is especially telling, describing the loft she shared with him and artist Kenny Scharf. Scharf is informative as well, ruefully describing how galleries bypassed his work completely in order to get to the sought-after Harings, and sharing the special kinship Haring felt towards Scharf’s daughter. Haring indeed had a special affinity with children, from little Sean Lennon to the squads of kids the world over he mentored and to whom he gave elaborate autographs, the freewheeling generosity of which made his business managers blanch.

Other great loves of Haring’s life were the funky house music memorialized by genius DJ Larry Levan at New York’s legendary Paradise Garage, and the Puerto Rican boys who frequented such places. Haring appears to have been a total romantic who, after scoring easy sex in the pre-AIDS gay bath culture, began to seek deeper attachments. The Dionysian satyr in him never completely died, however, as evinced by the famous bathroom mural he executed for New York’s Lesbian and Gay Center poignantly titled “Once Upon a Time,” which is perhaps his masterpiece, and an endearing remark he makes about always being torn in museums between looking at the art and cruising guys.

In his final days, Haring traveled the world and created at a feverish pace; his last works show the beginnings of a deeper complexity and less spur-of-the-moment structure which might have led to some really good stuff. Sadly, we’ll never know, but those babies and dogs still shine and bark away all over the world in one form or another.