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Keith Haring at the Walker: Wholesome, Subversive, and Lots of Dicks

Art is for everybody—so expect a little bit of everything.

All photos by Jessica Armbruster|

A collection of dicks from the Keith Haring exhibition

As a kid, I owned a Keith Haring T-shirt. Or at least, a potential rip-off of a Keith Haring T-shirt. It was a repro of his “Love” design that I bought at a gift shop that sold artsy shirts. By that time, '93 or '94-ish, Haring had been dead for several years, and the main debate around his art was how his legacy had been commercialized, anesthetized of its subversive intentions. 

Nearly 30 years later, I would argue that his message wasn’t lost; his legacy had reached the point where a tween could buy a “cute” shirt in a mall knowing it was designed by a gay man who promoted safe sex/AIDS awareness back when that was considered taboo.

A collection of Haring PSAs, 1987-89Photo by Jessica Armbruster

From the start Haring’s work was designed to be both commercial and subversive, approachable and challenging, wholesome and smutty. And all of these dichotomies are at play in “Keith Haring: Art Is for Everybody,” a collection of 100+ pieces celebrating the artist’s meteoric decade-ish-long career, which ended when Haring died at 31 from complications from AIDS.   

Some of the work here is family-friendly (the crawling babies, the barking dogs), while others are not so much (hey there, masturbating Mickey Mouse). Some of the pieces serve a clear purpose (the PSAs, event programs, gig posters), while others are more of a vibe (check out those neon pillars!). Some are overtly political (the newspaper clippings), others are more subtle (the devil sperm hidden in a sea of white lines). 

Artists are rarely one thing, but it’s kind of humbling when you consider that Haring made all of these pieces between 1978 and 1989—what were/are you getting up to in your 20s?

Early works in the subway.Photo by Jessica Armbruster

Born in 1958 in Reading, Pennsylvania, Haring made his way to NYC for art school, where his career would kick off underground, both literally and metaphorically. Down in the subways, he would paint dogs, babies, smiling TVs, and other eye-catching outlines on the black paper covering ads on the walls. The Walker’s show starts in that dark underground too, with a dimly lit space featuring videos and photography of these temporary works projected on the walls of the museum. 

And then the dicks begin. Around the corner, you’ll be treated to a giant homage to anal sex: an untitled piece from 1980. Off to the side are a series of playful doodles depicting a world where fire hydrants, buildings, and entryways become dicks. The goofing continues on the walls, with fake news headlines proclaiming President Reagan’s death via cop and the cop’s quest to kill the pope next. (Talk about alternative history.) 

A collection of untitled pieces from 1980.Photo bys Jessica Armbruster

Things start to get big in the following rooms, which are filled with videos, cartoons, and a retina-burning orange-and-pink area filled with painted columns (with dicks), day-glow party people, and other wonderfully garish things, including a few shady Mickey Mouses. A darkened room offers respite, as well as a dress worn by Madonna, some programs from his residency at the Walker, and Polaroid pics of Haring with famous friends like Grace Jones, Dolly Parton, and Pee Wee Herman. 

It’s not all parties and glamor; there’s also a wall of PSAs promoting safe sex, sex education, and National Coming Out Day—all causes of Haring's which were controversial at the time. 

There’s plenty of silliness here, often served up with a healthy dose of political commentary. But there’s also sadness, as Haring grappled with his own mortality. One (intentionally) unfinished piece, created not long before his death, is particularly haunting. 

My eyes!Photo by Jessica Armbruster
A three-piece leather dress/suit work by Madonna in 1983.Photo by Jessica Armbruster
A few programs and bits from Haring's time at WAC, 1984-85.Photo by Jessica Armbruster

But this isn’t a show about the tragedy of a life that ended early. It’s a show about an artist who was a populist, who wanted everyone to have access to art, who enjoyed drawing UFOs as much as he enjoyed drawing schlongs. This show is fun, and you’ll probably have a fun time checking it out, especially if you stop by on a Thursday evening when admission is free. Art is for everybody, after all. That’s something I knew as a tween in the '90s, and Haring and his message had a little bit to do with that. 

“Keith Haring: Art Is for Everybody”
Where: Walker Art Center, 725 Vineland Place, Minneapolis
When: Now through September 8, 2024
Tickets: Free with admission ($18 general; special admissions range from free to $16)

Keith Haring, 'Moses and the Burning Bush,' 1985Photo by Jessica Armbruster
The final room.Photos by Jessica Armbruster

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