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Movie Review

The fast, colorful rise of an '80s art dynamo

By Sebastian Smee
Globe Staff / October 1, 2008
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Through his vibrant, linear art, Keith Haring gave warm-and-fuzzy feelings a hip, pulsating appeal in 1980s New York. As that blithe decade recedes, he shines ever brighter as one of its most likable products.

Haring came to New York from Kutztown, Pa. In this engaging film - a taut collage of contemporary and archival footage with frank, open-hearted interviews - we hear from his churchgoing family back in Kutztown, from Haring himself, and from his many friends - people like fellow artist Kenny Scharf, dealer Tony Shafrazi, and friend Yoko Ono.

The film opens with Haring, himself, in voiceover: "I was in New York exactly the right time and exactly the right place," he says. And then: "Wherever you are is the center. But I can be in more than one place at the same time."

Both comments introduce themes in the film to come. On the one hand, we get a snapshot of New York's art scene and gay culture in the 1980s, as Andy Warhol hovered over young dynamos like Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat, and the art market turned edgy idealism into bare-faced greed with its usual efficiency. On the other, we get a portrait of Haring himself: effervescent, opportunistic, compassionate, galvanizing.

In New York, where he arrived after a spell at University of Pittsburgh, Haring experienced a sexual awakening that unleashed zinging, bold pictures inspired by cartoons and graffiti and strewn with phalluses.

Haring's family was bemused, as much as anything, by his success. From them we hear that he was constantly drawing as a child, that he loved Walt Disney, and that everyone loved him. They were unsure how to cope with his homosexuality, but their underlying warmth is hard to miss. They welcomed his boyfriends into their home - although he felt obliged to introduce them, with mutually understood irony, as his "bodyguards."

Haring had arrived in New York as hip-hop and graffiti art were taking off. Finding new ways to zip together the worlds of high art, street culture, and commerce, he intoxicated those around him, attracting not only fellow artists but stars like Madonna, Grace Jones, William Burroughs, and Bill T. Jones. Very simply, he wanted his art to be seen by as many people as possible, and collaborations, commissions, street murals, and souvenir trinkets were all ways of achieving his goal. He embraced them.

Haring never got a chance to grow out of the '80s. He died of AIDS-related illnesses in early 1990. He seems to have remained buoyant and irrepressible right to the end, making the accounts of his final months and of the memorial services after his death all the more affecting.

The Universe of Keith Haring

Directed by: Christina Clausen

Starring: Keith Haring

At: Museum of Fine Arts

Running time: 95 minutes

Unrated

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