The Universe of Keith Haring Dir. Christina Clausen

[Arthouse Films; 2008]

Anyone who's moved to New York City in the past 18 years has surely experienced a feeling of fraudulence. It remains a vibrant metropolis, but it's not the "old New York." Long gone is the hotbed of creativity remembered by long-time residents who pine for an East Village of artists and oddballs -- rather than New York University students. And with the passing of those days went Keith Haring, the artist who first caught the public's attention with white-chalked sketches filling the black, empty advertising spaces of New York's subway tunnels.

It seems apropos that the artist, who thrived on the grit and indulgence of New York in the ’80s, would die in the early weeks of 1990. His art began on the streets, a purely populist endeavor. But as the Reagan era progressed, he pushed back against the conservative agenda, leading a new generation of Pop artists who imbued their form with meaningful, political content.

In the new documentary The Universe of Keith Haring, the relationship between artist and era is undeniable, despite little assistance from director Christina Clausen, who pieces together the film with frustrating carelessness. Haring fans will appreciate the archival footage of the artist's early years in New York and previously unheard audio excerpts from interviews with biographer John Gruen. But newcomers may be turned off (and confused) by the film's disorder, a real loss considering Haring’s desire to make art accessible to everyone.

The Universe of Keith Haring loosely traces a chronological path from Haring’s conservative upbringing in the small town of Kutztown, Pennsylvania to his death from complications of AIDS at the age of 31. Interviews with his parents and sisters give viewers a sense of how radical Haring must have seemed amongst such prosaic, American normalcy. We hear how Keith’s father, Allen, taught him to draw cartoons and of the young artist’s affinity for Walt Disney. Lifelong friend Kermit Oswald describes how, by the age of 10, the two boys had become obsessed with art, memorizing the details of Picasso’s oeuvre.

These interviews could be engrossing were it not for their distracting style. After each new person speaks, the action freezes, the camera zooms in, and the sound of a computer mouse-click brings up a red box with the interviewee’s name – which then disappears before you’ve absorbed the information. But at least the names are given. Clausen foregoes any other helpful guideposts, leaving the viewer lost as she moves through the decade.

What is clear is that, after graduating from high school in 1976, Haring left Kutztown to attend a commercial art school in Pittsburgh. During one of the film’s richest sequences, we see Oswald’s personal footage of Haring at a Pierre Alechinsky exhibit at the Pittsburgh Arts and Crafts Center. The faded film shows Haring wandering the rooms, touching the artwork, amazed that someone else had gained legitimacy with bold, geometric lines like his own. Not long thereafter Haring left Pittsburgh to attend New York’s School of Visual Arts, in the city that would inspire an artistic movement.

Artists Kenny Scharf and Samantha McEwan describe their time with Haring at SVA, where Haring first learned about semiotics and the communicative power of symbols. Old home videos show the students partying at Club 57, where each night of the week had a different theme and the group dressed up, performed, and experimented in every way imaginable. It’s a tantalizing peek at the lost avant-garde scene New Yorkers lament.

In 1982, Haring had his first exhibition at the Tony Shafrazi Gallery in Soho. His phallic celebrations, dancing figures, and dynamic lines were now officially “Keith Haring.” It launched him from street artist to established artist, garnering the attention of collectors and celebrities, including Haring’s soon-to-be mentor, Andy Warhol, who the group of friends fondly called “Papa Pop.”

All along the way, we see Haring’s genuine generosity, his social appetite (both platonic and amorous), and his commitment to keeping his art available for all to see.

But whenever the film returns to Kutzown, as it inevitably does, reframing Haring’s life from his family’s perspective, a piano pings out a trite melody, killing New York’s energy and momentum. While it gives a sense of the disparate worlds in which Haring lived, it also gives the film a made-for-TV feel. In general, the film’s score is surprisingly tame. Angelo Talocci’s original soundtrack, with its sentimental melancholy, is too contrived for the subject matter. You don’t need to add emotion to Haring’s life or work – it radiates from both.

Silvia Giulietti’s editing tangles the already diffuse story. At times, the visuals don’t match the audio, as in when McEwan describes the apartment Scharf and Haring shared. She describes Haring’s area, immaculate and organized, and we see a photo of him in the apartment. Then McEwan describes Scharf’s corner, messy and chaotic – but, again, we see Haring in his tidy haven. And because there’s no narrator to ease shifts in time or place, the film depends on Clausen or Giulietti to construct a tightly woven story. Neither does.

In the end, it is Haring himself who makes The Universe of Keith Haring worthwhile. He and his art are energizing and exciting. They fill a room with joy. Appearances from other important figures in Haring’s life – art critic Jeffrey Deitch, choreographer and sometimes collaborator Bill T. Jones, and gallery owner Tony Shafrazi, among others – give us a sense of who Keith Haring was and what he means to the history of art. Who knows? Maybe somewhere a misfit 10-year-old boy is memorizing the details of this artist's life, imprinting his mind with Keith Haring’s lines.

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