Keith Haring review: the political side of a pop-art legend

Keith Haring: the Political Line, an exhibition of the late artist’s work, opened at San Francisco’s De Young last week just days after the GOP swept the US midterm elections. This coincidence is hard to overlook while viewing Haring’s wildly familiar and celebrated paintings of the 1980s, works driven by his sense of difference and, as the exhibition emphasizes, a fervent political consciousness with which he pushed back at the Reagan-Thatcher conservatism of his time.

Haring’s work, made during his condensed, prolific career — he died at 31 from Aids complications – entered into broad cultural consciousness with neon colors, energetic line work, and an urban pulse, though these attributes, the show argues, were just a facet of the artist’s interests and achievements. The Political Line, then, serves both as an art historical reconsideration of the artist’s popular output, as well as a welcome celebration of art with activist inclinations.

The exhibition, organised by guest curator Dieter Buchhart and the De Young, trades the ebullient, candy-colored pop sensibility usually associated with Haring for graver images and somber colour schemes. The works on view tend toward black, ochre and red, with occasional bursts of more vibrant hues punctuating thematic sections. These organize Haring’s work according to various political and cultural concerns: sections of the show are organized by themes of greed, racism, ecological disaster and disease.
If the last major museum show devoted to his work, organized in 1997 by the Whitney, focused on the public, convivial nature of his work, even including the muted thump of club music in the background, The Political Line has a more solemn, silent vibe – a room containing small, glowing black light paintings, for example, evokes a darkened catacomb rather than a disco. The show begins with a human-scaled fibreglass Statue of Liberty, her robes painted crimson and entirely inscribed with Haring characters, line work, and tags contributed by graffiti artist LA II. This 1982 work is set in the centre of a room, in front of a large painting of black-lined figures fleeing an alien ray, and adjacent to a seemingly blood-spattered early drawing expressing a meat is murder message, adding to a passionate critical opposition to ominous forces of political power.

The show goes on to provides humanizing context with works and ephemera that speak to his position and range. His 1978 Manhattan Penis Drawings for Ken Hicks, works he made in public places as a display of gay sexuality are seen here, as are ransom note-like collages made in 1978 from newspaper headlines, many referring to Reagan and cultural unease. There is a case displaying Polaroids taken by Haring’s pal Andy Warhol, and spiral-bound journals in which Haring has handwritten his influences and insecurities. With these inclusions, it’s almost impossible not to be swayed by the heartfelt ethos.

This is evident throughout the exhibition, in his infamous subway drawings, in numerous works that depict surprisingly grisly, almost surrealistic acts of torture, some bringing to mind the photographs from Abu Ghraib, and in large, orgiastic images of crowds turned into patterns of primal violence. Of note is a recurring figure with a circular hole in its center, a form inspired by the 1980 assassination of John Lennon.

Haring seemed unstoppable at the time. His prolific work ethic, some conjecture, was driven by a sense that his life would be cut short. An abundance of material then seems a fitting attribute for surveys of his work, though within this vast show, the inclusions sometimes feel repetitive. But then again, Haring’s targets haven’t been reconciled – making his persistent sense of resistance worthy of this platform.

The pop artist whose transgressions went too far – for the PC art world

His works provoked riots in the 1970s. Now Allen Jones is back at the Royal Academy after 35 years in the wilderness
Allen Jones (born 1937) has been demonised. In 1969 he made a group of three sculptures of scantily-clad female figures. They were slightly larger than life and arranged in positions that enabled them (with the addition of a glass top or padded seat) to be turned into a table, a chair and a hat stand. These super-mannequins were highly modelled, wigged and leather-booted, and unavoidably realistic. When first exhibited in 1970 they provoked outrage among the feminist community. Jones’s 1978 retrospective of graphic art at the ICA caused a near riot even though the sculptures weren’t shown. In 1986, when the chair went on display, it had acid thrown over it by an incensed extremist.

The price of being controversial is usually increased fame, but for Jones it has resulted in his work being ostracised in this country. His last museum show here was a selection of prints at the Barbican in 1995. Before that, the most recent survey of his work took place at the Serpentine Gallery in 1979, which means that he hasn’t had a proper retrospective in Britain for 35 years. This is scarcely believable: Jones is a hugely popular and successful figure in Europe (particularly in Germany), and is featured in museums all over the world. He has worked extensively in America and China, and is widely celebrated for the part he played in the origins of Pop Art in the 1960s. But he seems to have transgressed some unwritten taboo and been banished from the museums of his homeland. Could this be because so many of them are now run by timid bureaucrats?
Revealingly, a recent Jones retrospective organised by a German museum was turned down by the woman director of one of the main public galleries in London with the words ‘we don’t want any trouble’. But this is not just about political correctness; crucially, it’s about art. So, when the Royal Academy mounted a survey of Modern British Sculpture in 2011, co-curated incidentally by the director of Tate Britain, Penelope Curtis, not only was Jones excluded but, as he ruefully points out, the last figurative sculptor in the show was Henry Moore. It’s as if history has been rewritten according to the abstract thesis of modernism, and figurative work (of the kind Jones has devoted his life to) has been airbrushed out.
Jones explains the situation, as he sees it. ‘For artists of my generation, coming on stream in the Sixties, whatever you did you had to reckon with American gestural abstraction. The problem with figurative art at the time was that it had run out of steam, but the polemic was that you couldn’t do it any more, which seemed absurd after 4,000 years of people making representations of each other. To me the Pop movement was incontrovertibly a swing of the pendulum back towards representation. The problem wasn’t with representation, it was the age-old one — with the language. And the language had run out of steam. Using urban imagery as source material revitalised figurative painting, without a doubt. And recently the main thrust of the avant-garde from Basquiat and Schnabel up to Koons and company has been figuration with a vengeance.’
Coinciding with Jones’s RA retrospective is a commercial show of his drawings at Thomas Gibson Fine Art, 39 St James’s Street, SW1 (11 November – 9 December). Drawing is clearly central to his art, so does he draw every day? ‘If I’m not painting, yes — I think through the pencil, really. What I like is to have a strong pictorial idea and then make a storyboard on one sheet, rather than working in notebooks. I like the idea that you can see an image developing; you can refer back and play with the possibilities.’ This suggests a habit of working in series which is, in fact, one of the strategies that Jones employs. ‘If I know I’ve got a sound structure, I always square it up. It becomes a kind of scaffolding to hang the painting on. The drawing has to take its chance then, and often what I call “the good bit” in the end just has to go.’Thus it is not before time that the Royal Academy is mounting a full-career Allen Jones retrospective (in Burlington Gardens, 13 November 2014 – 25 January 2015). The exhibition will be a revelation to many, not least for the amount of sculpture on view: more than 50 years of creativity will be represented by some 80 works, only half of which are paintings. ‘I’m very pleased that the Hirshhorn Museum [in Washington DC] is lending a big diptych which I painted at the Chelsea Hotel. It’s never been seen here. And there’s a very nice little painting called “Curious Woman” also coming from America.’ A big room of paintings will be followed by what he calls ‘The Ballroom’, filled with large steel and wooden dancing figures. In the third large gallery will be the fibreglass and wood single figures arranged on a diagonal (Jones calls this ‘The Chorus Line’), dating from 1964 to now. There will be a room of drawings and the infamous furniture sculpture will be there too, set within the context of a lifetime’s remarkable achievement.
He constantly goes ‘people watching’ in search of new ideas for his art. ‘I went into Soho yesterday — all those lives going on — everyone in some way presenting themselves to the world. What happens is that I see something, often in a restaurant or theatre. Suddenly people will lean in together or their faces overlap, or the way the jacket goes, introduces something new and stops one’s depiction becoming formulaic.’ Allen Jones is an immensely charming, erudite and sophisticated artist who uses colour, subject and form in inventive and intriguing ways. His career deserves to be properly reassessed, though quite clearly there is still a mass of prejudice against him in this country. But he has hope for the future in the response of a younger generation. ‘I find the attitude of people under 35 to sexuality and display is that it’s just a part of the spectrum of existence,’ he says. ‘In a way the feminist critique is a total red herring. It’s not what the work is about.’ In fact, Jones’s paintings and sculptures deliberately pose the question: ‘What is art?’ For him, it’s all about ways of seeing and states of perception. Finally, I ask him if he sees his work as provocative. ‘I hope it is — provocative as art, as all work of the avant-garde in its time must have been.’

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 1 November 2014

Tags: Allen Jones, British art, Feminism, Painting, Pop Art, Royal academy, Sculpture, Sexism, visual art       

Sigmar Polke, the radical subject of a new Tate Modern retrospective, was Dusseldorf's answer to Roy Lichtenstein, finds Alastair Sooke

By Alastair Sooke

"Witty. Sexy. Gimmicky. Glamorous. Big business.” That is how the British artist Richard Hamilton defined Pop art in a letter written in 1957. Most gallery-goers today would understand exactly what he meant: think of Warhol’s sexy visions of Marilyn and his glamorous portraits of Jacqueline Kennedy, or Lichtenstein’s gimmicky yet witty comic-book paintings, which parody warfare and gender stereotypes. As for “big business”, one only has to look at the prices achieved by canonical Pop artists in recent years: last November, Warhol’s Silver Car Crash (Double Disaster) (1963) sold for a record-breaking $105million (£65.5 million) at auction in America.
But the history of Pop art is not as familiar as you might think. Pop is often understood as a US phenomenon. We perceive it as an art form intimately bound up with the rampant consumer culture that emerged across the Atlantic in the aftermath of the Second World War. Even the Britons, including Hamilton, who supposedly anticipated by a decade the developments of Pop art in New York and Los Angeles in the early Sixties were responding with the enthusiasm of devotees to totems of American capitalism: Chrysler cars and Coke bottles, Playboy pin-ups and Minnie Mouse.
More recently, though, art historians have been investigating less-known aspects of Pop, such as the roles played by forgotten but important female artists – the likes of Rosalyn Drexler, Pauline Boty and Evelyne Axell. Next autumn, Tate Modern will mount a revelatory exhibition called The World Goes Pop, focusing on how the “spirit of Pop” flourished internationally, in Latin America, Asia and the Middle East.
Before that, though, another exhibition at the Tate, a full-scale retrospective for the maverick German artist Sigmar Polke (1941-2010), offers a reminder that Pop art was not an exclusively Anglo-American affair. Polke belonged to a generation of German artists, including his more famous contemporary Gerhard Richter, who launched their careers in Düsseldorf in the early Sixties with a movement known as “Capitalist Realism” – essentially, a Teutonic version of Pop.
Unlike Richter, a meticulous painter whose work has long enjoyed success on the art market, Polke is a tricky artist to characterise. Like Richter, he is known primarily as a painter, but his work is irrepressibly experimental and draws upon a bewildering jumble of inspirations, from philosophy and mineralogy to alchemy and hallucinogenic drugs.
What unifies his output is best described as a kind of anarchic and satirical attitude or world view, a tongue-in-cheek, subversive spirit that has little time for stuffy hierarchies or bourgeois conventions. Along with the slightly younger Martin Kippenberger, Polke is arguably the most avant-garde figure in post-war German art.
Born in the Lower Silesia town of Oels, Polke grew up in the Soviet zone of occupation before his family migrated to the West German city of Düsseldorf in 1953. Following an apprenticeship to a glass-painter when he was 18, he enrolled in 1961 at Düsseldorf’s Kunstakademie, where he met Richter, a fellow student, as well as an artist called Konrad Lueg, who later became the art dealer Konrad Fischer.
Two years later, inspired by examples of the new American Pop art that they had encountered in shows and magazines, the trio collaborated together with a fourth artist, Manfred Kuttner, on an exhibition in the window of an abandoned shop in Düsseldorf. Richter described it at the time as the “first exhibition of 'German Pop Art’. Little documentation of the show has survived, but supposedly Lueg took a branded tub of washing powder and turned it upside down, while Polke strung together several magazines and hung them up like a mobile sculpture.
Within a few months, Richter and Lueg had also staged a celebrated “happening” called “A Demonstration for Capitalist Realism” inside a furniture showroom in Düsseldorf. As well as presenting their own works, the pair displayed furniture on plinths, a papier mâché figure of John F Kennedy and offered themselves as living artworks. German Pop was up and running.
On the face of it, Capitalist Realism shares many affinities with American Pop. Just as Lichtenstein made a series of paintings of solitary objects, including a sponge, a tyre, a portable radio and a ball of twine, so Richter concentrated on banal, everyday things such as a table and a roll of lavatory paper. Like Warhol, he drew upon the mass-produced, commercial imagery of advertising, as in his paintings Folding Dryer (1962) and Ferrari (1964).
So did Polke. As well as early drawings in ballpoint pen of a bar of soap and folded shirts, he made paintings of socks, more folded shirts, a broken-off bar of partially unwrapped chocolate, and biscuits – all of them hijacking the visual strategies of advertising.
Comparisons between the Americans and their German contemporaries are often irresistible. In 1963, for instance, Lichtenstein created Hot Dog with Mustard. That same year, Polke produced The Sausage Eater, in which an eyeless, disembodied head in profile consumes a serpentine string of brown frankfurters.
Around the time that Lichtenstein became interested in replicating coloured patterns of so-called “Ben-Day dots”, which allowed publishers to reproduce pictures mechanically, Polke also began investigating commercial printing techniques. His Rasterbilder (“Screened Paintings”), which he began in 1963, borrowed the “raster” dots of halftone newspaper illustrations. These would become some of his best-known images, inevitably leading to talk about his distinctive “Polke dots”.
Yet for all the superficial similarities between what was happening in New York and Düsseldorf in the early Sixties, there are also some significant differences. According to Mark Godfrey, who has curated Tate’s forthcoming retrospective, the way that Lichtenstein and Polke each used dots is one of them.
“Polke first paints dots with the rubber on the back of a pencil, dipping it in ink, dotting it down,” he explains. “Later, he uses a screen. But when you look closely at them, they are very messy. When you look at Lichtenstein’s dots, they are pristine, sharp-edged. Lichtenstein’s work in those years is technically very proficient, whereas Polke’s looks casual: the perspective is wrong, the paint thickness varies, or the background drips into the foreground. There’s an amusing, clunky quality to it.”
Why did Polke want to make deliberate mistakes? To answer that, it is important to understand the context of the historical moment in which he grew up. As Godfrey explains, living in West Germany did not offer the same experience as capitalist America during that era.
“To be a consumer in America in the Sixties,” he says, “you just go and buy your Coke cans. But as a young artist in his 20s who was still pretty poor, Polke experienced consumer culture as objects of desire he couldn’t have. Warhol and Lichtenstein were surrounded by a glut of things, but in West Germany they were still living in austere times.”
“When I came to the West, I saw many, many things for the first time,” Polke once recalled. “But I also saw the prosperity of the West critically. It wasn’t really heaven.”
The style of his early work was also linked to the spectre of the Second World War and the toxic legacy of Nazism. “Polke was growing up after a moment when Germany had been obsessed with purity, with clarity, with the Nazi idea of a single truth – the truth of the Führer and Nazi policy,” explains Godfrey. “His critique of that was always to think about images in terms of their dissolution or corruption.” It has been suggested that his interest in swirls, squiggles and organic, kidney-shaped forms was a reaction against the angularity of the swastika and Nazi design.
German Pop is, says Godfrey, “often more political, to do with a society rebuilding itself. There was a more difficult set of circumstances that the Germans had to deal with when they were making these images of everyday things. Young German artists at the beginning of the Sixties were aware that their parents and people in authority had been part of a generation impacted upon by Nazism. The world around them was trying to forget the past – but their inquiring minds preferred to trouble that repression.”
One way that Polke interrogated the state of German society was through his use of humour and satire. His painting of socks, for instance, is deliberately humdrum and ironic. In The Sausage Eater, the endless frankfurters suggest both gluttony and coercion, as though the eyeless figure is being force-fed. “Sparkling Wine for Everyone”, a crude, watercolour-and-ballpoint doodle that punctures the hollow promises of prosperity uttered by West Germany’s leaders, looks like it could have come from the contemporary artist David Shrigley.
Why Can’t I Stop Smoking? (1964) adopts a similar tone. “You’ve got this man who looks a bit like [Mad Men’s] Donald Draper at the beginning of the Sixties,” says Godfrey, “but his eyes aren’t filled in. The sketchiness of the way he’s drawn: you’d never find that in American Pop.”
 He pauses. “I’d be hard-pressed to think of any point where Polke was merely a follower of American Pop art,” he says, “because his paintings of everyday things have a humour and a charm to them that you don’t often see in American Pop at that point. Some of the work may seem puerile, but it was puerile in a context where that was thoughtful and important, because one had to ask serious questions about the older generation. Polke’s clowning was always motivated by something deeply serious.”