Thursday, December 18, 2014

Haring and the ancients

•Keith Haring: The Political Line.
  Through February 16, 2015.

•Lines on the Horizon:
  Native American Art from the Weisel Family Collection.

  Through January 4, 2015.
M.H. de Young Memorial Museum,
  50 Tea Garden Drive, Golden Gate Park,
  San Francisco; 415-750-3600
Eastside Road, December 17, 2014—
117_Untitled Self Portrait_1985_Sachs_PA.jpgKeith Haring (1958–1990)
Untitled (Self-Portrait), February 2, 1985
Acrylic on canvas, 48 x 48 in. (121.9 x 121.9 cm)
Private collection
© 2014, Keith Haring Foundation
Plate rabbits.jpgPlate (opposing rabbits), ca. 1010–1130
Earthenware with pigment
3 9/16 x 6 11/16 x 9 1/4 in. (9 x 17 x 23.5 cm)
Gift of the Thomas W. Weisel Family to the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

WHAT A FASCINATING contemplation of contrasts, these two exhibitions! And yet there are common threads, I think, latent though they may be, which makes the visit particularly moving. On the most perceptual side, that thread is linearity — lines of imagery and design; more metaphorically, linearity of development. (Perhaps the exhibition titles were meant to recognize that.)

On a less perceptual side, there's a link of regret — that particular kind that comes in contemplating irrecoverable loss. The incredibly prolific and immediately popular Keith Haring died far too young, of complications related to AIDS, in 1990, only thirty-one years old. And the native American work, of course, represents cultures now gone entirely, a thousand years ago or more recently. (Of course the traditions continue in work, even excellent work, being done today: but the cultures expressed in this exhibition are gone forever.

In the case of Haring another cultural loss occurs to me, not a real one but one constantly threatened: the loss of depth and significance to immediacy; specifically of artistic expression, whatever that is — let's beg the question for the moment — to market agendas. I almost didn't go to the Haring show; of all things it was a short review in the newspaper that influenced the decision, pointing out that the effect of work seen "live" quite displaces that of its all too frequent reproduction. The review suggested this was a function of scale, and some of the paintings here are very big indeed. But it's not only scale: it's the energy of the work that needs to be experienced: energy of drawing, of gesture, of color, of figure-ground, of weight.

Two of the paintings persuade me that Haring was meant to be a very important painter of his time, even of his century: Moses and the Burning Bush (1985) and Walking in the Rain (1989). Nearly all Haring's work can be read for political position, but Moses has what is for me a bigger, deeper implication. It addresses the urgent and eternal forces that lie behind transient desires. Politics is always for the moment, an expression or an activity at a given time toward a given result. Very occasionally a political expression touches deeper issues, perhaps even universal and if not eternal then at least epochal. Goya comes to mind here, and I think Haring's Moses comes close to that degree of depth and intensity. It's as if the existential anguish behind Haring's evident cynicism and scorn is confronted, for once, itself.

As to Walking in the Rain, there's a dual-level linearity here, one composing the figure, the other the ground, that seems to stand for a confrontation of immediacy and timelessness. The technique and imagery are handled so well the confrontation seems almost resolved; the artist leads us to contemplate both, simultaneously. The resulting connection of the individual subject and his condition which is shared by all is all the more poignant. For me, too, both the imagery and the title bring Max Ernst to mind: there's no immediate equivalence, but Haring's allover figuration (which is not at all nervous, merely energetic) recalls Ernst's decalcomanie, and the title recalls Ernst's Europe after the rain.

Haring's paintings, sculptures, and drawings are distributed through a number of rooms, and take time to take in. Along the way, other artists came to mind: Willem de Kooning for his color, energy, and sometimes anger; Philip Guston for the mystery and arbitrariness of his vision; Matisse for the frequent classical simplicity of thick line and the formalism it conveys, Ernst and Goya as I've indicated; even Hieronymus Bosch for his apocalyptic expression of the inescapable commonplace vulgarities of life. I don't think Haring could have worked without these predecessors, without even a conscious awareness of them.

Haring is an essentially urban, even metropolitan artist. To my taste he was too often distracted by the seductive demands of the market: but you could argue that that market is the fertile soil of his inspiration, that his ubiquity in the popular visual clutter of his time is a proper return, like taking table-scraps back to the garden in compost. Even his by-work is nutritive and remarkable, like that of the Surrealists. I think, finally, that he is two artists in one — the glib, commercial, totally accessible post-pop maker of multiples and statements, standing somewhere between Roy Lichtenstein and Jeff Koons; and the intelligent, deep, ultimately tragic inheritor of Abstract Expressionism. This is a very important show.
Attributed to Nampeyo (Hopi-Tewa, ca. 1860–1942)
Vessel, ca. 1890–1910
Earthenware with polychrome
2 15/16 x 10 1/16 in. (7.5 x 25.5 cm)
Gift of the Thomas W. Weisel Family to the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco
ringtail.jpgVessel (ring-tailed cat), ca. 1010–1130
Earthenware with pigment
3 1/4 x 8 1/4 in. (8.2 x 21 cm)
Gift of the Thomas W. Weisel Family to the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco
EXHILARATING, PROVOCATIVE, and ultimately satisfying as the Haring exhibition was, however, simply entering the exhibition of Native American art from the Weisel Family Collection was literally breathtaking. The first piece I chanced to look at was this vessel by the Hopi-Tewa potter Nampeyo, perhaps a century old: the energy of the deep polished background, combined with the abstraction of the imagery, so certain and aloof as to be utterly objective, continued the preoccupation with dualities that Haring's best work had evoked.

Adjacent, though, were a number of Mimbres ceramics from up to a thousand years earlier, and one's sense of scale and scope and universality was immediately overwhelmed. Words cannot convey the serenity and permanence these works have attained. Part of this effect must be attributable to the inherent fragility of the medium. Some vessels have been broken and pieced together; others have had holes knocked into their bottoms, symbolic of their surrendering utility to meaning I suppose, most likely at the time of their burial.

Some, most improbably, seem to be intact. What strength: of material, of purpose; of intent. Everything about these pieces — material, form, volume, color, line, balance, imagery — everything feels completely achieved. These wonderful pieces from a thousand years ago are the Cycladic sculpture of our continent. These photographs barely convey their presence: the imagery, the lopsided form, and the darkened white all give them a false sense of familiarity. Whatever its original purpose, a piece like these is no longer a quotidian thing; seen in person it has the enigmatic immediacy of a fine African tribal mask or, to my kind of comprehension, a late Philp Guston painting, or a musical composition of Giacinto Scelsi's.

These works, and the others in the exhibition, honor the donation from the Weisel Family Collection of some 200 objects to the de Young, including more than fifty pieces of Mimbres ceramics, a stunning accession. Many of the works are much more recent, but little less significant. There are two Navajo First Phase chief's blankets, from the first half of the 19th century, whose austere, bold surfaces are an eloquent response to the ancient ceramics.

Ledger drawing, ca. 1880
Cheyenne (Tsitsitsas)
Colored pencil on paper
7 1/4 x 11 7/8 in. (17.8 x 27.9 cm)
Gift of the Thomas W. Weisel Family to the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco
Wearing blanket (first-phase chief blanket, Ute style), ca. 1840
Wool; weft-faced plain weave, diagonal-join tapestry weave, eccentric curved weft
51 3/4 x 69 1/2 in. (131.4 x 176.5 cm)
Promised gift of the Thomas W. Weisel Family to the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

There's also a series of Cheyenne "ledger drawings" made by a Plains indian — certainly the work seems to be that of an individual — toward the end of the 19th century, when pages of discarded account ledgers took the place, for such artists, of hides, as readier to hand and, no doubt, cheaper. The drawings are made with colored pencil, in some cases apparently brushed with water; nearly all in profile; some with effective use of a dark wash of color to push the image. The static quality of the compositions, and the relatively unmodulated color, suggest a linkage with the work in textile and ceramics, and you can't help wondering about the extent of the artist's awareness of a long tradition.

"Native American" art objects, in this small but evocative exhibition, range over a thousand years of history, a little less than a thousand miles of geography. A similar period in Europe would take you from the weaving of the Bayeux Tapestry to, say, Seurat's A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. I suppose one could link those two works, but it's clear there's a profound difference in orientation between the North American art of that millenium (I haven't mentioned a marvelous Tlingit sculpture of a bear, also in the de Young exhibition) and that of the two sides of the English channel. The contemplation of such differences is, for me at least, endlessly fascinating.


Civic Center said...

Glad to hear that you enjoyed the Haring show, but I doubt if I'll go. I saw an exhibit at the Palm Springs Art Museum some years ago of Haring's "political" art and was appalled by its superficiality and market-driven ethos, especially since there was an exhibit on the other side of the museum at the same time of political art by the great Mexican/San Franciscan artist Enrique Chagoya that was deep, complex, and disturbing.

Do check out The Roads to Arabia at the Asian, by the way, as it covers a few thousand miles of geography over ten thousand years of human culture. It's mind altering.

Curtis Faville said...

Haring defined a certain kind of formality, a vigorous visual signature that he used.

Art critics will often refer to the strength, for instance, of the formalities of ancient art--that of Egypt, or Greece--which become its characteristic feel and meaning. They define its anonymous craftsmen as geniuses.

I see Haring as a kind of craftsman who invented a certain strong visual style. You have to like it or reject it; you can't just ignore it. It's declarative, and shouts.

I don't much like it, but my wife does. She thinks he captures a certain innocence, but I see that innocence as contrived.