Exhibit looks at Warhol's and Haring's spiritual sides

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Tucked within a broader exhibition at The Andy Warhol Museum is a remarkably good and large selection of works by Keith Haring (1958-1990).

Haring, like Warhol, has often been represented one-dimensionally as a graffiti artist known for his inimitable jumpy, reduced, graphic figures.

But, like Warhol, his artistic output was more varied and distinguished than what is popularly recognized. And, like Warhol, his personal life was more complex than may be easily encompassed in a sound bite.

Religion, for example, is probably not the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about either Haring or Warhol.

The sprightly "Personal Jesus ... : The Religious Works of Keith Haring and Andy Warhol" argues that the two artists were concerned with things spiritual, albeit they expressed themselves differently from the way traditional religious artists would have.

An exhibition text panel allows that both were caught up in a "consummate celebration of the '80s New York lifestyle," including its musical, sexual, drug and political components. (The show's title references a song recorded by the British rock band Depeche Mode.)

However, observes museum director Thomas Sokolowski, each maintained a deep faith throughout his life, while they morphed beliefs to suit the character and times of their adult lives. That questioning and realignment of authority, begun in the '60s, was also typical of the era Haring and Warhol (1928-1987) lived in.

"Each in his own way collapsed the sacred and the profane into one synergistic entity," Sokolowski says.

Both were born in Pennsylvania -- Warhol in Pittsburgh and Haring in Reading -- and both died in New York.

Warhol was reared a Byzantine Catholic, attending Mass three times on Sundays with his mother, and he continued attending daily Mass throughout his life. Among the last works he created before his death was a series based upon Leonardo da Vinci's "The Last Supper." A work from that series, mixing Christ's table with motorcycles and other pop symbols, is one of two wall-sized pieces in the exhibition.

The other is an untitled 1987 painting by Haring of a huge, red, yellow-eyed devil with a Pinocchio nose that spears through the head of one of the artist's trademark jittery black and white figures and penetrates the body of another. Haring grew up Protestant, and some of his most hard-hitting works attack the greasy charlatanism of television evangelists.

Warhol, educated at Carnegie Mellon University (then Carnegie Tech) and a successful member of the New York commercial art community, is more polished than Haring, his approach more sophisticated stylistically and in intent. But the emotional power of Haring's works is intense, buoyed by often Day-Glo colors that revisited '60s psychedelic, his cartoon-like directness and the almost naivete of his outrage.

One of the most arresting works in the exhibition is by Haring. A large black-specked, red cross dominates a yellow canvas. Upon it hangs a lavender heart. At each side, bent naked figures of indeterminable gender defecate dollar bills that pile up at the cross's foot. The title is "Purple Heart 5 Nov. 1989." Haring's potent commentary on the spiritual vacuum that facilitates military sacrifice in service of capitalist interests was not painted during the Vietnam or current conflicts yet remains as applicable today.

Similarly shocking is Warhol's "Raphael Madonna -- $6.99" of 1985, a 13-foot-high canvas that juxtaposes the appropriated art historical image with a price sticker reading "$6.99." While it may be viewed as scandalous, the work may also be interpreted as an indictment of a culture that puts cash over values, and perhaps even of a church that has contributed to the desecration of its own ethical base. (The painting was reproduced on the program of Warhol's memorial service at St. Patrick Cathedral, New York.)

Much more is packed into this exhibition, including several works from Warhol's "Crosses" and his "Skull" series that exemplify his command of graphic presentation, and works by mom Julia Warhola that are a reminder of the unlikely alignment they shared throughout life. Archival materials continue to expand the understanding of Warhol, here including a bishop's crosier he probably found in a second-hand shop, a crucifix made of Bolivian coins, a cross of seashells, a Bible and a Quran.

Seventeen silkscreens from Haring's cryptic "The Blueprint Drawings" are filled with violent and sexual imagery, including flying saucers that have a suspicious resemblance to female genitalia. Perhaps most unexpected is the "Apocalypse Series (w. William Burroughs)," 20 silkscreens that are stylistically removed from Haring's usual line, combining collage and drawings. The imagery and accompanying quotes by the beat novelist are a perfect, and formidable, fit.

Beneath the second panel, for example -- which includes pictures of the Mona Lisa and drawings of explosions and a chimney "ejaculating blue sparks" -- Burroughs' drumming prose begins, "The planet is pulling loose from its moorings, careening into space, spilling cities and mountains and seas into the void, spinning faster and faster as days and nights flash by like subway stations."

The more things change, the more they stay the same. In that regard, we might think of Warhol and Haring as visionary.

"Personal" continues through Sept. 2 in the entrance gallery and on floors 2 and 7, at 117 Sandusky St., North Shore. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays and until 10 p.m. Fridays. Admission is $12, seniors $9, students and children $8; 412-237-8300 or www.warhol.org.

Post-Gazette art critic Mary Thomas may be reached at mthomas@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1925.


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