Photography: Mark McNulty / markmcnulty.co.uk/

Keith Haring

Tate Liverpool - Until 10th November

Paul Cassidy was born and raised in Kirkby. He was my friend. He was young. Too young. He lived life in the moment, obsessing over music, was a skilled gossip and a lover of tea. Working as a DJ at alternative nights in clubs in Liverpool and Manchester, he had a broad palette of tastes from electro pop to Throbbing Gristle, from the jangle of Glasgow to the industrial slam of Laibach. He mixed it up. His passion and love for music would eventually lead him to a job in London, working for Rough Trade. He was at his happiest in these times, calling his hungover mates in Liverpool early in the morning, and taunting them over some free records he’d just been given by Bill Drummond, Geoff Travis or some other such notable influencer.

A proud working class gay man, Paul, like many others, was used to fighting back. He’d grown up facing homophobia at every turn. The AIDS pandemic, the first cases of which were reported in the early 80s, fed into society’s prejudices, highlighted with a British survey in 1987 reporting that 75 per cent of people thought homosexuality was “always or mostly wrong”. In 1988, Thatcher’s government enacted Section 28, a law first mooted as early as 1981, which banned local councils from “promoting homosexuality” in sex education classes, further stigmatising gay and bisexual men. Just as in America, with Ronald Reagan refusing to recognise the urgency until 1984 as AIDS spread through communities, the British government failed to act in any meaningful way until 1987. Being gay became more an act of political resistance than it had ever been. Paul Cassidy and thousands of others became activists, working together to fight the state sponsored prejudice they were faced with. Pride meant protest, not just party. And the protest needed allies, people with real power to influence. Strong figureheads to highlight the struggle and strive for change. KEITH HARING was one such figure.

A walk around the upper floor of Tate Liverpool’s Keith Haring exhibition, the first major exhibition in the UK of the artist’s work, brings a number of emotional responses. It’s almost impossible to resist smiles at the earlier works: the chalk drawings from the subway, influenced by Warhol and Lichtenstein, William Burroughs, Aboriginal art, Chinese calligraphy, and graffiti artists such as Jean-Michel Basquiat. The playful shapes and characters drawn without plan, each stroke of the chalk a commitment, impossible to take back. Haring filled the subway system with these works, and the joy for him was in their temporary nature and the subway as a public art space, where his work would be seen by people who didn’t necessarily frequent galleries and museums. Dedicated to creating truly public art, with the widest possible audience, he encouraged people to watch, pass comment, and interact with his creations as he was making them. Art from the streets and for the streets.

“All his work was in some way a form of resistance, a reaction to prejudice and a plea for justice”

So began a brutally short career packed with rich, expressive impact. Art for change.

In the late 70s and early 80s, New York was burnt out, bankrupt and boarded up. Huge swathes of the city had been abandoned to dereliction. Rent was cheap. At the same time, Wall Street was booming, the money men and women were making more and more. This dichotomous atmosphere led to a cultural explosion, a heady mix of black and white cultures, gay and straight, uptown and downtown threading together to a backbeat of the new music, rap and hip hop. At the heart of this movement, this creative force were artists such as Keith Haring, and his vibrant, singular vision, instantly iconic, entirely unique and vital. Recurring themes – the future, TV, computers, love, robots, barking dogs, religion, money, dancing figures and the famous ‘radiant baby’ – became motifs for the time, for all time. The man with the hole in his stomach, a comment on the death of John Lennon. Atomic symbols and flying saucers a comment on the space race and the very real danger of nuclear war.

Perhaps Haring’s greatest legacy, so well represented in the Tate exhibition, is his work as an AIDS educator and activist. The immediacy and power of these images, in particular to take the simple message of safe sex across the world, was highly charged, urgent and pressing. His reactions and responses to nuclear disarmament, apartheid and the growing threat of crack cocaine in New York remain as relevant today as they always were.

The final section of this brilliantly designed and staged exhibition sees Haring’s work take on a much darker tone, weighted with finality, threat and fear. There are apocalyptic images, blackened figures of devil-horned sperm, and stark visions of the very real link between sex and the death Haring was facing at the time.

Keith Haring Image 2

Haring went from the underground club culture and the counterculture of New York to a global star in just over a decade. A star whose work strongly resonates still to this day. Working with artists whose star was in the ascendant – Madonna, Grace Jones, Basquiat, Malcolm McLaren and Vivenne Westwood – all the time breaking or blending the barriers between high art and low art. The early days of his career were a celebration of the DIY ethic, so wonderfully depicted at the Tate exhibition with a wall of his cheap, photocopied posters and flyers advertising art sales and shows. All his work was, in some way, a form of resistance. A fight for recognition and against oppression in all its forms. A reaction to prejudice and a plea for justice. The Tate exhibition manages to straddle the line perfectly between this resistance, this refusal to accept, and the profound and innate sense of fun and cynicism in Haring’s work.

Paul Cassidy’s time with Rough Trade was a happy period for him, a time where he felt he was finding his place in the world. He had many things he wanted to achieve, and was enjoying life in the capital. While in London, he was diagnosed with pneumonia at North Middlesex Hospital, and so began a chain of events that would lead to a diagnosis of AIDS. He eventually returned to Liverpool and, on a late October Sunday afternoon in 1994, he passed away at home surrounded by friends and family. He was 28 years old, and a Keith Haring fan.

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