Photo Credit: Jacqueline Cho
A review of the AGO exhibit
Jacqueline Cho, Contributor
I was not an especially artistically skilled child (and to be fair, I am still not an artistically skilled adult). Art class never brought any particular joy for me until my third-grade art teacher insisted we had to learn about the artwork of Keith Haring. While we didn’t delve too much into Haring’s AIDS or anti-apartheid activism as a room full of 8-year-old Texans, I delighted in learning about an artist whose work I could emulate through my own drawings. Ever since this class, Keith Haring has been one of my favourite artists.
Getting older, and learning about Haring’s activism, I only grew to admire him more. When I learned that the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) would play host to the traveling exhibit Keith Haring: Art Is for Everybody, I jumped at the chance to take advantage of my free AGO membership.
Curated by Sarah Loyer, the exhibit takes great care not only to exhibit the breadth of Haring’s art, but rather the intention behind it. Every piece — be it a piece of artwork, flyer, journal entry, or other ephemera — has a specific purpose, whether to showcase Haring’s artwork, activism, or personal life. The exhibit in this manner is almost like a biography of Haring rather than just a display of some of his finest pieces.
Opening with a large piece showcasing Haring’s anti-apartheid views alongside relevant animations, the exhibit then flows into eight different rooms that grandly display different aspects of Haring’s artwork. Each of the rooms demonstrates different aspects of Haring’s life and art, with the first room showcasing some of his most popular and famous pieces. The second room displays some of Haring’s earliest graffiti works alongside his arrest records and journal entries. This room then flows into three others, with one showcasing Haring’s pop shop, friendship with other American artists, and pro-gay activism. Finally, the exhibit then ends with pieces surrounding Haring’s AIDS activism, including various promotional pieces for pamphlets and Haring’s final piece, the famous unfinished painting.
This exhibit was deeply moving, and I enjoyed every bit of it. However, I would be remiss if I did not mention the hypocrisy of both the exhibit itself and the institution that displays it. The exhibit makes no secret of Haring’s activism and his deviant status bestowed by the law, showcasing Haring’s early arrest records next to his initial subway graffiti artworks. Furthermore, the exhibit opens with a large work that proudly proclaims, “Free South Africa,” demonstrating Haring’s anti-apartheid position. The exhibit does not shy away from other aspects of Haring’s activist ties, displaying his work for various AIDS groups around America.
Yet, as much as the exhibit stresses that Haring was anti-apartheid — to the point of opening the exhibit with a piece that explicitly states to end the South African apartheid — the AGO arguably fails to demonstrate these same values. A pro-Palestinian and Indigenous curator, Wanda Nanibush, was dismissed from the AGO in December 2023 due to her explicitly pro-Palestinian and anti-apartheid views.
While this hypocrisy is disappointing, I am grateful to have been able to witness the exhibit’s only Canadian stop. And, while I can only encourage any future visitors to take advantage of seeing the exhibit while it’s still here, it is important to keep in mind the position and opinions of the institution that houses it.
Keith Haring: Art Is for Everybody is on display at the Art Gallery of Ontario until March 17, 2024.