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Movie Review: A Limited Look at The Universe of Keith Haring

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Director Christina Clausen's 90-minute 2008 documentary, The Universe of Keith Haring, is a work filled with love but not enough objectivity. There are things we didn't really need to know to understand who and what Haring was. There are things we might want to know, but aren't really given enough information.

Haring's not as famous as some of the people he rubbed shoulders with, most notably Madonna or Andy Warhol, but despite his brief life, he left a legacy worldwide. You've probably seen some of his colorful cartoons — in posters and murals. Like Warhol's silkscreens, Haring's work has become a style, an imitation of an imitation — from graffiti to art.

While his work has a certain exuberant and simplistic quality, his lifestyle seemed to similarly have had a short-sighted hedonism. The New York art scene is portrayed as one of non-committal sexual couplings, one that celebrated life with the sheer callow joy of a dog. Before his 1990 death at age 31 from complications of AIDS, he was part of a group that included Jean-Michel Basquiat and part of a scene that included sex, drugs, performance art, and pop music.

Born in Reading, Pennsylvania, Haring studied graphic design at The Ivy School of Professional Art in Pittsburgh, but he is best known for being a part of the New York street scene. In New York, he studied at the School of Visual Arts and was inspired by graffiti. His chalk drawings in the subways of New York City drew attention in the 1980s.

Madonna became a friend and his art was used during her Sticky and Sweet tour when she sang "Into the Groove." In the movie is a clip of Madonna performing at his birthday party. Other archival footage includes Grace Jones (if you remember her), Basquiat, Fab 5 Freddy, Haring, Yoko Ono, Warhol, Kenny Scharf, and Junior Vasquez.

Haring was openly gay and he was also a social activist. Yet this movie does not take a critical approach to either the New York art or gay scene or even of his work. Instead, we have a collection of interviews with family and members of the Keith Haring Foundation.

Certainly we don't want to know only the highs (his association with Madonna) but do we really need to know some of the lows or just the mundane? Do we need to know about his small-town life? Perhaps what we really need to know is how his art, popular during his lifetime, making him one of the few art stars and the antithesis of the starving artist, is now viewed historically. Then we could decide what are the important points of this documentary and we could answer the question: Why is this documentary being made and why is this person more important than any other?

Haring's universe touched many people internationally, but we need to know how the world he no longer lives in evaluates the signs he left behind in ours.

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