Da sämtliche Museen im Corona-Lockdown im Winter 2020/21 wieder geschlossen waren, habe ich die Gelegenheit genutzt um mir die öffentlich zugängliche Skuplturensammlung im Essener Grugapark an zwei aufeinanderfolgenden Wochenenden intensiv anzuschauen. Mein Eindrücke schildere ich in diesem Artikel auf Lokalkompass.
The Museum Folkwang in Essen hosted a big retrospective on Keith Haring from August to November 2020. I visited this exhibition mainly because I was interested in his highly recognizable and simple graphic style. But what struck me is that Keith Haring‘s art emanates a very specific Zeitgeist. His art combines a set of influences that could only have been brought together by a young gay man involved in the New York graffiti scene in the 1980s.
Keith Haring’s biography is shortly outlined in the following. Then the elements of his specific graphic style are discussed. Finally the influences that formed his life and art are laid out.
The main stations of Keith Haring’s short and intensive life are:
- 1958: Keith Haring is born in Reading, Pennsylvania and grows up in nearby Kutztown.
- 1976: He begins studying advertisement art at the Ivy School of Professional Art in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He quickly breaks of his studies and works as a free artist.
- 1978: Keith Haring moves to New York to study at the School of Visual Arts.
- 1979: He moves to the East Village in New York and is involved in the gay community and the underground art and graffiti community there.
- 1980: He leaves the School of Visual Arts, convinced that he can learn nothing more there. He gains increasing acclaim as an artist. He begins making his Subway Drawings on unused black billboards in the New York subway,
- 1981: He gains public attention via several exhibitions.
- 1982: Art collectors are buying his works. He is officially represented by gallery owner Tony Shafraz.
- 1983: Keith Haring begins traveling internationally to present and locally create his art.
- 1986: The Pop Shop opens in New York, where Keith Haring merchandise articles are sold.
- 1988: He is diagnosed with AIDS.
- 1990: Keith Haring dies, aged 31, from the effects of his HIV infection.
Keith Haring’s graphic style is highly recognizable. He depicts simple iconic persons, animals, and objects in a way reminiscent of graffiti and comics. Specific elements of his style are:
- Clear flowing lines: lines of equal width form soft contours and patterns. People, animals, and objects depicted in this way are simplified and iconic. This visual language was influenced by comics that Keith Haring’s father drew for him as a child and the graffiti he later encountered in New York. Keith Haring drew these lines with paintbrushes and pens and did not use spray cans.
- Patterns of consistent density: Beyond the lines that form the contours of object, he often filled the remaining spaces with lines and dots that form a pattern of consistent density. The resulting pictures sometimes look like abstract patterns from afar, and only reveal their pictorial content from up close. This visual style reminds of the abstract art of Pierre Alechinsky and Jackson Pollock, and Egyptian and Aztec ornamental art. When he drew a big window painting in Australia, the local public interpreted it as referring to Aboriginal art.
- Few contrasting colors: his artworks often have only 2-3 contrasting colors. He often drew black lines on colorful or white lines on black backgrounds.
- Variety of themes: Keith Haring’s more popular works simply seem joyful, depicting motives such as dancing people, radiating babies, barking dogs, UFOs and televisions. But many of his works also include political messages against gentrification, racism, apartheid, homophobia, drug abuse, and AIDS. His works did always also include a dark streak of homoerotic sex and violence. After his AIDS diagnosis this extended into dark hellish visions of disease and death (see picture below), reminiscent of the tableaus of Hieronymous Bosch.
Keith Haring’s life and art combines specific influences that could only have been brought together by a young gay man living in New York in the 1980s. His main influences were:
- Academic high art: Despite appearances, Keith Haring’s roots do not lie in the graffiti and street art scene. He studied at two art and design schools. When he saw an exhibition of abstract paintings by Pierre Alechinsky in 1977/78, he saw similarities to his own work (see example below). This convinced him that he had something relevant to contribute with his own art. Besides western abstract art, his influences also include Japanese calligraphy, Aztec symbols (see picture below) and Egyptian hieroglyphs. Within a few years, he gained public acclaim by the art establishment with collectors buying his works, and official representation by gallery owner Tony Shafraz. Already in 1982 Keith Haring participated at the documenta VI art show in Kassel, Germany.
- Grafiti: After moving to New York, Keith Haring became fascinated with the grafiti he saw on walls and subway trains. He met early grafiti artists such as Jean-Michel Basquiat and Al Diaz, and cooperated with Angel Ortiz (aka LA II). Keith Haring did not use spray cans himself but drew his lines with markers and paint brushes. In 1980 he began drawing with white chalk on unused billboards, covered with black paper, in the New York subway. He saw this is as a possibility to keep up with the grafiti artists, without copying them. He also painted many large scale murals in New York and later all over the world. Keith Haring liked to stage his painting processes as performances to music, taking up elements of hip hop and breakdance culture.
- Pop Art and popular art: Keith Haring named the comics his father drew for him as a child as one of his earliest influences. He disliked painting with oil paint on canvas, and instead preferred to work with markers on paper or to paint on large colored vinyl tarpaulins. He produced thousands of artworks, working quickly without preparatory sketches. Keith Haring met his idol Andy Warhol in 1983, who became his friend and mentor. Keith Haring wanted his art to be for everyone. He made his subway drawings to reach a large audience, not actually earning any money from them. In 1986 the Pop Shop opened in New York, where Keith Haring Merchandise articles such as T-Shirts, Stickers and posters were sold at affordable prices.
- Gay culture: Keith Haring’s art is of course not specifically “gay”. But his identity as an openly homosexual man shines through in many ways. When he moved to New York he became a regular visitor of the local gay clubs, namely the multi-cultural Paradise Garage. His artworks often show penises and homoeroticism and seldomly seem to depict women. When the AIDS epidemic started in the 1980s in the gay community, people around him were dying, among them also his black ex-boyfriend Juan Dubose. In 1988 Keith Haring received his AIDS diagnosis. In the following two years before his death he produced many artworks on the topic of AIDS, and financially supported anti-AIDS campaigns. His early death of AIDS at age 31, at the peak of his popularity, contributed to him becoming a legendary artist. This way his work will always be associated with a specific 1980s atmosphere.
Keith Haring’s style is highly recognizable with clear flowing lines, patterns of consistent density, and a reduced color palette of few colors. His works often seem joyful, but also address serious political issues. Living in New York he combined a specific set of influences from academic high art, pop art, and grafiti. As a gay man dying young from AIDS in the 1980s, his work emanates a specific 1980s atmosphere.
Exhibition at the Folkwang Museum Essen: “Keith Haring”, 21.08 – 29.11.2020, https://www.museum-folkwang.de/de/aktuelles/ausstellungen/ausblick/keith-haring.html
Darren Pih (Editor): “Keith Haring”, 2019, Hatje Cantz Verlag
Elke Buhr: “Jetzt erst recht” in Monopol, Magazin für Kunst und Leben, Juni 2020
Video: Ben Anthony: “Keith Haring – Street Art Boy”, https://www.arte.tv/de/videos/098102-000-A/keith-haring-street-art-boy/
Wikipedia.de : article on Keith Haring: https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Keith_Haring
Keith Haring Foudation Website: https://www.haring.com/
During the current Corona pandemic, museums and exhibitions everywhere are closed and will apparently stay so for the next weeks or months. Visiting museums is something I already miss. A longer bicycle tour to a museum is my standard Sunday routine. Because I am always working from home as a freelancer on Monday to Friday, I really feel an urge to get out and experience new things on the weekends.
In this lockdown situation, articles recommending digital museums are surfacing on diverse chanels. Under normal circumstances I would scarcely be interested, but now this is a very interesting option. Thus I thoroughly looked into the possibilities that contemporary digital museums provide.
What is a digital museum? Without getting too philosophical about it, one could describe it as a webpage that allows visitors to experience the artefacts at display in a museum in digital form. Three ways of presenting exhibitions are common:
- Catalogues (archives, databases): Photographed artefacts with descriptions are made accessible via searchable databases. Applying filters to the content is necessary to get something useful out of this (for instance by art epoch, also very useful: only showing those objects on display in the physical museum). The enjoyability of these catalogues increases with functionalities such as short explanatory texts, showing curated highlights, or showing crosslinks between objects. A great example of this format is the catalogue of the Städelmuseum (Frankfurt, Germany):
- Slideshows (articles, stories): For a specific topic several photographed artefacts are shown accompanied by longer explanatory text. This is often done in scrollytelling format, where new content dynamically appears as the reader scrolls down. A great example of this format are these slideshows of new acqusitions by the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York, USA):
- Virtual museums (360° immersive experiences): The museum rooms are replicated as 360° views. The entire museum can be navigated from skipping from one viewing point to the next. In many cases the images are of such high resolution that the lables at the exhibits can be read. In some cases clicking on objects opens explanatory text windows or higher resolution photos. Audio descriptions may also be added. A great example of this format is the virtual tour of a part of the Rijksmuseum (Amsterdam, Netherlands):
Some museums make use of all of these formats. Further multimedia content such as videos and podcast are also often provided on the museum website.
The single best ressource for digital museums is Google Arts & Culture. Many of the most renowned museums of the world present parts of their collection on the site. I very much recommend to browse and search the incredibly long list of participating museums (also see image below). Within the site, the content is provided in the three formats discussed above. Immersive 360° views are availabe on many museum pages when scrolling down. It needs to be taken into account though, that many museums provide some of their best content only on their own websites.
For German museums the best single source seems to be Museum Digital. This is a searchable catalog of photographed exhibits provided by more than 600 German museums:
Here a list of the best digital museums I found in the domains of design, modern art, and architecture. If you are interested in other genres you could take a look at this list here (in German).
Digital design museums:
- MoMa (The Museum of Modern Art) (New York, USA): a searchable catalogue with more than 85 000 works. The „on view“ filter provides a good subselection.
- Victoria and Albert Museum (London, UK): shows a curated selection of exhibits for a number of topics. A searchable catalogue is also available.
- Partners in Design (internet only, Canada) by the Virtual Museum of Canada: a small but nicely done slideshow museum. Extra points for featuring Dieter Rams‘ 10 principles of good design.
- Vitra Design Musem (Weil am Rhein, Germany): a searchable catalogue of furniture design, with an emphasis on designer chairs.
- AIGA (American Institute of Graphic Arts) Design archives (internet only, USA): a searchable catalogue.
- Bauhaus Dessau (Dessau, Germany) in Google Arts and Culture: with slideshows, catalogue, and 360° views.
- Alvar Aalto Foundation (Helsinki, Finland) in Google Arts and Culture: with slideshows, catalogue, and 360° views.
- Kyoto Museum of Traditional Crafts, FUREAIKAN (Kyoto, Japan) in Google Arts and Culture: with slideshows, catalogue, and 360° views.
Digital modern art museums:
- Solomon R. Guggeheim Museum (New York, USA): searchable catalogue, also in Google Arts & Culture with 360° views.
- Oscar Niemeyer Museum (Curitiba, Brasil) in Google Arts and Culture: with slideshows, catalogue
- MAM, Museu de Arte Moderna de São Paulo (São Paulo, Brasil) in Google Arts and Culture: with slideshows, catalogue, 360° views
- That’s Contemporary (Milan, Italy) in Google Arts and Culture: with slideshows, catalogue
- Today Art Museum (Beijing, China) in Google Arts and Culture: with slideshows, catalogue, 360° views
- Museum Folkwang (Essen, Germany) in Google Arts and Culture: with slideshows, catalogue
- (… and many more in Google Arts and Culture)
Digital architecture museums:
- Streetview within google maps provides a nice way to take a 360° look at architecture around the world. Simply drag and drop the yellow person icon on the lower right onto any blue line or point on the map. Google has prepared content for many main roads. Individuals have added many single 360° viewpoints for popular sightseeing spots. Content of this type is also directly available in Google Arts & Culture here.
- 3D view within google maps makes it possible to take a bird’s eye view at architecture (where 3D data is available). Simply activate the satellite view on the lower left, and then click on the globe icon in the lower right. Press control and press the left mouse button to rotate the view. Alternatively you can use Google Earth to look at 3D views.
- UNESCO World Heritage List: a searchable catalogue with photos and videos.
- World Monuments Fund: a searchable catalogue with photos
- Museo della Civilità Romana (Rome, Italy): in Google Arts and Culture: with slideshows, catalogue, and 360° views.
- Seoul Biennale of Architecture and Urbanism (Seoul, South Korea): in Google Arts and Culture: with slideshows, catalogue
- SOS Brutalism: a catalogue of brutalist architecture
The list is far from complete, but hopefully contains enough interesting tips to whet your appetite. With museums closed for the next weeks or months it will be interesting to find further pearls and to see if new digital museums are made available.
The supermarket chain Aldi Nord replaced it’s one-way plastic bag by a more durable version in february 2019. I bought one myself and am quite fond of the design. It is simple yet refined enough to be interesting. The picture below shows the side without the Aldi Nord Logo.
For me the look invokes associations with a cool day at the sea, with the stripes reminiscent of the classic navy striped shirt. The color combination white and blue is one of the absolute classics in graphic design and can be traced back to islamic and chinese pottery. Nowadays the high contrast color combination of white lines on a blue background is used on many European traffic and street signs.
Beyond that there is a lot more to this bag than meets the eye. Aldi Nord commissioned the German artist Günter Fruhtrunk to design the bag in 1970. Like most designs seemingly original and retro it has slightly been altered over time, with a change of the Aldi Nord Logo and a change of format. Fruhtrunk was an abstract geometric artist who has by now largely been forgotten by the German public. I just had the rare opportunity to see some of his prints and paintings at an exhibition in Bochum (until 17.03.2019). Many of his works are made up of very precisley drawn stripes in bright contrasting colors.
His work can also be classified as op art (optical art). An effect seen in many paintings are thin blue borderlines of different widths. These blurr the edges when seen at a distance and lead to a perceived 3D effect. The picture below, a detail of the painting above, demonstrates this.
Günter Fruhtrunk was quite succesful in the 1960s and 70s. He exhibited his works both at the Documenta IV and the Venice Biennale in 1968. His abstract, anonymous and internationally comprehensive style was well suited to represent post-war Germany. Probably the main reasons why he is largely unknown today is that the commited suicide in 1982. He suffered from lifelong pain due to his war injuries and depression.
It is a commonly known psychological effect that knowledge about things increases their perceived value. So the next time you go shopping or to the laundromat, you could simply leave your IKEA Frakta bag at home and use your Aldi Nord bag instead. After having read this article you will then know that you are holding a designer bag of the forgotten German artist Günter Fruhtrunk that you got as an incredible bargain.
Addendum: Two products sold at Aldi Nord also take up the design of Günter Fruhtrunk’s shopping bag: sugar and matches (see photo below). The front- and backside of the oversized matchbox is shown. The matches are only for sale during the christmas season.
Monochrome images, that is images in which only shades of a single color are used, have a nice reduced, minimalist look to them. When the saturation and contrast between used shades is low, the images seem airy and ephemeral. The effect can for instance often be seen in black and white photographs in light grey tones.
Being a fan of this look, I visited the exhibition Scheinbar: nichts – Bildwelten von Qiu Shihua im Dialog in the Situation Kunst exhibiton space in Bochum (prolonged until 05.05.2019). Qiu Shihua is a contemporary chinese artist born in 1940. He is known for his monochrome white landscape paintings. His work is rooted in chinese landscape painting and taoist philosophy.
Glancing at the paintings shortly give the impression that this must be some kind of concept art hoax.
Only when viewed from a distance, and after some time, when the eyes have adapted to the very low contrast, do deep landscapes with trees, lakes, sunlight, waves and clouds appear from the white mist. This is something that one really needs to experience standing in front of the paintings. Because Qiu Shihua works with very subtle shades of white, it is quite difficult to capture this effect in photographs. Here are two photos where the landscapes are somewhat visible:
For me this was the most impressive contemporary art I’ve seen in some time. Qiu Shihua is apparently one of the most outstanding artists in the field of monochrome painting. And his work is a reminder of the wonder which the human eye is, being able to discern about 10 million different colors. Maybe we should give it a chance from time to time do so.