Keith Haring is baring all. In a 1986 Annie Leibovitz photograph, the late pop artist, famous for his public art in 1980s New York City, stands in a studio space staged to look like a living room. He’s covered the white walls with black graffiti-like symbols—and he’s painted himself as well. Haring is stark naked, his body covered in dark lines that nearly camouflage him against the background. Haring and Leibovitz decided to take the show on the road, the story goes, walking to Times Square so the photographer could capture the artist’s portrait outside. In the winter. The police officers patrolling the area didn’t pay them any attention, she later recalled.
This is one of the stories Shannon Bailey, chief curator of the World Chess Hall of Fame, tells to illustrate a point: Haring existed exactly when he was supposed to—but not just because it’s impossible to think of him without conjuring images of graffiti on the NYC subways or the artist bopping around with Basquiat and Warhol. Haring’s work raised awareness of AIDS and the anti-apartheid movement. And as revealed in “Keith Haring: Radiant Gambit,” an exhibit of his pieces at the WCHOF, his works are still relevant today.
First, the connection between Haring and chess: There’s not much documentation that the artist played. The catalyst seems to be the Keith Haring Foundation, which supports children’s organizations, as well as those committed to AIDS prevention and education. The KHF created a chess set featuring the artist’s beloved icons as pieces as a way to raise money. The toy company Vilac then designed its own budget-friendly set, for sale through the MoMA Design Store. (The pawns, adorably, are Haring’s barking dogs.) The WCHOF, which seeks to make chess available to everybody, especially children, found a link between its own mission and Haring’s. Haring sought to make art accessible to all, even working on several projects with children, including a 1986 mural commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Statue of Liberty.
“Radiant Gambit,” is the largest solo collection of Haring’s work ever shown in St. Louis. It will remain on display through May 16. In it, you’ll find nine Haring works on loan from the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, two of his subway drawings, a complete suite of five icons including the radiant baby, and more. Photography of the artist includes the Leibovitz portrait, shots by Allan Tannenbaum, and even some of Haring’s old yearbooks. Chess sets—including the MoMA set—and original works by local artists Stan Chisholm, Dail Chambers, Edo Rosenblith, and Peat “Eyez” Wollaeger round out the exhibit.
While reviewing works by the prolific artist, Bailey realized that many of his themes were relevant today. “We’re dealing with a virus,” she says, referencing the AIDS virus of the 1980s and the novel coronavirus today. “We’re dealing with research toward curing a virus. It was very scary at the time, so that was strikingly timely.” Haring, who was found to have AIDS in 1988, died of AIDS-related illness two years later. He was just 31.
Although some of the works could be viewed as graphic, there are still many moments of delight. Haring loved cartoons, especially the work of Walt Disney, Charles Schulz, and Dr. Seuss. In many of his pieces, a joyful energy is apparent. “There is still this playful lightness in looking at it. His work really does make me smile,” Bailey says. “There’s something for everybody.”
Sonically transport yourself to Keith Haring’s New York.
As Haring’s star rose, he formed relationships with Madonna and Grace Jones. To tap into that late-’70s and ’80s energy and enhance the experience of “Radiant Gambit,” the World Chess Hall of Fame made a Spotify playlist of his favorites. Here are 15 selections.
1. “Kiss Kiss Kiss,” Yoko Ono
2. “Nightclubbing,” Iggy Pop
3. “It’s Like That,” Run-D.M.C.
4. “Tour de France,” Kraftwerk
5. “Into the Groove,” Madonna
6. “I’m Not Perfect (But I’m Perfect for You),” Grace Jones
7. “Don’t Worry About the Government,” Talking Heads
8. “Sympathy for the Devil,” The Rolling Stones
9. “Rapture,” Blondie
10. “I Feel Love,” Donna Summer
11. “Without You,” David Bowie
12. “Sweet Painted Lady,” Elton John
13. “People Have the Power,” Patti Smith
14. “Shake Your Rump,” Beastie Boys
15. “International Lover,” Prince