In April of this year I witnessed a strange interaction between a museum guest and a security guard at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The guard approached a man wearing a white hoodie with a red, yellow, and blue print on the inside of the hood and said, “Nice Keith Haring,” nodding casually at the man’s back. The man turned to the guard with a puzzled look on his face. The guard realized the man had no idea what he was talking about and quickly explained that the print on the man’s sweatshirt belonged to an artist named Keith Haring, and that the MoMA owns several of his pieces. The man gave a little shrug. He didn’t seem to care much where the print had come from. And why should he? If you adorn yourself in the frenetic, retro patterns of Keith Haring, you look cool, and that’s all that matters.
A few months after this incident I relocated to the Netherlands for my job and found myself, time after time, staring at the red, yellows, and blues of a different artist known to the world as Piet Mondriaan, contributor to and propagator of the De Stijl movement. Like the fabric of the man’s sweatshirt at the MoMA, Mondriaan is woven into the design of many Dutch cities, in architecture, landscape, and decoration. His art is so ubiquitous here it might be easy to forget where those primary-colored squares even come from. After seeing these designs over and over again I started to draw unexpected connections between Mondriaan and Haring.
Mondriaan was born in Amersfoort, Netherlands in 1872. He was introduced to art at a young age via his father who was an art teacher, and was brought up, as most people in the Netherlands were at this time, as a Protestant. He started his career as an impressionist painter, painting the flat Dutch landscapes that surrounded him. These earlier works are not very well known but can be seen, for example, at the Mondriaanhuis in Amersfoort.
As his career progressed he started to move into abstraction, and was inspired, in the early 1900s, by the philosopher Helena Potrovna Blavatsky and her book, The Spiritual Doctrine. He moved farther and farther away from his protestant upbringing as he started to explore these ideas in his work. In 1914 he met Theo van Doesburg and they founded the De Stijl movement, also known as neoplasticism. This movement was based on Mondriaan’s new principles of spirituality and a belief that returning to basic forms and colors created a more universal and “truthful” kind of art. In these works, in the eyes of Mondriaan and van Doesburg, there is a kind of balance through opposing weight and colors. It sounds a bit silly to us now, but the neoplasticists really believed they were creating a more peaceful world through their minimalist art.
More than eighty years and one continent later, Keith Haring was born in a small city in Pennsylvania in 1958. He was also interested in art from a young age, but his influences were mostly the cartoons he saw on TV. Like Mondriaan, he was raised in a religious background that he ultimately rejected. As he, too, moved away from his religion, he became interested in spirituality and a text called The Art Spirit by Robert Henri. Because he was living in New York in the ‘70s and ‘80s, his influences and peers were the likes of Warhol, and Basquiat, and even Madonna.
Also like Mondriaan, his work was minimalist in nature. Perhaps the most succinct quote to demonstrate this similarity comes from Barry Blinderman in the book Keith Haring: Future Primeval. “His characters are so pared down, his line so supple,” says Blinderman, “that the images slip easily through the gates of perception into the atavistic chambers of the collective mind.” Haring reduced his palette to primary colors and blacks to create crude, almost child-like images in which the influence of cartoons is easily seen.
But his message was anything but juvenile. Behind the naïve façade was an art that was fraught, almost exploding, with meaning. Haring was openly gay, and much of his work revolved around unabashed male sexuality and the issues that were associated with it at the time: the AIDS epidemic, drug addiction, consent. In Silence=Death (1989), Haring’s signature cartoon-like figures are seen covering their eyes, mouths, and noses while laying on a pink triangle, the infamous symbol of homosexuality. Haring’s overall message is not a happy one. He saw his friends dying of AIDS, men and women being shamed for their sexual orientation, and others in the gay community struggling with depression and drugs. The 1980s were a bleak time for many in the gay community, and Haring expressed this darkness through his refreshingly honest art.
Somewhere along the line, though, both Mondriaan and Haring’s honest and totally unfiltered attempts to make art with a pure and direct meaning became muddled. Mondriaan’s patterns, of course, can now be seen on clothing, furniture, shoes, shampoo bottles, bathing suits, purses, pillows, children’s toys, jewelry – even food -starting in the 1930s when a fashion designer made a collection based off of his recent work. Haring’s work can similarly be found plastered onto everyday items, and can be viewed on the “Pop Shop” tab on the Keith Haring Foundation website and also purchased at a store in Manhattan.
The legacy of these artists, both now deceased, lives on in pop culture, more so than any other artists in history. But how is it that two artists with such different backgrounds had the same fate? Perhaps it’s because they both wanted one thing: a better world. This is a universal message that almost everyone can agree on whether it appears on the hood of a sweatshirt or the side of a building. Maybe pop culture is the perfect vessel for the cool and simple spirituality that only those like Haring and Mondriaan can provide.
The Discovery of Mondriaan can be seen at the Gemeente Museum in Den Haag until 24 September, 2017.