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Apocalypse and hope for the future

The Vienna Alphabet exhibition showcases Keith Haring's artistry, which is strongly influenced by his violent contemporary, where the baby represents the only, shining hope.


Keith Haring
EXHIBITION: The Alphabet
Albertina Museum in Vienna, Austria
16. March – 24. June 2018

With the exhibition The Alphabet at the Albertina Museum in Vienna, American Keith Harings (1958-1990) presents very comprehensive and political art, where sex, violence, racism, discrimination and popular culture are central themes. The exhibition reflects the time Haring lived in and serves as a timeline from his birth to death.

The subway

Haring's artwork started in earnest on the New York subways. He drew white chalk on top of the glossy, unused, black papers for advertising and communicated in this way with the New Yorkers. laboratory, as Haring himself put it, where he got to experiment and develop his artistic ideas.

Herring never had children, though radiant baby became the most important and well-known element of his visual alphabet.

The exhibition is located on the ground floor, downstairs of the Albertina Museum, just like the subway. I take the escalator down and along the walls hang photographs, just like advertising posters, from various political events of his time: the Vietnam War, the Martin Luther King Assault, the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant, the Jonestown massacre, the Bhopal gas tragedy, the New York financial crisis , the attack on John F. Kennedy, the fight against drug addiction, the spread of AIDS, the fall of the Berlin Wall, Nelson Mandela's release from prison and racism in the United States.

The escalator acts as an intermediate station introducing his artistry. As soon as I walk down the escalator, I land in Herring's neo-expressionist universe.

Angry white men

The first room is characterized by American popular culture, with iconic figures such as Mickey Mouse and the Statue of Liberty shamelessly transformed into works that criticize capitalism and the consumer society. He "sanctifies" the Statue of Liberty – the American symbol of freedom and independence – by covering her with vivid colors, graffiti and her distinctive signature.

Haring uses the dollar sign throughout, to criticize the consumer community.

The project Andy Mouse is a tribute to his close friend and role model Andy Warhol. Here he presents the artist Warhol as a businessman. The work reflects Hering's ambivalent relationship with money – he has earned a lot as a successful artist. “Money itself is not vicious, it can actually be very effective if used properly. You have to be objective to money to use them wisely. They don't make you better than other people. Even if you spend money to help people. ” He consistently uses the dollar sign to criticize the consumer society.

The exhibition is becoming more and more violent for each new room I enter. His disgust at the racism and violence of his time is evident in strong, black figures who tread on "the angry white male." The famous work Free South Africa (1985) presents this well: A large and black figure steps on a small white man pointing a gun at him. With the big and black and the small and white figure he shows the strength of the oppressed.

The only hope for the future

Among all the violent art, with erect penises and fascination, I am completely put off when I suddenly see pregnant and birth women on the walls. This part of the exhibition stands for itself – the works radiate with hope and warmth. In the midst of misery, the birth woman and baby stand as the only hope of the future.

Herring was gay, but had a strong fascination for pregnancy and babies. This fascination began when his closest friends – Kenny and Tereza – and sister Kay, had children in their mid-twenties. Tereza's pregnancy was of great importance to Haring. He spent a lot of time with their daughter, Zena, and eventually gained a strong bond with both her and her sister's daughter, Lana.

Hering's relationship with Zena and Lana reminds me of my relationship with my god-son Béla – the son of my closest friends, Julian and Edy. To me, the baby represents Béla, in the same way as herring, innocence, purity and hope. From the first moment I saw Béla, I loved him. I was captivated by a one-year-old who didn't even belong to me purely biologically.

In the midst of misery, the birth woman and baby stand as the only hope of the future.

My relationship with Béla opened my mind and expanded my thoughts on life. I loved spending time with him because it was so inspiring, clean, emotional and unlike any other relationship in my life. I recognize what Hering's friend Kenny says about him: “He was completely engulfed by children. He inspired them, but he was also inspired by them, by their unflinching views of the world. They are not judgmental. Keith met many prejudices as gay, but in the meeting with children, that wasn't a problem. "

From fascination to reality

Julian and Edy, with their two children Béla and Unica-Rosa, inspired me to have my own child, Una. Now I get to experience seeing my own child in my eyes. Every time I look at her, I think the same as Haring: "Babies represent the future, the understanding of perfection, how perfect we are can be. There is nothing negative about a baby, ever. The baby is the purest and most positive experience of human existence. ” With Una, I can only be. It is the most liberating feeling I have ever known.

Herring never had children, though radiant baby became the most important and well-known element of his visual alphabet, as well as his logo and signature.


As I enter the last room, I get a lump in my throat, it is just as if time stops. In 1988, when Haring was diagnosed with HIV, his visual alphabet changed significantly. The last room shows Haring's apocalypse, with flying skulls, corpses and demons. Hope is out, and sentencing is uncomfortably close.

The art is disturbingly detailed. The details seem endless and give me associations to the disease that takes over his body, like an unstoppable parasite. It feels like I'm in a toxic waiting room, waiting for death. I'm getting claustrophobic, and as I'm heading out, I see a little boy eagerly pointing to one of the works in the death chamber as he calls out to his father in German: "Das ist cool."

Two years after the diagnosis, Haring dies of AIDS-related complications, at the age of 31.

Pinar Ciftci
Pinar Ciftci
Ciftci is a journalist and actor.

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