There would be blood – we thought – in the duel of two titans from the art world. We imagined brushes piercing the skin, intense stares exchanged by their canvasses, a snarky gesture hidden like a pentimento in plain sight.
But visitors showing up to Confrontation: Keith Haring and Pierre Alechinsky don’t need to broker a peace deal after all. The renowned artists appear more allies than foes in an exhibition running through Oct. 2 at the NSU Art Museum in Fort Lauderdale. Take it from this show, a little confrontation can be healthy and strengthen all parties involved.
If the name Haring evokes images of animated inoffensive silhouettes, that would be approximately accurate, but it’s best to leave preconceived notions on the doormat. Haring’s flat featureless shapes feed on subjectivity. They have universal reach because they can be anywhere and anyone; and it is precisely because of this that they can be unexpectedly touching, unnerving even. Projecting our own stories onto them is part of the fun.
Take an untitled work from 1982 that features the bold colors and thick solid lines that characterize the American pop-art artist’s style. Multiple tentacle-looking arms sprout from the central character who holds and drops smaller beings for entertainment. It’s Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man minus the victims, the violence and the bright yellow background. To enhance its arresting appearance, the piece hangs on a black wall. Against it, its initial cartoonish quality suddenly turns darker and menacing.
It is this extraordinary ability to charge and animate the flat reductive figure – here in bright red – that distinguishes Haring from a talented crowd emerging out of New York City in the 1980s. He compensates for the physical traits carved off from his characters with generous loads of motions and symbols. His graffiti-inspired drawings first showed up in subway stations and basements (see the piece of drywall include in the show) before making it into museums. Despite being institutionalized and widely accepted, his body of work preserves its urban, politically charged, and airy quality. It never aims for the sophisticated label.
Except for this section of the show, most of the viewing experience is electrified by bright walls dressed in primary colors. It oscillates between the anticipated and the surprising, such as an acrylic piece titled Moses and the Burning Bush (1985), through which the artist becomes prophet, broadcaster of an invitation to join the ultimate immersive experience: Life.
Best appreciated from a distance, this euphoric piece is intentionally overwhelming and noisy. It alone is worth visiting the exhibition for. We enter the room just as the protagonist nears a defiant blaze, which appears to have been activated like a beehive by his footstep. The warm hues of the fire are mirrored on and bounce against the figure’s body, lighting it up in certain spots. One should never play with fire and yet, that is precisely what Moses seems to be doing. Thick black lines resembling caterpillars crowd the powder-blue field like a plague. They are capricious ornaments concealing the ongoing bleeding of the paint.
If a room deserves pause it’s this one. Opposite from the yellow wall hosting Moses hangs a selection of light and amusing works by Haring and Alechinsky. One of them features three figurines sporting Xs on their chests and making the classic motions reserved for the three wise monkeys: see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil. The X is a characteristic protest by Haring against the transformation of humans into targets via inaction. He died from AIDS in 1990 at the age of 31 and in this work ardently equates silence to death and ignorance to fear.
A downside to lingering in this room is that it makes the subsequent series of works on paper and else underwhelming by comparison. One feels the gusts of energy beginning to ebb. If the previous space jolted us into being very present and anchor us to the moment, the next walls let the mind wonder.
The courtship with Alechinsky’s pieces develops slowly, but gains steam toward the end of the gallery stroll with paintings such as L’esprit des chutes (The spirit of the falls), which is done in India ink. The Belgian artist specifically selected this 1978 piece for the show because it alludes to Niagara Falls, an earlier painting of his which Haring saw at Carnegie Institute. On display is the technique of mounting paper on canvas that Alechinsky picked up in Japan and later taught to his contemporary.
At once frightening and childish, Dos ornés, tétes dorées (Backs Adorned, Golden Heads) produces undeveloped shapes, as if the artist had refused to carry them to full term. The execution is free, careless, and unconcerned with refinement. Alechinsky gives us bald spots unreached by color. When the dye arrives, its distribution ensures our eyes set out and navigate the deep blue ocean he has rolled out for us. We are told the characters portrayed here face toward the wall mimicking the pose of the viewer. The assumption is that the 94-year-old artist wants us to join them; after all, he believes that paintings are “two-way mirrors.”
Although it is clear Alechinsky’s pieces are less cheerful and transparent than those by his counterpart, both artists shared an aversion to oil paint and canvas and a keen interest for experimenting. This tendency for new artistic horizons was the basis of CoBrA. Named after the three capital cities from which its founding members originated (Copenhagen, Brussels, and Amsterdam), it was an interdisciplinary collective art movement to which Alechinsky belonged. Inspired by folk and children’s art and the likes of Paul Klee and Joan Miró, the movement liberated art from traditional barriers and techniques and unleashed out into the streets to find new sources of inspiration and materials. NSU Art Museum owns the largest collection by an American museum of CoBrA art.
Tucked away on the second floor, Confrontation is more a call to disarm rather than en garde. It’s a friendly spar, at the most. The real battle is within us, between what we thought we came for and what we actually find. The decision is whether or not to acquiesce.
Confrontation: Keith Haring and Pierre Alechinsky runs through Oct. 2 at the NSU Fort Lauderdale Museum of Art, 1 Las Olas Blvd., Fort Lauderdale. Hours: Tuesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., noon to 5 p.m. Sundays. Closed Mondays. Admission: $12, $8 seniors and military, $5 students (with valid ID). Call 954-525-5500 or visit nsuartmuseum.org.