ST. LOUIS — To advertise Silence = Death, Rosa von Praunheim’s 1990 documentary on New York artists’ response to the AIDS crisis, the iconic poster for the movement of the same name was placed above two black and white headshots of perhaps its most public, if dissimilar, spokesmen. To the left, Keith Haring, who died of AIDS-related complications three months before the film’s release, stares calmly from behind his signature wire-rimmed specs, wearing a tee screen-printed with two zigzagging figures of his own famous graphic style. To the right, David Wojnarowicz glowers, his brow furrowed, his collared button-down shirt unbuttoned at the top.

If Haring represented the buoyant energy of the 1980s New York art scene, an affable martyr to a disease viciously ignored by national leaders, Wojnarowicz embodied an indignant rage at the era’s gross hypocrisy. But it would be too easy, and unfair, to view the former as harmless poster boy of the decade, and the latter as his turbulent older brother. Just as Wojnarowicz should not be remembered wholly for his brooding, uncompromising mien, it would be a mistake to remember Haring strictly for his unbridled exuberance.

Keith Haring: Radiant Gambit, currently on view at the World Chess Hall of Fame in St. Louis, presents a more complicated — and certainly more interesting — take on an artist best known for zippy, animated visuals that came to define a zeitgeist. Thoughtfully curated by Shannon Bailey and Emily Allred, the exhibition celebrates the artist’s presiding optimism and growing unrest at both local and global injustices, his peppy, Pop Art sensibility alongside more disquieting depictions of sexuality, violence, and death. 

Installation view, Keith Haring: Radiant Gambit at the World Chess Hall of Fame, St. Louis (courtesy World Chess Hall of Fame, photo by Carmody Creative Photography)

Photographs by Tseng Kwong Chi, Allan Tannenbaum, and Annie Leibowitz chronicle the wildly prolific and creatively invigorating years when Haring came to fame. Tseng captured his early street art, while Tannenbaum reveled in the raucous art and club scene in which Haring was immersed in the early 1980s. Leibowitz depicts the artist naked and covered, head to toe, in paint that matches his Soho Pop shop. In staid contrast to these images, junior high and high school yearbooks on display reveal Haring’s humble Kutztown, Pennsylvania, roots (and a mop of hair that would make The Monkees proud).

Titled in part for the “radiant babies” that Haring continually produced across his career — from subway scrawls to silkscreens to inflatables — the show is most insightful when probing the artist’s darker side. If anything, the wholesome, primary-color-fueled presentation could be taken as a gambit for exposing visitors to a side of Haring they might not expect. At the entrance, a chalk-on-paper subway drawing from 1980 playfully depicts a flying television alongside another portraying two human figures bound together by rope at the waist. The same room displaying his barking dogs and bright, heart-filled poster designs features a giant aquatint from 1986 of a menacing Medusa mange atop a male human bust. His anti-Apartheid series, from 1985, is comprised of four aquatints depicting a looming Black human figure with a white noose around his neck, tethered to a tiny white figure wielding a billie club. Whether the Black figure is stomping the white oppressor or consuming him, python-like, as the noose becomes a snake, the images suggest the power of the Black South African majority to vanquish repressive white authorities.

Keith Haring, “Subway Drawing” (c. 1980s), Private Collection (© Keith Haring Foundation)

Across the gallery, in his Bad Boys silkscreen series from 1986, his characteristic cartoonish figures morph into more abstract, erotic content; curvilinear strokes tumble into an anthropomorphized cluster of erect phalluses. In one, a hand suddenly emerges from a maze of black lines, clutching a cock; in another, at least three of four human figures are cubistically segmented into muscular quads and arms, a dick hanging at the top like a drooping rainbow. Perhaps the most brazen piece is of a man who spreads his buttocks with enormous hands, his head drolly peeking between his legs. On an adjacent wall, the black and red lithograph series Ludo, from 1985, returns to his more playful graphic shapes, but with an alarming, frenetic air that suggests danger and entrapment. Red squiggles dominate the interiors of humanoid and animal forms, resembling contracting blood vessels or a claustrophobic circulatory system. The tone is more anxiety-inducing and foreboding than friendly. 

On the second floor of the exhibition space, three etchings from The Valley, Haring’s collaborative portfolio with William Burroughs from 1989, reveal a more disturbing vision of human nature. In these fine-lined images, a sailboat apparently stitched out of scraps and bones waits on a beach with a frowning man in a loincloth, arms crossed behind his back; a stubbly forearm extends diagonally to pincer a slender collection of bones crowned with hatch marks; another naked man seems to climb a mountain, his face turned away, his arms thin and twisted, his feet grotesque. While the man, with his often-warped proportions, is not a clear stand-in for Haring himself, his posture, action, and lack of dress suggest vulnerability and alienation. These are the images of a man grappling with his own untimely decline, an end from which no flock of angels or radiant babies could save him.

Commissioned posthumously through the Keith Haring Foundation, two impressively crafted chess sets incorporate his most well-known icons as pieces, but Radiant Gambit has little to do with chess itself as a game or mode of advancement. Haring was not one to strategically maneuver in an aim to conquer and capture a veritable queen, and beyond the ostensive populism of the Chess Hall of Fame (to “make chess accessible for everyone”), not much about this theme contributes to understanding his oeuvre. If anything, “gambit” suggests a deliberate ploy or plot that Haring’s sincere dedication to art making and art sharing would seem to defy.

Keith Haring solo exhibition opens at Tony Shafrazi Gallery in SoHo with wall paintings and carved wood sculptures. Keith paints the walls in the gallery basement for a disco party. Photographed by Allan Tannenbaum (courtesy Allan Tannenbaum)

It is particularly ironic that the show, along with the institution itself, is funded in large part by none other than libertarian billionaire Rex Sinquefield, whose stance on defunding Medicaid and public schools would seem at striking odds with Haring’s concerns over social and racial inequity. “[Haring] really had a desire to change the political circumstances that people were facing, especially to end racialized oppression,” said Haring scholar Ricardo Montez, asserting that, while the artist did not fully appreciate his own white entitlement, “… he was very earnest in his desire for a better world, and understanding that, with HIV, certain people were suffering more than others.”

Despite the incongruities strewn across Radiant Gambit’s backing and context, it’s heartening to see a flurry of cocks filling a wall two floors below a separate show celebrating child chess prodigies. It’s the kind of tension — and irreverence — that Haring himself would likely appreciate: the Dionysian dogging the disciplined, the innocent sharing a Midwestern roof with the openly profane.

Keith Haring: Radiant Gambit continues at the World Chess Hall of Fame (4652 Maryland Ave, St. Louis, Missouri) through May 16.

Eileen G’Sell is a poet and critic with regular contributions to Hyperallergic, Reverse Shot, The Hopkins Review, and The Riverfront Times, among other publications. In 2019 she was nominated for the...