For many artists, a successful career takes decades to create and maintain, but Keith Haring managed to make a name for himself in very little time. Passing away at the age of 31, he left behind an artistic energy that can still be felt in his work today. According to The Keith Haring Foundation, he took place in more than 100 solo and group exhibitions in the 1980s alone. Today, his work lives on in these important pieces but also in the many artists, designers and creatives that cite him as a major influence.

Now, the de Young Museum has brought Haring’s story to San Francisco in a retrospective called “The Political Line.” The show takes inspiration from an exhibition of the same name which happened at the Musée d’art moderne de la Ville de Paris last year. This is the first time that Haring’s work has been shown on the West Coast in almost two decades.

With more than 130 works of art—including sculptures, drawings and more—“The Political Line” hopes to showcase the many themes that Haring tackled in his work. The exhibition will also include journals and archived Polaroids that will offer a more intimate glimpse into the way Haring worked. We asked Chief Administrative Curator and Founding Curator of Photography Julian Cox about “The Political Line” via email.

Image via the de Young Museum / Keith Haring (1958–1990), Untitled, 1988. Acrylic on canvas, 120 in. diam. (304.8 cm diam.) Collection of the Keith Haring Foundation © 2014, Keith Haring Foundation

as the decades have passed the cultural relevancy of hAring's art has only increased.

Keith Haring left an impression, not only the art world but also performance, fashion, and other areas. How did the curatorial planning of this show try to encompass that legacy?
First and foremost, the curatorial planning for "The Political Line" was heavily focused on securing loans of the very best works by Haring that exist in public and private collections. However, the sheer exuberance and verve of Haring’s work across a variety of media—painting, drawing, sculpture, murals, and public works—ensures that his legacy has extended into the worlds of performance, fashion, and popular culture. Haring was adamant that his work be of his time and for his time, but as the decades have passed the cultural relevancy of his art has only increased.          

The catalog mentions that Haring wanted to make his art universal and not elitist. How does this show reflect that sentiment? 
The exhibition presents the very best examples of Haring’s subway drawings, of which he made thousands in the NYC subway system, as well as early collages that he made to post in public spaces—on billboards, lampposts, and other street furniture. Haring wanted his art—his message—to be seen by as many people as possible. It also includes major paintings, such as Untitled (Apartheid) 1984, that tackle head-on major social issues that he cared about. This particular painting was reproduced widely (on badges, T-shirts, and posters, etc.) and helped raise thousands of dollars for the anti-Apartheid movement in the US.  

What was the biggest challenge in bringing all of this material together (Haring's writings, the pieces, etc.)?
Really the biggest challenge was logistical, coordinating the packing, insurance and safe shipment of artworks from 46 lenders, located throughout the United States and internationally. It was a thrilling process to select the works that would be included in each of the exhibition’s key thematic groupings (Political Art in Public Spaces / Subway Drawings / Mass Media & Technology / Racism / Capitalism & Consumption / Ecocide and the Apocalypse / AIDS) and to oversee their safe and handsome installation in our galleries.  

Image via the de Young Museum / Keith Haring (1958–1990), Silence=Death, 1988. Acrylic on canvas, 108 x 120 x 108 in. (274.3 x 304.8 x 274.3 cm) Private collection © 2014, Keith Haring Foundation

Haring wanted his art—his message—to be seen by as many people as possible.

Are there specific pieces that you suggest visitors spend a little more time with when they see the show?
There are many works that I think are marvelous and warrant special attention, but I would reserve special comment for these two: 1) Untitled, 1988, a large round canvas that addresses Haring’s discomfort with the negative effects of capitalism and his concern for unchecked consumerism. Haring railed against consumerist excess in his art.  This work shows a cartoon-inspired capitalist pig, with yellowed teeth and bloodshot eyes devouring a mouthful of “little people.” The work is disturbing and hilarious at the same time. 2) Silence=Death, 1988, Haring campaigned vigorously and raised funds for AIDS research and he addressed the condition head-on in his work.  The triangular pink canvas that he created for Silence=Death is unmatched in its poignancy and execution.  It is a profoundly moving work that combines joy and despair in equal measure.           

Is there anything else you would like to add?
While the issues that Haring cared so much about are necessarily framed by a very specific moment in recent history—the 1980s—they translate powerfully across time. Racism still plagues our culture as does environmental neglect. The excesses of consume culture and technology are pervasive nowadays, and Haring was prescient in his concerns about these issues. His art inspires reflection on these matters, as well as a sense of awe at the power and conviction of his ideas and his desire to express them through his work.    

Image via the de Young Museum / Keith Haring, self-portrait, 1980–1981.  Polaroid. Collection of the Keith Haring Foundation. 

“The Political Line” is on view at the de Young museum from Nov. 8, 2014 to Feb. 16, 2015.