Keith Haring: Against All Odds: Inside the Akron Art Museum’s unprecedented solo exhibition

The Akron Art Museum’s sweeping new exhibition spans an entire decade, and includes nine of Haring’s subway drawings — along with the final works he produced before his death in 1990.

Typically, museums have a two to three year timeline when developing major exhibitions.

Jeff Katzin — the Akron Art Museum’s sole curator — had just eight months to create and unveil Keith Haring: Against All Odds, a sweeping solo exhibition of works by the queer artist and cultural icon.

With the museum’s centennial celebration in full swing, Katzin knew he needed to find something impressive to fill a gap between April and September 2023, and find it fast.

Scrambling for an exhibition with the potential to generate real public buzz, he came across the Rubell Museum’s collection of Keith Haring’s work.

Immediately, Katzin was hooked on the idea of bringing the collection to Akron.

“Frankly, I didn’t know Haring’s work in the level of depth that I do now, but I had a sense there’s political content, there’s gay identity, there’s 1980s New York scene stuff to dig into,” he said. “This is on another level from everything else [the museum has shown] as a solo exhibition.”

Ron Copeland recreates Keith Haring’s Soho Pop Shop as part of the Akron Art Museum’s exhibition. (Photo Credit: Akron Art Museum)

Creating a buzz

Securing the Rubell collection was no easy feat.

But private museums like the Rubell, which has locations in both Miami and Washington D.C., are often able to approve loans and move collections more quickly than nonprofit museums.

Katzin crossed his fingers and pitched the show to Akron Art Museum director John Fiume with a budget three times the original amount.

The museum greenlit the stretched budget and eventually secured the collection, which contains 80 of the 117 pieces included in the Akron exhibition.

The Rubell collection is darker and more personal than much of Haring’s previous work. It spans more than a decade and includes the last works Haring produced before his death in 1990 due to AIDS-related complications.

“They’re denser. They’re sometimes less exuberant,” Katzin said. “So then it was a matter of trying to build in more color and that sense of energy in Haring’s work. His work is so energetic, always, that we wanted the show to match that.”

Haring’s subway drawings

In 1980, Haring was looking for a way to create work that kept his art accessible to the general public.

“That’s what he’s most excited to do,” Katzin said.

During the winter of 1980 — just months before the Centers for Disease Control published the first official report of AIDS — Haring created his first subway drawing.

Between 1980 and 1985, he created 5,000 more.

“Up until that point, he hadn’t been doing figurative art. He’d been doing video performance, abstraction, things in that general line,” Katzin said. “This is a style that he’s developing on the fly, using the subway stations as his sort of training ground. That’s really the start of his style. It’s the start of his fame. It’s kind of the start of it all.”

After a months-long, exhaustive search, Katzin secured nine of Haring’s subway drawings from the Martos Gallery in New York City to round out the show.

“Those drawings represent so many of the things Haring would emphasize about his own work,” Katzin said. “Connection to the general public, working really quickly, using his sort of recognizable style and icon to communicate in a way that’s open ended and lets people interpret.”

Telling stories through objects

“To an extent, my job as a curator is to tell stories through objects,” Katzin said. “And when it comes to an artist in a show like this, a big part of it is what objects can we get and what’s practical. Then I have to lean into the stories that I can tell about those different objects.”

Acquiring the subway drawings — and the rich and dynamic element they lend to the exhibition — allowed Katzin to shape a fuller, more complex story about Haring’s life and work.

“With the subway drawing, Haring is speaking to the general public. It’s less about sexual identity, less about getting into politics. But he got stronger and stronger in that as his career went on,” Katzin said. “I think, in a way, he was preparing people for that side of himself.”

For Katzin, that conceptual progression and balance help the show function as a narrative experience.

The exhibition opens with the subway drawings, includes a room of Haring’s work among his peers and full recreation of Haring’s 1986 Soho Pop Shop by Akron-based artist Ron Copeland.

By the time the viewer reaches Haring’s more personal from the Rubell collection, they explored the artists’ worldview within the context of his full life and career — including the AIDS epidemic and Haring’s own diagnosis and death.

“For an artist at the height of the AIDS crisis, even after being diagnosed himself, to be working in this way is very powerful,” Katzin said, particularly for LGBTQ+ people in the current political moment.

“I hope that side comes through to people,” Katzin added. “To have that visual appeal and then the political content, it creates a balance where it’s not a matter of just wallowing in depression. Because if you can feel a little energized, if you can feel some positivity, then you can go out and do something positive.” 🔥

Ignite Action

  • Keith Haring: Against All Odds runs from May 3 through September 24. To learn more about the exhibition or to buy tickets, click here.
  • To learn more about the Keith Haring Foundation, click here.

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