Recent documentaries about New York avant-garde artists Andy Warhol, Ray Johnson, and Jack Smith have emphasized their otherness, and how they struggled to find a social niche even in a city as nurturing to weirdoes as NYC. But Warhol and company were in many ways products of the '50s and '60s; The Universe Of Keith Haring looks at one of the quintessential '80s artists, and how the scene changed by the time he emerged. Unlike his forerunners, Haring was fully engaged with the world around him, and enjoyed the love and support of his small-town Pennsylvania family. During his decade in the spotlight—prior to his 1990 death from an AIDS-related illness—Haring traveled the world, making new friends and drawing on any blank surface set in front of him. Part of Haring's openness was a byproduct of his knack for self-promotion, but it was also a function of his idealism. Haring honestly wanted to share the joyous simplicity of his cartoony figures with as many people as he could.
Because of Haring's ubiquity, he's often thought of as a commercial artist—or even a hack. If nothing else, The Universe Of Keith Haring helps put him in his proper context, following him from his early experiments in graffiti, video installations, and pop-pornography to his creation of iconic anti-drug and anti-apartheid images. Like his fellow graffiti artists, Haring considered his art a gift to the city of New York, making ugly or dull spaces more interesting. But working in graffiti also trained Haring to be creative at a moment's notice, and to vary his designs. By the mid-'80s, he was painting enormous murals in public, working largely off the top of his head, inspired by the improvisatory freedom of hip-hop culture.
Universe deals extensively with Haring's personal life—his open homosexuality, his regular visits with his family, etc.—but it doesn't penetrate too far below the surface. How, for example, did his parents feel about having to share the funeral for their son with special guest Yoko Ono? How did Ono feel about Haring's plain, conservative folks? Director Christina Clausen could've gone a lot further with the analysis of how Haring's Disney-fed upbringing influenced his work, and how his work caught on in a decade where simple, bold strokes became paramount again. By the same token, there's probably a cleverer way to present this material than Clausen's method, with thick lines and clear messages. Or, given the subject, perhaps not.