Equally a portrait of the artist and of a decade, this celebratory documentary makes the short, accelerated life of Keith Haring (1958–1990) inseparable from that short, accelerated period we know as '80s New York. He arrived there, like his idol Andy Warhol, a small-town boy from Pennsylvania. He swiftly became an art-world star, known for vibrant, optimistic cartoons and murals—often executed in subway stations, graffiti-style, and on sidewalks—and as something of a gay icon. Madonna performed at his birthday party, in a dress covered with his scribbles. He painted a mostly nude Grace Jones, whom we see performing here—among many other period clips—at the famed Paradise Garage. Near decade's close, Haring was commissioned to paint the Berlin Wall—a reminder of how that era was to end so abruptly. AIDS, of course, was its punctuation note. Haring was an activist before he fell ill, and he continued to create and lecture—with generous excerpts shown here—right up to the inevitable end. With family and other members of the Keith Haring Foundation interviewed here (plus Yoko Ono, Kenny Scharf, and various scenesters), Universe is not a critical appraisal of Haring's work or legacy. I lived in Manhattan during those years, and his youthful energy surely made the city a better place. Today his work holds up less well on museum walls than as cheerful hospital murals—instruments of healing, Haring believed. Maybe that's ironic, or maybe we just live in unhealthier times.
One of Haring's vibrant '80s creations.
Runs at Northwest Film Forum, Fri., Sept. 19–Thurs., Sept. 25. Not rated. 90 minutes.