The Universe of Keith Haring, a documentary devoted to the life of the gangly, bespectacled painter/filmmaker who dominated the New York art scene during the 1980s, is content to slide on hagiography and shortchange cultural critique. As Angelo Talocca’s insistent bassline plays on the soundtrack, Haring’s mother tells us that her son was born “sunnyside up” in the small rural town of Kutztown, Pennsylvania and loved Disney films, and soon we are shown Haring’s portrait of a jagged, angled Cruella de Vil. Haring’s art could be described as genially cracked: His figures are often colored, blobby silhouettes leaping around and through each other, and images of penises dominate his work. This distinctive style made him a superstar.
Though the film does a decent job of conveying Haring’s Manhattan lifestyle, a scene dominated by young, bohemian queers and bisexuals, and one in which he hung out with figures like Yoko Ono, Andy Warhol and Madonna, it turns grating when the filmmaking style tries to compete with its content: Director Christina Clausen annoyingly zooms in on her subjects’ eyeballs at the end of several interviews, and Talocca’s wa-wa-heavy score tries to force us to tears in many scenes. And while Clausen showcases much of Haring’s work, including some of his films, what about his greater significance, the cultural forces that fueled him, or the influence his art had on the culture in turn?
The film nods a few times in that direction—one talking head argues that semiotics influenced Haring—but nowhere near enough. While some of Haring’s images need no explaining (a painting of a white silhouette anally raping a black silhouette over an interrogation table seems pretty clear), we don’t get a sense of how he was different from other artists of his time. But even without context, Haring’s art fascinates. A video of the artist alternately speaking Morse code and remembering his father proves surprisingly moving; perhaps part of the reason is that he gave artists permission to foreground their personal lives.