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Originally published Friday, September 19, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Movie review

"The Universe of Keith Haring": Reconnecting with a playful spirit

"The Universe of Keith Haring" is an affectionate and absorbing documentary about the premiere artist of the '80s New York art scene, whose iconic imagery quickly penetrated popular culture around the world.

Special to The Seattle Times

Movie review 3 stars

"The Universe of Keith Haring," a documentary directed by Christina Clausen. 90 minutes. Not rated; suitable for mature audiences. Northwest Film Forum.

The iconography of artist Keith Haring is so distinctive "you need only hear a few bars" to recognize his hand. That's how one of his friends puts it in "The Universe of Keith Haring," an affectionate and absorbing look at the premiere artist of the '80s downtown New York art scene, whose images quickly penetrated popular culture around the world.

Haring died of AIDS in 1990 at 31, but the career milestones he achieved were enough to fill lifetimes. The cartoony figures of people and animals that he made on canvasses, subway signs, clothing, scrap paper, human bodies, walls and everything in between became a way for him to connect his art with anyone, anywhere. He was so prolific that friends began advising him to stop creating so much lest he devalue himself. But even after gaining enormous wealth and fame, Haring still used every opportunity to teach and share.

Many Haring murals remain in hospitals and public buildings, and his museum pieces are highly prized by collectors. His simple strokes in monochrome or bold primary colors were often based in the semiotics of repeating lines or likenesses to convey a sense of animated motion.

Filmmaker Christina Clausen sifted through a trove of videotape and film of Haring creating art, as well as lots of footage of him clubbing and playing with friends. The film also skillfully uses an assortment of other recorded interviews with Haring, along with talking-head segments of family and the people who were closest to him. What emerges is a document not only of Haring's creative life but also a nostalgic picture of the time and place.

With his big goofy eyes, easy grin and spindly body that seemed constantly to be moving (much like his artwork), Haring comes across mostly as a friendly nut that you'd just like to hang around with.

It's a vision that his friends reinforce in their remembrances, along with their strong impression of his genuine need to reach people and spread creative energy.

Included in the remarkable footage of Haring are scenes of him scratching out his infamous signboard drawings in New York subway stations. The playful sense of immediacy he felt in making those drawings was integral to all his work, and it's captured in scene after scene just as it is in all the many kinds of art he left behind.

Ted Fry:

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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