The Nova Southeastern University Art Museum in Fort Lauderdale is one of Florida’s finest and most underrated museums. While its collection houses over six thousand Picasso ceramics, the museum is also known as the largest collection of art from the CoBrA abstract movement anywhere in the United States. A good chunk of that CoBrA collection comprises works by the Belgian painter Pierre Alechinsky. The museum’s latest exhibition, Confrontation, displays Alechinsky’s work alongside that of the modern street art master he inspired: Keith Haring.
Keith Haring’s simple figures are some of the most recognizable images of twentieth-century art. His work, much of it known for its refinement and reutilization of childlike notebook doodles, has been used to tell stories, spread messages, and advocate for various causes. “It was made for lots of people,” Haring said when talking about his work. “You don’t have to know anything about art to appreciate it, or look at it. There aren’t any hidden secrets or things that you’re supposed to understand.” Haring completed many magnificent public works to draw attention to several causes during his lifetime. These included HIV and AIDS, the apartheid regime in South Africa, and the crack epidemic. To promote sex education and safe sex in 1989, he created the mural Once Upon a Time… at the New York Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center. Although it’s been over thirty years since his death, Keith Haring and his works remain a relevant part of our cultural lexicon.
Pierre Alechinsky came of age during the Second World War and, inspired by the works of French informalists and surrealists like Jean Dubuffet and Max Ernst, studied art in Brussels. It didn’t take long before he was one of the founders of CoBrA, an avant-garde movement composed of Western Europe’s top abstract artists based out of cities like Copenhagen, Brussels, and Amsterdam (hence the name of the group). Alechinsky started working as an artist professionally in 1951 and has gone on to stage solo exhibitions in the United States, Japan, Brazil, and across Europe. He still lives and works in Paris, making him the last living member of CoBrA at the age of 95.
When Keith Haring was 19-years-old living in Pittsburgh, he studied at the Ivy School of Professional Art while also working on the maintenance crew at the city’s Center for the Arts. There, he was able to view exhibitions and attend lectures for free. One such exhibition included two hundred works by Pierre Alechinsky, and it seemed to have impacted Haring. By the next year, he managed to get his first solo exhibition before moving to New York and becoming the 1980s street artist as we know him now. Alechinsky’s influence on Haring’s work is clear when viewed side-by-side. Bold lines, the use of color, and a contempt for convention. While oil-on-canvas is often the norm for painters, both Alechinsky and Haring used acrylic paints. Alechinsky preferred using paper for his works, while Haring ditched a traditional canvas in favor of blank advertising space on subway platforms, the walls of Greenwich Village, and tarps bought from hardware stores.
While peoples’ focus on Keith Haring is nearly always limited to his broad cultural appeal or the messages he conveyed, not much has been done on where he stands in terms of the artistic genealogy; the connections that result in one generation of artists influencing another. Arielle Wolens, the exhibition’s curator, summed up that point very precisely: “We really wanted to show the ways that artists learn from each other, as well as the way artists learn from museums.” Confrontation will be open at the NSU Art Museum until October 2nd.