Pop artist Keith Haring (1958-90) was an avid scenester and Warhol wannabe, trying his hand at everything: performance art, videos, posters, sculptures, books, animations, paintings and drawings.
He curated shows, filled notebooks with pedagogical musings and blatantly marketed himself. He even had his own store in New Yorks SoHo area.
A show at the Brooklyn Museum focuses on the artists early days, when he was making his name in the late 1970s and 80s defacing downtown New York with his inimitable cartoon pictographs. Harings frenetic line drawings of dancers, crawling babies, talking televisions, bestiality, symbols, aliens and penises enlivened the East Village.
Although he was arrested several times, graffiti was not a hot-button issue. K-Mart and Starbucks had yet to drive the artists, junkies and prostitutes from Alphabet City with skyrocketing rents.
Harings outlaw work moved from dilapidated walls into chic, SoHo galleries and uptown museums.
The Brooklyn Museum has attempted to split the difference by turning the space into a nostalgic, hipster scene that plays up the periods clubs, streets, music and atmosphere.
The curators acknowledge both the transient character of Harings work and its graphic, merchandising charm. They also attempt, unsuccessfully, to add Haring and graffiti to the Western canon.
At the entrance to the show, enlivened by the sounds of Devo, Grace Jones, David Bowie, the Bangles and the B-52s, you can go directly into the gift shop or into the galleries.
Inside the crowded, salon-style exhibition, walls are painted bright red and lime green. Collaged fliers are plastered floor-to-ceiling. Videos and archival material, such as Harings sketchbook pages and photographs of the downtown club scene, invigorate the show.
Yet we are offered more pop culture here than art. Haring is fun, talented and entertaining, often sexually, socially and politically provocative. He tackles homosexuality, AIDS, the pope and Reagan.
In one sketchbook entry, hearts and erect penises fly through the sky like a volley of cruise missiles. And in the Sumi-ink-on-paper Untitled (1982), Harings homemade hieroglyphics transform the head of Medusa into a pack of barking dogs.
But his pictures, one of which spreads 56 feet, feel hurriedly performed rather than composed. They sprawl like meandering wallpaper.
Haring began as a Neo-Expressionist, and the best of these drawings are influenced by Pollock and de Kooning. In the large, graphic, black-red-and-orange work on paper Untitled (1979), Haring playfully orchestrates his calligraphic figures and squiggles into decorative surfaces.
But more often than not, his marks become jazz hands. Without much frontal pressure or feel for the rectangle, they devolve into mere patterns.
Haring was in top form when he drew on walls, dumpsters and on the black paper covering old ads in subways. These comical, energetic yet plainspoken drawings were often inspired by their adjacent posters.
The exhibition includes slideshows of these subway drawings in situ, some of which capture the artist working as middle-aged commuters glare suspiciously.
A number of the chalk drawings fill the shows penultimate gallery. But only one is paired with its original advertisement: a blown-up Penthouse magazine cover displaying an almost nude Pia Zadora.
Harings neighboring chalk drawing depicts a figure made out of lightning bolts a cartoon character with his finger in the socket. Like a lot of his graffiti, this sexually charged pairing of art and ad made me laugh out loud. It also made it clear that in a show about street art, context matters.
At the Brooklyn Museum, Harings work feels sanitized, vestigial, entombed. Its inspirational sources, outlaw energy and surprising juxtapositions are all missing.
Neither graffiti nor art, here Harings work remains in limbo.
Keith Haring: 1978-1982 runs through July 8 at the Brooklyn Museum, 200 Eastern Parkway. Information: 718-638- 5000; www.brooklynmuseum.org.