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POP GOES THE EASEL

He was standing by the stack of Kellogg's Corn Flakes boxes, staring ahead, eyes glazed, face pock-marked and wan, mouth slightly open. Later he was around the corner, with his shock of white hair and a Macy's shopping bag. And then he was in another room, with two women, one big and one small, who were standing obediently nearby and listening as he mumbled incoherently.

The Andy Warhol impersonator kept popping up everywhere on opening night at the Keith Haring, Andy Warhol, and Walt Disney exhibition at the Phoenix Art Museum.

You couldn't miss him. In fact, at first glance he looked so much like Warhol that you had to do a double-take just to make sure you had history straight. Because Warhol, the pop artist and pop icon who came to fame in the early Sixties with his paintings of Campbell's Soup cans and Marilyn Monroe, is dead, of course.

But then, so is Walt Disney. And so is Keith Haring, the pop artist who came to fame in the early Eighties as a graffiti artist in New York City and went on to become a mainstay of the international art scene through the rest of the decade until he died of complications from AIDS last year.

For a show full of the dead, last Friday night's opening was awfully lively. More than 1,500 people attended that night, and the exhibition has been attracting record crowds since then.

People at the opening were participating in a passion play Warhol would have loved. Dressed up and posing, they were protecting their territory and defending their domain through both attitude and appearance. They would glance at a painting or a print, then glance around to see if anyone had glanced at their glancing. They wanted to be part of that whole crazy world where knowing how to look is as important as what's being looked at.

Luckily, they couldn't have been looking at a much better exhibition. Although the Haring/Warhol/Disney show may be a little short on first-rate work by Keith Haring, the artist comes off looking surprisingly good. And the show as a whole bubbles with a kind of importance, and with an energy inspired by a vision rarely seen in Phoenix. It works both as history and as idea.

Put together by Bruce Kurtz, the museum's curator of twentieth century art, the exhibition is tight without being restrictive. It puts the art and artists into a context--that of mentors and student--but leaves room for the viewer to question the validity and the success of that relationship.

"The original concept for this exhibition came from the fact that Haring's dual heroes were Andy Warhol and Walt Disney," says Kurtz. With Haring's death, the exhibit now seems to have a dual purpose. Not only does it place Haring in an art historical context with his heroes, but it is also an ode to Haring, celebrating his contribution to art and his commitment to causes he considered important.

It's hard to imagine an art more celebratory, more joyful than that of Keith Haring. It's art based on the line, but a line that is wacky and wicked at the same time. It careens around the surfaces of his paintings and drawings and ends up producing a horror vacuii of hits and near misses and a lot of explosions. It's as if he were playing pinball with his paint.

Two painted columns in the show, for example, are full of collision after collision. Paint drips and then swerves off only to hit again as it comes around the next corner. And hidden in all these lines are figures--men with holes on their bodies, flying angels, mutated monsters.

That Haring died so young (at age 31) and so tragically only makes the joy in his work more poignant. Every Haring piece is an exercise in both energy and optimism, even when he's dealing with the most depressing or serious of topics.

He can be condemning apartheid in South Africa, crack abuse or homophobia, and you still find yourself smiling, overcome with the nervous, taut tension of his graphic line. His study for "Free South Africa," for instance, has a large black figure on a leash held by a small white figure with an X on its chest. And the big figure is delivering a solid whack with his foot to his supposed master.

The spareness of the line makes the image work. Everything has been reduced to its simplest and most communicative form. And the drawing, for all its seriousness, isn't morose. It's full of an energy that implies action. In Haring's world, even life's tragedies never seem too horrible, or at least they don't seem reason enough for giving up hope or for giving in.

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Bob Adams