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Keith Haring art is best known for bridging the gap between street art and the contemporary art world in early 1980s New York. He rose to prominence with his graffiti drawings made on New York subways and sidewalks, and as his success grew, he brought elements of popular culture into established museums and galleries.
Haring is regarded as a leading figure in New York East Village Art scene alongside the likes of Jean-Michel Basquiat, Kenny Scharf and Jenny Holzer,
A short history of Keith Haring
Keith Haring was born in 1958 in Pennsylvania, and developed a love for drawing at a very early age. He learnt basic cartooning skills from his father and popular culture of the time, such as Dr. Seuss and Walt Disney.
Haring studied for two semesters at the Ivy School of Professional Art in Pittsburgh, before realising he had little interest in becoming a commercial graphic artist and dropping out of education.
However, on moving to New York City and enrolling in the School of Visual Arts (SVA), he found a thriving artistic community developing outside established gallery and museum spaces. He befriended artists, musicians, performance artists and graffiti writers who were a part of this scene, and began to organise and participate in exhibitions at alternative venues.
Keith Haring art first became a public feature across New York City’s subways, where he created drawings in white chalk using unused advertising panels as his canvas. Between 1980 and 1985, he produced hundreds of these pieces, sometimes as many as forty in one day.
While he was arrested by the NYPD on multiple occasions for vandalising public space, it gave him a highly effective way to communicate with a wide audience. New York commuters would often stop to talk with the artist when they saw him at work, and the subway became a ‘laboratory’ where Haring could experiment with new ideas.
Throughout his career, Haring continued to devote much of his time to public artworks, which often carried social messages. He produced more than 50 public pieces between 1982 and 1989, primarily for charities, hospitals and children’s care centres all around the world. He even painted a mural on the western side of the Berlin Wall three years prior to its fall.
“He has been misunderstood by more conservative people in the art establishment, who can’t see past the Haring images on kids’ T-shirts and knapsacks and acknowledge his drawings and paintings as works in the tradition of the modern masters.” – Jeffery Deitch
Common themes in Keith Haring’s art
Keith Haring’s art draws from traditional graffiti techniques, with bright contrasting colours and bold imagery grabbing the eyes and the minds of passers-by. As a result, he attracted a wide audience and assure the staying power of his works, now recognised around the world.
Haring’s distinct pop-graffiti style used bold and fluid outlines against dense imagery of babies, barking dogs, flying saucers, hearts, Mickey Mouse and other symbols. Active figures and strong lines were used to emphasise kinetic movement and emotional or spiritual energy.
Art provided Haring with an important platform to explore a vast range of social themes. For instance, he created one of his most famous works in 1986 inspired by his friend who battled drug addiction. The Crack Is Wack mural, located on a handball court in East Harlem, is now a landmark along New York’s FDR Drive.
He also explored features of his personal life in his work. One of his most famous drawings ‘the Radiant Baby’ was influenced by his Christian past. Similarly, Haring was openly gay at a time when most kept their sexual preferences behind closed doors, and his motif of two figures with a radiant love heart has been interpreted by critics as reflective of his beliefs.
Haring was diagnosed with AIDS in the late 1980s, and chose to shed light on this too through his artwork, creating famous pieces like ‘Silence = Death’ and ‘Rebel with Many Causes,’ which mimics the “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” attitude of the US government approach at the time.
Performers, brands and collectors alike chose to invest in Keith Haring
Keith Haring art exhibitions were a common feature in 1980’s New York. During a brief but intense career, his work was featured in over 100 solo and group exhibitions.
He participated in numerous collaborative projects, working with artists and performers as diverse as Madonna, Vivienne Westwood, Grace Jones, Yoko Ono and even Andy Warhol, who became the theme of many of Haring’s works. These relationships, particularly with Andy Warhol, proved to be a significant factor in his future success.
Haring also completed numerous commercial projects, from a billboard animation in Times Square to set designs for theatres and clubs, watch designs for Swatch and an advertising campaign for Absolut vodka.
In April 1986, he opened the Pop Shop in Soho, painting the entire interior in an abstract black on white mural. While it faced some criticism within the art world, Haring was firm in his desire to make artwork available to as wide an audience as possible, and received support from friends, fans and mentors including Andy Warhol.
“I don’t think art is propaganda… It should be something that liberates the soul, provokes the imagination and encourages people to go further. It celebrates humanity instead of manipulating it.”
Keith Haring’s legacy lives on
Keith Haring passed away as a result of AIDS-related complications in 1990 at the age of 31.
He has been the subject of several international retrospectives since then, and his work can be seen today in the collections of major museums around the world, including The Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C.
If you are looking to buy Keith Haring art, we are honoured to share some of his works with visitors at Maddox Gallery. Plan a visit, and speak with one of our expert Sotheby’s-trained art consultants.