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“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
Keith Haring is an American pop artist who is regarded as having been a leading figure in the New York Art scene, alongside the likes of Jean-Michel Basquiat, Kenny Scharf and Jenny Holzer. He rose to prominence in the early 1980s and, as his success grew, brought elements of popular culture into established museums and galleries, although he never abandoned the street-art ethos, his aim being to make art accessible to everyone.
Haring used bold and fluid outlines against dense imagery of babies, barking dogs, flying saucers, hearts, Mickey Mouse and other symbols to create his distinctive pop-graffiti style. Active figures and strong lines emphasise kinetic movement and emotional or spiritual energy. His 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 assured the staying power of his works, now instantly-recognised around the world.
Born in 1958 in Pennsylvania, Keith Haring developed a love for drawing at a very early age, learning basic cartooning skills from his father, who was an amateur cartoonist, and popular culture of the time, such as Dr. Seuss and Walt Disney and Charles Schultz. He studied briefly at the Ivy School of Professional Art in Pittsburgh before dropping out, realising that he had little interest in becoming a commercial graphic artist. On moving to the East Village in New York, however, and enrolling in the School of Visual Arts, he discovered a thriving artistic community developing outside established gallery and museum spaces and soon immersed himself in the city’s graffiti culture, befriending artists such as Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Kenny Scharf and organising and participating in exhibitions at alternative venues. He collaborated on numerous projects, working with artists and performers such as Madonna, Vivienne Westwood, Grace Jones, Yoko Ono and Andy Warhol, who became the theme of many of Haring’s works. These relationships, particularly that with Andy Warhol, proved to be a significant factor in his future success.
Between 1980 and 1985 Haring created hundreds of drawings in white chalk using unused advertising spaces across New York City’s subways. They became a public feature; commuters would stop to talk to the artist and the subway became a ‘laboratory’ where Haring could experiment and communicate new ideas. “This was the first time I realised how many people could enjoy art if they were given the chance. These were not the people I saw in the museums or in the galleries, a cross-section of humanity that cut across all boundaries”, he said.
Throughout his career, Haring devoted much of his time to public artworks, often with social messages. He produced more than fifty 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 in an attempt to “destroy the wall by painting it”.
Much of Haring’s work responded to social and political issues of the time such as Apartheid, AIDS and drug abuse. His ‘The Crack is the Wack’ mural, located on a handball court in East Harlem, was inspired his young assistant Benny’s battle with drug addiction. It is now one of his most legendary works and arguably the most iconic mural in the city. Similarly, as an openly gay artist, Haring chose to champion gay rights and the LGBTQ community at a time when most kept their sexual preferences behind closed doors. 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.
During a brief but intense career, his work was featured in over 100 solo and group exhibitions throughout the 1980s. 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.
Haring was diagnosed with AIDS in 1988 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. He died
as a result of AIDS-related complications in 1990 at the age of 31.
He has been the subject of several international retrospectives since his death, 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.