“The way I’m making art...is a lot closer to the way it used to be done, when art was everywhere, on people’s houses, on their tools, on their bodies, when art was part of the ritual of daily life instead of something to put on a pedestal in museums”
Keith Haring was born on May 4, 1958 in Reading, Pennsylvania. As a child, Haring would spend hours cartooning with his father -- it was through these drawing sessions that Haring developed a passion for art, and began to find inspiration in the illustrations of Dr. Seuss and Walt Disney. After two semesters of studying commercial graphic art in Pittsburgh, Haring transferred to the School of Visual Arts (SVA) in New York City in search of a more alternative artistic community.
While at SVA, Haring thrived in the city’s unconventional artistic culture that was developing outside of the galleries and museums -- such as in the downtown streets, on the subways, and in local dance halls. Haring befriended fellow artists Kenny Scharf and Jean-Michel Basquiat, who shared his fascination with “colorful and transgressive” graffiti art.
Using the city as his canvas, Haring started to gain notoriety for his subway art in the early 1980’s. He began filling the black paper rectangles of empty advertising panels on subway station walls with quickly drawn pictures, using white chalk. Haring was attracted to subway graffiti because of its visual velocity -- designed to be seen while trains were in motion, as well as stopped at stations -- which he compared to Jackson Pollack’s allover composition overlaid on the excitement of everyday visual life.
Subway Drawing, 1985 (photographed by Tseng Kwong Chi)
His most common drawings included a “radiant baby” (a crawling infant emitting rays of light), a barking dog, a flying saucer, large hearts, and figures with televisions for heads.
Retrospect, 1989 (Silkscreen)
Haring loved experimenting with strong and simple lines, and accredited much of his style to the early cartooning he would do with his father. In his authorized biography, Haring writes, “So I started making little shapes that together would fill whole areas. It was a little like automatic writing. Like, the negative shape of one shape would lead to the next one. Again, it became an obsession, and I used a Rapidograph and it opened me up to using a consistent line that could go on and on.” He was also profoundly influenced by Andy Warhol’s fusion of art and life, and became dedicated to making his art accessible to the public.
Haring soon began applying his universally recognizable illustrations to freestanding paintings, often using acrylic paint and vinyl ink. He also began constructing sculptures from painted steel, depicting his same iconic characters. In his pursuit of artistic accessibility, Haring also opened a retail store in SoHo called the Pop Shop in 1986; the store sold posters, T-shirts, and other items featuring Haring’s signature designs.
Pop Shop, 1986 (photographed by Tseng Kwong Chi)
Over the course of his decade-long career, Haring completed over 50 public works, many of which included political messages that indicted nuclear weaponry, protested apartheid, promoted LGBTQ rights, and referenced the AIDS epidemic. One of his most notable works is the anti-drug mural Crack is Wack he painted in a Harlem playground.
Crack is Wack, 1986 (Mural)
Stop Aids, 1989 (Poster)
Haring died of AIDS-related complications at age 31 in New York City. His art continues to be enjoyed in the public, and is featured in several museums. In his book Keith Haring, Any Warhol, and Walt Disney, critic Bruce Hurtz remarks, “Like a tripod, Haring kept one foot in the fine art camp, one in popular art, and a third in the folk art camp of graffiti” (20).
I chose Keith Haring precisely because of his dedication to creating accessible artwork. Rather than focusing his creative energy on the established and privatized art community of his time, Haring spent his entire career working to bring art to all people. Haring was also an exemplary artistic activist, and used his talent to promote action against issues that were important to him -- and many others. During the age of the AIDS epidemic, when queer men still faced significant of discrimination and bias, Haring also became a successful and prominent gay role model. His kind and passionate disposition -- and his desire to make his art consumable by all -- are what makes him stand out as the first artist of his kind. I even have a t-shirt with many of Haring’s illustrations, including his “radiant baby” and barking dog.
About Keith Haring, Keith Haring Foundation, http://www.haring.com/!/about-haring. Accessed 26 Feb 2018.
Gruen, John. Keith Haring: The Authorized Biography. Fireside, 1992.
Keith Haring Biography, Biography.com, https://www.biography.com/people/keith-haring-246006. Accessed
26 Feb 2018.
Kurtz, Bruce, et al. Keith Haring, Andy Warhol, and Walt Disney. Prestel-Verlag and Phoenix Art Museum,
Visual AIDS Arts, Visual AIDS, https://www.visualaids.org/artists/detail/keith-haring. Accessed 27 Feb 2018.