“Art should be something that liberates your soul, provokes the imagination and encourages people to go further.” – Keith Haring
Born in Reading, Pennsylvania, Keith Haring (1958 – 1990) was a visual artist, activist and a prominent figure in the legendary New York art scene of the 1980’s.
Having dropped out of a commercial art school, Haring moved to New York in 1978 to attend the School of Visual Arts (SVA). This move exposed the artist to the alternative scene developing in the city. The art world was moving away from the confines of the gallery into downtown streets, subways and clubs. It was here that Haring became friends with influential figures such as Jean-Michel Basquiat, and graffiti artist Kenny Scharf.
During his time at SVA, Haring explored the full capacity of the art department, experimenting with performance, video, installation, and collage, whilst always returning to drawing. Wishing to bring his artwork to a larger audience, Haring began using blank advertising panels in subway stations; the matte black paper used provided the best canvas for his white chalk murals. Between 1980 and 1985, Haring produced hundreds of these public drawings, sometimes creating as many as forty in one day.
The artist and his work soon became familiar to New York commuters as well as local police, many of whom were admirers. The subway became a studio for Haring to creatively explore ideas; it also gave the artist his first taste of creating art for a mass audience.
“I was learning, watching people’s reactions and interactions with the drawings and with me and looking at it as a phenomenon. Having this incredible feedback from people, which is one of the main things that kept me going so long, was the participation of the people that were watching me and the kinds of comments and questions and observations that were coming from every range of person you could imagine, from little kids to old ladies to art historians.” – Keith Haring
Despite the short length of his career, Haring’s work was featured in over 100 solo and group exhibitions. He took the decision to be represented by Tony Shafrazi which garnered further exposure for his work. In 1982, he made his Soho gallery debut with a highly acclaimed one-man exhibition at Shafrazi’s gallery. Various successful international exhibitions followed, in Amsterdam, Tokyo, London and Bordeaux. Haring was now moving in the culturally diverse social circles of 1980’s New York, leading him to collaborate with artists and performers including Madonna, Grace Jones, Yoko Ono and Andy Warhol.
Throughout his career, the core values of pop culture remained important to Haring, the notion of art being accessible to all was realised when he opened his ‘Pop Shop’ in 1986. The store sold t-shirts, buttons, toys and posters and though this move was shunned by the art world, Haring did not deviate from his desire to bring his ideas to the public at large.
Over the course of 10 years, Haring completed over 50 public works around the world, many for charities such as orphanages and hospitals. Haring utilised bright colours and humour to address difficult issues such as the, ‘Crack Is Wack’, campaign to tackle the crack cocaine epidemic in New York City. He also designed posters to address public perception surrounding AIDS following his own diagnosis in 1988, setting up the Keith Haring Foundation to fund research, education and continue to confront widespread public ignorance on the subject.
By depicting aspects of the human condition such as birth, death, love and sex, with a beautifully simplistic technique ensured not only Haring’s popularity at the time but would ensure his enduring resonance throughout the 20th and 21st century.
Since his death in 1990, Haring has been the subject of several international retrospectives and his first major UK retrospective opens at Tate Liverpool from June – November 2019. Held in major museums and collections around the world, Haring’s work attracts, delights and informs millions of followers.
Banner image credit: Kwong Chi
Interview: Rolling Stone (1989)
Keith Haring in conversation with Rolling Stone
Watch: CBS Evening News (1982)
News segment on the rise of Keith Haring