Keith Haring is best known for his graffiti-inspired drawings of pulsating figures that seem to dance off the canvas of New York City streets in the 1980s. By virtue of his ingenuous touch, shrewd yet playful awareness, and a vigorous visual language always rooted in activism, Haring’s treasured work is remembered for what could have been. He would have turned 58 today. His career, although fleeting, is eternalized through the public he touched. And stirred the public he did: Taking his drawings to underground in subway stations in 1978, he filled empty advertising panels with giant chalk murals, with a desire to democratize his work that never left him.
Haring’s murals caught on to the entire city. Commuters would stop to speak with the artist as he worked, further sowing the continual dialogue his art evokes. The subway became, as Haring said, a “laboratory” for working out his ideas and experimenting with his simple lines. Over his too-brief career, he produced over 50 public murals, notably his including his famous anti-drug mural in Harlem, Crack is Wack, and his animated billboard of the iconic “radiant baby” in Times Square.
Linking the divide between the art world and the street, Keith Haring rose to prominence in the mid 1980s when his graffiti drawings that transformed subway stations into canvases for political engagement spread to nightclubs, galleries and museums around the world. Desiring to follow his principle to make art public, “to participate in the world but not lose [one’s] integrity”, he created the Pop Shop in New York City’s SoHo neighborhood in 1986. The shop sold affordable paraphernalia. Explaining the philosophy behind the shop, he said:
I wanted to continue this same sort of communication as with the subway drawings. I wanted to attract the same wide range of people, and I wanted it to be a place where, yes, not only collectors could come, but also kids from the Bronx. The main point was that we didn’t want to produce things that would cheapen the art. In other words, this was still an art statement.
Haring’s New York of the 80’s was a thriving alternative art community wherein he befriended fellow soon-to-be stars Jean-Michel Basquiat and Kenny Scharf, who shared his interest in the colorful and transgressive graffiti art of the city’s streets. These artists and other innovative cultural figures, such as musicians, performance artists and graffiti writers off the burgeoning underground scene, played a critical role in Haring’s development. Through their support and vivacity, Haring became a public artist and facilitated group exhibitions and performances at Club 57 and other alternative venues.
Beyond the teeming energy and innovation of his contemporaries, Haring similarly stimulated by the work of Jean Dubuffet, Pierre Alechinsky, William Burroughs, and Brion Gysin, as well as a manifesto by Robert Henri entitled The Art Spirit that asserted the fundamental independence. These influences enabled Haring to push youthful whims toward a singular kind of graphic expression based on the primacy of the line. As he was drawn to the public and enthralling shared nature of Christo’s work, in particular Running Fence, and by Andy Warhol’s synthesis of art and life, Haring strove to create a truly public art.
Blending the charm of caricatures with the primitive potency of Art Brut artists like Jean DuBuffet, Haring’s pop-graffiti aesthetic appealed to children almost intuitively. He hosted numerous art workshops for children, where his fluid, bold outlines against a dense, rhythmic overspread of imagery engaged children with the joy of drawing from the candid crevices of the mind. His signature themes – crawling babies, barking dogs, flying saucers, hearts, and Mickey Mouse – were fastened in political tenacity above all. He explored themes of corruption, racism, drug abuse, and rising fears of nuclear apocalypse, which became increasingly acerbic after his AIDS diagnosis. Despite his fatal condition, the remarkable energy and optimism of his art never dwindled. He created the Keith Haring Foundation to support children’s programs and organizations dedicated to raising AIDS awareness.
Keith Haring died in New York on February 16, 1990, of AIDS-related complications. He was 31 years old. His work is still exhibited to an international audience in prominent museums, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York City and the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, France. Haring’s art, with its illusorily simple style continues to appeal intrinsically to viewers; it speaks to universal concepts of love, death, birth, sex, social harmony, and war. Always visceral and always real, his primacy of line further blue-pencils his ardent themes with an artistic and political directness. Haring attracted a vast, global audience that ensured the universality and intestinal fortitude of his work, which has become an integral layer in the fabric of the visual language of the 20th century.
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