Keith Haring Artwork: The Boy Who Just Kept Drawing

Sometimes when a piece of artwork provokes a kind of uplifting or positive reaction in the community, we question whether the artwork is what impacts society or if society is what impacts the art. This is the story of Keith Haring artwork.

For many years, art has been a form of expression that depicts the societal problems in the time of its creation. From artists like Banksy who defied the social constructions of society, or Jean-Michel Basquiat who shed light on the severe racism and discrimination in America, both artists used their talent to spread awareness to an underlining subject that needed to be discussed.

Keith Haring did just that. With his childlike graffiti work and powerful subliminal messages, his deceptively simple imagery and text provided poignant and cutting cultural commentary on issues including AIDS, drug addiction, illicit love, and apartheid, forcing society to have the conversation that was being avoided.

Keith Haring – Pop Shop IV, 1989

Early Life

Born on May 4, 1958, in Reading, Pennsylvania, Keith Allen Haring was one of the four siblings of the Haring kids. As a child, Keith was fascinated by the cartoon art of Walt Disney and Charles Schultz and the illustrations of Dr. Seuss. He spent many hours drawing with his father, an engineer whose hobby was cartooning.

After graduating from high school in 1976, Haring briefly attended the Ivy School of Professional Art in Pittsburgh, dropping out after two semesters. In 1978, he decided to return to school, moving to New York City to enroll at the School of Visual Arts.

He grew up in a religious family, and the connotations of the cross throughout Haring’s works are the subject of debate. Haring rejected fundamentalist Christianity and all dogmas, and his work is critical of the way the church could suppress its population.

Keith Haring – Untitled, 1984

Keith Haring artwork

In 1980 after moving to New York, which was home to a thriving underground art scene, Haring befriended fellow emerging artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat and Kenny Scharf, who shared his interest in the colorful and transgressive graffiti art of the city’s streets. Haring and these other artists organized exhibitions at downtown nightclubs and other alternative locations, where art, music and fashion all came together in a dynamic mix.

Beyond the clubs, Haring began using the city as his canvas. Riding the subway, he noticed the black paper rectangles of empty advertising panels on station walls, using white chalk, he began filling these black panels with simple, quickly drawn pictures. His chalk drawings on subway walls started to become very recognizable and popular catching the attention of New York commuters, as well as the city authorities who would arrest Haring for vandalism on numerous occasions

Keith Haring – FDR Drive, NYC, 1984

Notoriety and Popularity

Haring’s main style for his artwork was cartoon-like figures with bold colors and lines as seen in pop art and graffiti art. He believed that art was not only for the rich and elite but rather for the average everyday folk.

The energy and optimism of his art, with its bold lines and bright colors, brought him popularity with a wide audience. He had his first solo exhibition in 1981, at the Westbeth Painters Space in Manhattan. In 1982 he began to show his art at the Tony Shafrazi Gallery, which would represent him for the rest of his career. Throughout the 1980s, Haring’s work was exhibited widely both within the United States and internationally. He also collaborated with other artists and performers, including Andy Warhol, Grace Jones, and William S. Burroughs.

Keith Haring – Des Refusés at Westbeth Painters Space, 1981

Always wanting to make his art more accessible, Haring opened a retail store called the Pop Shop in New York City’s SoHo neighborhood in 1986; the shop sold posters, T-shirts and other affordable items featuring Haring’s signature designs. Over the brief span of his career, he completed more than 50 public works, including the anti-drug mural Crack is Wack in a Harlem playground and an illuminated, animated billboard of his “radiant baby” image for New York’s Times Square. He also hosted numerous art workshops for children

The Pop Shop – 292 Lafayette Street in the Soho, NYC.

Keith Haring Artwork: AIDS/HIV Activism

For most gay men the ‘80s and ‘90s were polarized decades. They personified freedom of sexuality and sexual identity, coupled with a fierce battle for survival as AIDS cut a swathe through communities worldwide. Keith Haring’s artwork mirrored this struggle. Its joyousness only surpassed by its explicitness as tableaus of playful figures and barking dogs.

Despite his new-found fame and celebrity, Haring remained fiercely committed to social change, donating his time and work to groups and causes like National Coming Out Day, World AIDS Day, and ACT UP.

K. Haring – ACT UP FOR LIFE!! (Invitation to a Benefit Dance Party for ACT UP), 1989

When diagnosed with HIV in 1987, a time when the disease was still a source of fear and apprehension, Haring was candid about it, creating artwork specifically for HIV awareness and safe sex campaigns that were unapologetically in-your-face. Even in Australia, it wasn’t uncommon to see his designs pop up on similarly targeted campaigns back in the day.

Silence=Death

Keith Haring artwork for AIDS awareness and activism is called Silence=Death.

K. Haring – Silent=Death, 1989

In this piece, there are stick figures outlined in bold white lines inside a pink triangle. The figures vary from covering their ears, their eyes, and their mouths. The figures inside the triangle represent all the people suffering from AIDS who felt as if they have been silenced and cast away from society because of this disease. The figures that are inside of the pink triangle adds to this message of oppression since the pink triangle symbol was used during the Holocaust to indicate the people that were being singled out for their homosexuality.

Haring wanted to give all the people suffering from AIDS a voice and have their concerns be heard since at this time not much was being done on AIDS awareness.

Keith Haring artwork that screams fun

Keith Haring’s artwork screams fun. Or rather, it is fun, but it is also screaming:

  • an alarm call saying that life is good but terrible things conspire against it. Ignore the words “Ignorance = Fear” and what surrounds it looks fun
  • Haring’s trademark simple lines, the three primary colors with a dash of pink, three figures, jumping, perhaps dancing. Take in the words, and you hear the scream.

By the late 1980s, AIDS felt like the most visible threat to life in America.

When Haring created his famous piece “Ignorance = Fear”, one American was being diagnosed with HIV every minute. Four people were dying of AIDS every hour. Through Keith Haring’s artwork, AIDS awareness and prevention was brought to the public’s eye and it opened conversations about the disease.

Keith Haring – Ignorance=Fear, 1989

As someone who suffered firsthand from the disease, Haring wanted people to speak up about AIDS so more research could be conducted in order to understand a disease that was and still is affecting millions of people.

From the Streets to Museums

Keith Haring would succumb to complications from AIDS and die in New York on February 16, 1990, at only 31 years old. Keith Haring artwork is still exhibited worldwide to this day, and many of his works are owned by prestigious museums, including the Art Institute of Chicago, the Museum of Modern Art in New York City and the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, France.

Musée de l’Orangerie – Centre G. Pompidou, Paris

Haring’s art, with its deceptively simple style and its deeper themes of love, death, war and social harmony, continues to appeal strongly to viewers. Haring’s commitment to clean lines and simple images gave new life to figuration in painting, in contrast to the more abstract and conceptual approaches of the previous generation, and the more expressionistic gestural painting of his contemporaries.

He provided proof of the possibilities of using public sites that were not usually dedicated to art to share artistic and political messages to multiple audiences. He lent street art credibility and legitimacy and took it into fine art galleries and museums, inspiring a new generation of street-to-gallery artists.

Overview

As both an artist and an activist he established that depicting serious issues could be fun or at least lively when communicated through highly cartoony images and fresh and vivid choices of colors.

Haring was a true original within the art world. An exhilarating combination of pop art and graffiti, he took inspiration from the underground cultures and immersed himself in but equally gave back. He merged the worlds of politics and art to hone a distinct voice that spread like a light in darker times and, amazingly but unsurprisingly, Keith Haring artwork continues to shine almost three decades since his tragic passing.

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