Keith Haring

Keith Haring

American Graffiti Artist, Sculptor, and Muralist

Born: May 4, 1958 - Reading, Pennsylvania
Died: February 16, 1990 - New York, New York
"One day, riding the subway, I saw this empty black panel where an advertisement was supposed to go. I immediately realized that this was the perfect place to draw."
1 of 7
Keith Haring Signature
"In all my work there is some degree of content that is more obvious, communicating a specific or a general idea that people will get. But a lot of times the work is ambiguous enough that it can interpreted by whoever."
2 of 7
Keith Haring Signature
"Art should be something that liberates your soul, provokes the imagination and encourages people to go further."
3 of 7
Keith Haring Signature
"...I think that in a way some [critics] are insulted because I didn't need them. Even [with] the subway drawings I didn't go through any of the 'proper channels' and succeeded in going directly to the public and finding my own audience...I bypassed them and found my public without them. They didn't have the chance to take credit for what I did. They think that they have the role of finding the artist...and then teaching the public....I sort of stepped on some toes..."
4 of 7
Keith Haring Signature
"The person who created these works certainly experienced his share of anxiety and euphoria, and certainly cared deeply about the connections between living things, but he also cared about the connections between color and line, open and defined space, chaos and clarity. He put all his experience of the world into his art - in the hope that he could communicate at both a visceral and intellectual level with the broadest possible audience"."
5 of 7
Julia Gruen of Keith Haring Foundation
"Keith made works that can hang in museums alongside masterpieces by Jackson Pollock and Andy Warhol and hold their own as art-historically important pieces. But there's also the art world you see on the streets, and Keith helped make that happen. He took what he learned from Warhol and connected it to street culture-punk-rock posters, graphics on sports equipment, kids' clothing, the music scene, and the club scene-and created a counter art world."
6 of 7
Gallerist Jeffery Deitch
"He has been misunderstood by more conservative people in the art establishment who can't see past the Haring images on kids' T-shirts and knapsacks and acknowledge his drawings and paintings as works in the tradition of the modern masters. In the past few years, he has begun to be accepted and valued on a par with other major contemporary artists. But there's still a gap. You don't walk in and see a Keith Haring hanging prominently in most American museums. I think that the art establishment has a hard time reconciling someone who is a great painter or sculptor and also really embraces popular culture."
7 of 7
Gallerist Jeffery Deitch

Summary of Keith Haring

Keith Haring joined a long but sporadic lineage of 20th-century artists who brought elements of popular culture, "low art" and non-art elements into the formerly exclusive "high art" spaces of museums and galleries. He drew on the techniques and locales of street-based art such as graffiti and murals, employed bright and artificial colors, and kept imagery accessible in order to grab the eyes and minds of viewers and get them both to enjoy themselves and to engage with important concerns. Along with his artist contemporaries Jean-Michel Basquiat and Kenny Scharf, Haring opened the field of possibility for how seemingly simple and even cartoony elements by self-taught or less-schooled artists might be appreciated.

Accomplishments

  • Haring's deceptively simple imagery and text provided poignant and cutting cultural commentary on issues including AIDS, drug addiction, illicit love, and apartheid. 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'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.
  • Haring 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.

Biography of Keith Haring

Keith Haring mural on the Northwest corner of Houston and Bowery in New York City

Saying, "The public has a right to art... Art is for everybody," Keith Haring created bold public art that packed a political punch. He intended, as he said, to "[break] down the barriers between high and low art."



Progression of Art

1982

Untitled

One of his early works, this radiant heart-love motif would show up in many paintings and drawings throughout the rest of his career. This innocent yet controversial image of two men in love is mild in comparison with Haring's later sexually explicit images., but the boldness of representing homosexual love at this point in time was already a significant statement and a marked achievement in the larger cultural realm. As his art career unfolded, and his confidence grew, it gave him the courage to generate more sexually explicit images of gay figures and scenes. In the above image, two people are depicted in love, with Haring's often-used lines of energy emphasizing this euphoric state as much as the kinetic movement of these figures' bodies in space. This image in many ways distills the optimistic attitude of Haring, who was, at heart, in many ways a Romantic, believing in humanity and the power of love.

Visually, the image is classic Haring in its flat, two-dimensional surface, cartoon-like simplicity and the use of vibrant, saturated colors. He often outlined his characters and scenes with thick black lines reminiscent of many earlier modern artists (such as Picasso), as well as from the Pop art movement (Warhol), in addition to Haring's contemporaries the 1980s New York City graffiti artists. Haring used vibrant lines in and around his subjects to convey energy, both positive and negative. Some attribute his adoption of this visual sign to the influence of Hip Hop music, where the visual imagery of dark lines was used to represent the impact of sound on listeners.

Acrylic on Vinyl - Brooklyn Museum Exhibit 2012

1984

Untitled

A more graphic appreciation of the male form, this distorted rendering of a single large male figure gripping his own enormous, life-engendering penis suggests as much ambivalence as affirmation. The seemingly full-grown "offspring" of smaller figures spurt out of the phallic shape and fall precariously to earth, while the head of the main figure with its almost cubistically offset features is curled behind its own back to snap fiercely, mouth open, at that backside. The large size (114 x 157 inches) carries forward Haring's approach to the spectacular, immersive, larger-than-life outdoor mural into the wall-hung interior medium of drawing on paper. This sort of portrayal by Haring of not male nudity and sexuality helped usher in an era where previously taboo subjects could be brought forcefully to viewer's attention in both bold and nuanced ways. Haring's artistic productions called for radical new cultural possibilities and greatly expanded social understanding.

Acrylic On Paper

1985

Free South Africa

Free South Africa was a political response to the conditions of apartheid that still existed in South Africa. The black figure is intentionally much larger than the white figure to express the irony of a post-colonial era where a white minority continued to suppress the majority native black population. The use of black lines makes for a sense of dynamic movement of the figures. Black outlines also express a heightened awareness of more psychologically charged elements - like the aura hovering around the restraining collar around the neck of the black figure.

Popular protest poster campaigns by artists such as Haring, using accessible images that lent themselves to circulation in posters, t-shirts and postcards. combined with world-wide public pressure from celebrities, politicians, and citizens, to raise awareness and influence change in South Africa. This wave of protests eventually led to Nelson Mandela - the lawyer/activist and 30-year prisoner of the South African Government - to be released from jail and elected president. Almost a decade later President Mandela ended apartheid for good in 1994.

Editions Poster

1985

Untitled

Lesser known are Haring's works in sculpture and collage. Here at mid-career he created an elephant sculpture in papier mache painted over with acrylics. His signature black human cartoon persona was painted in different positions all over the white elephant. This may allude to humans dominating nature to the detriment of other species. The elephant may also have been purposely chosen based on the then anecdotal idea of its excellent memory - meaning one should never forget where you came from or who you are.. This black and white with red theme may have been a purely aesthetic choice based on the pleasing, simple yet powerful tri-color relationship. However, historically, the color white represents innocence, while the red horns and platform may indicate bloodshed, violence and/or passion. Among the largest of Haring's sculptures, the elephant is also unusually constructed of a different material than Haring's more typical use of aluminum, terra cotta or plaster for sculpture. It stands out as a rare example of a species that is divergent from his more usual humans, dogs, dolphins or serpents.

Acrylic on Papier Mache - Andy Warhol Museum

1986

Crack is Wack

Crack is Wack is a public mural painted on a handball court in Harlem, New York City that can be seen from FDR Drive. It is a monochromatic piece in orange with Haring's signature black lines outlining the lettering and characters. This is one example of the many public paintings and murals Haring produced all over the world from 1982-89, but it is particularly notable for its originally illicit execution (though the City of New York quickly adopted it) and for the direct address to a social issue in a particular vulnerable locale.

The "Crack" in the mural refers to a cheaper form of cocaine that is smoked rather than snorted, and "Wack" is a slang term meaning "not good." A crack pipe at the bottom bears the central message set within a smoke cloud. Skull-death symbols loom large, as money burns away/is wasted as crackheads are consumed by personal demons and addiction. An ode to Picasso's Guernica (and suggestion of the symptoms akin to insanity that addiction to the drug might produce) can be seen in the animal with distorted eyes. The cross is a recurring religious symbol in Haring's paintings, representing a dogmatic and judgmental institution. Compositionally, Haring keeps the text-based message front and center, while at the same time integrating it in the larger group of surrounding images, partially through the dynamic dots that partially fill the letters of the message, resonating with the lines emanating from the figures on all sides. The crack epidemic lasted from the 1980s into the early 1990s in cities across the USA. African American urban communities were especially hard hit, perhaps underlying Haring's decision to do this anti-crack mural in Harlem.

Graffiti art and murals, along with Hip Hop music, arose during the 1980s in struggling, inner-city neighborhoods across the country. The USA was recovering from a long economic recession that had begun in the mid-1970s. Haring was a significant factor in spreading an awareness of murals worldwide. The medium of choice for most mural and graffiti artists was spray paint. Although toxic to inhale it did not stop street artists using it to express themselves on a number of issues, both local and global.

Public Mural in Harlem, NY

1989

Rebel with Many Causes

Rebel with Many Causes is an example of Haring's recurring theme of 'hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil' - a criticism of those who would avoid social issues, especially the AIDS crisis. The title of the piece suggests Haring's attitude as an artist and as an activist, as he incorporated both identities into his artwork. Openly gay when it was still considered taboo, he devoted himself to raising awareness of the AIDS crisis (e.g., through the movement ACT UP), when the federal government was slow to act. Many of his friends and associates died in the epidemic. He also produced art and campaigns to bring attention to blatant consumerism, environmental issues, and human rights.

Silkscreen on Paper - Guy Hepner Gallery NYC

1989

Untitled

This piece is of a different character than Haring's usual stylistic choices. Though the density and maze-like design of the overall imagery filling out the canvas has a somewhat compulsive quality, in contrast to his usual Zen-like simplicity, there is a flow and beauty to his use of energetic lines. In them one can see influences of ancient world symbols such as Eastern Mandalas or Australian Aboriginal art, as well as contemporary graffiti art 'tags'. He often used the powerful color red in his work (though here, in this late work, it is somewhat muted in outlining the figures) as well as the then-new medium of paint markers to create smooth, thick lines. Haring always strived for an equilibrious balance of shapes in his electric line compositions, a sort of symmetrical quality that allows the eye to follow and flow in harmony with the image.

One can see in this work an interconnected world where even though the shapes and figures are similar in aspect, their individual postures nonetheless distinguish each of them as unique. The characters in this image all wield some type of tool in their hands, pointing to the artist's own use of tools to create works of art such as this painting itself. Throughout the composition there are illustrations of penetration that might be read in sexually Freudian terms - where the outside and inside of humans meet in an ongoing exploration of difference - as human sexuality is a frequent subject in Haring's works.

In this Untitled piece, however, the balanced composition seems as important formally as the symbolic representations of the content. It shows influences from European masters of the Modern era such as Miro, Klee, and late-period Matisse, all of whom accomplished notable achievements in styles that developed flat, richly colored shapes and patterns playing out across the surfaces of their canvases. This late example of Haring's work, rendered the year before he died, embodies a successful development of his clean-line figurative style melded to hints of abstraction in the figures' disposition and background color fields, as well as a more intricate and integrated composition than he had achieved in his earlier work.

Acrylic on Canvas - Property of Keith Haring Estate


Similar Art

Influences and Connections

Influences on Artist
Keith Haring
Influenced by Artist
Friends & Personal Connections
Movements & Ideas
Open Influences
Close Influences

Useful Resources on Keith Haring

websites
articles
video clips

Related Artists

Related Movements & Topics

Share
Do more

Content compiled and written by The Art Story Contributors

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Alexandra Duncan

"Keith Haring Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by The Art Story Contributors
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Alexandra Duncan
Available from:
First published on 07 Dec 2015. Updated and modified regularly
[Accessed ]