Keith Haring

Keith Haring Artworks

American Graffiti Artist, Sculptor, and Muralist

Born: May 4, 1958 - Reading, Pennsylvania
Died: February 16, 1990 - New York, New York

Progression of Art



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



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


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



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


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


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



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

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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]. .
Content compiled and written by The Art Story Contributors
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Alexandra Duncan
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First published on 07 Dec 2015. Updated and modified regularly
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