Keith Haring and the Celebration of Humanity

American artist and social activist Keith Haring was born in 1958 in Reading, Pennsylvania. From a young age, he showed a fondness for line drawing and adored the pop culture imagery of Dr. Seuss and Disney. His father, Allen Haring, was a cartoonist who may have been an inspiration for Haring to chase and pursue his artistic talents. Haring attended the Ivy School of Professional Art, in Pittsburgh for two semesters and then he enrolled at the School of Visual Arts in New York. Famous for his illustrative depictions of figures and symbols, Haring’s white chalk drawings could often be found on the blank poster marquees in New York’s public spaces and subways. “I don’t think art is propaganda” he once stated. “It should be something that liberates the soul, provokes the imagination and encourages people to go further. It celebrates humanity instead of manipulating it. His drawings often analyzed concepts in relation to exploitation, drug use and the rising fears of nuclear holocaust. Haring was one of the most influential and significant artists of the 20th Century and he used art as a means to promote positivity and peace which hugely resonated with audiences all over the world. 

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Haring’s personal style developed as he discovered the flourishing underground artist community in Manhattan’s East Village, that proudly stood outside of the world of Galleries and Museums. By the mid-1980s, Haring had befriended fellow artists such as Andy Warhol, Kenny Scharf, and Jean-Michel Basquiat, as well as having collaborated with celebrities, such as Grace Jones.  Greatly inspired by graffiti writers and street art, Haring honed what would become the signature appearance of his work: the heavy use of line, vivid fields of color, simplified human figures and geometric forms. His first works that accumulated attention were his public art paintings in the New York City subway stations. Haring’s work concentrates on motifs of birth, death, sex, and war. He was openly gay at a time when most non-heterosexuals kept their sexual proclivities private. Part of his prominence as an artist was how his art hugely impacted and raised awareness of AIDS.

Throughout the 1980s, Haring reached international recognition for his works, participating in over 100 solo and group shows. His later work repeatedly addressed political and societal themes. His “Fertility” series from the early 1980s, utilizes his iconic and distinct imagery as symbols for the maladies of life. Unlike the moods that are generally demonstrated through the use of color in his work, the feeling of tension in this series is read through the agitated figures. Haring takes a universal and broad approach to expressing and communicating the concrete feelings of anxieties present in living.Fertility #2” from 1983, is the second work in the Fertility series of five works. The piece is remarkably bright, potentially conveying a warm message, and perhaps evoking the New York club scene that he was a part of. This work captures both the mysteries of Ancient Civilization, with the representation of the pyramid, but also the imagination of extraterrestrial civilizations through the UFOs. In this work, the extraterrestrial,  or perhaps future, civilizations appear to be attacking the Antiquity. The pyramid was a common theme in Haring’s work, referring to antiquity, and symbolizing eternity. The UFO has been said to depict and illustrate cosmic energy as well as the extraterrestrial civilization which possibly refers to people who are situated outside social norms or ‘outsiders’. This piece, therefore, may be representative of the ‘outsiders’ tearing down social norms and customs, which one could parallel to Haring’s own life and his community of artists that were going against the grain of traditional art.  

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Fertility by Keith Haring

Symbolism was especially significant in Haring’s works, with diverse shapes, designs, and motifs bearing varying meanings. For example, the concept of organized religion was referenced through the drawings of crosses, as well as the notion of youthful innocence and goodness was represented through the use of the “radiant baby”. Haring also designed several murals around New York, such as “Crack is Wack” (1986) which can still be seen today on a retaining wall along FDR Drive. The mural was animated by the crack epidemic and its effect on New York City. It was devised as a warning and was initially executed independently, without City permission. In 1986, he opened the Pop Shop in Soho, which sold shirts, posters, and other merchandise plastered with images, which drew attention to socio-political issues such as AIDS awareness and the Crack cocaine epidemic. Haring was also invited to paint a section of the Berlin Wall, in an attempt to “destroy the wall through painting it” in 1986. 

Sadly, Haring was diagnosed with AIDS in 1988 and died two years later. Before his death, Haring founded the Keith Haring Foundation, a non-profit devoted to raising awareness of AIDS through art programming and community outreach. In 1990, a few months prior to his death, he created the Flowers” Series. This series demonstrates Haring’s distinct pop graffiti aesthetic, one that is centered on flowing, bold outlines set against a dense, balanced expanse of imagery. The intentional drip lines and splatter marks in this series include a sense of raw materiality and portray an expression of his suffering, born from the debilitating effects of AIDS. 

Haring’s life as an activist and artist was very much a part of the time in which he lived. He will continue to survive through his prolific and unique public art and drawings, as well as his generous Foundation. Keith Haring was a complex and sophisticated artist, both formally and conceptually which allowed him to make the sudden leap from street to stardom. His life and work echo the popular culture from the eighties and though his art we can see his gifted, versatile and richly textured graphic legacy. 

Artwork by Keith Haring is now available at Guy Hepner.