Keith Haring
Summary Biography

 

 

Born on 4 May, 1958, in Reading, Pennsylvannia, Keith Haring was best known for striking grafitti-inspired drawings that took him from New York City’s streets, subways and clubs to museums and public spaces around the world. Fascinated by cartoon art from an early age, Haring dropped out of the Ivy School of Professional Art in Pittsburgh to move to New York and to enroll in the School of Visual Arts in 1978. There, he discovered a thriving art community that was developing outside the gallery and museum world and included fellow emerging artists such as Jean-Michel Basquiat, whom he befriended. Haring created a singular graphic style based on the primacy of the line, peopling it with such signature images as dancing figures, “radiant babies,” barking dogs and flying saucers, and infusing it with uncommon energy and optimism.

 

 

After using the city as his canvas – from making countless quick chalk drawings on empty black subway advertising spaces to creating a Crack is Whack mural in Harlem – Haring applied his bold lines and bright colors to freestanding drawings and paintings. Between 1980 and 1989, the artist achieved international recognition, participating in numerous group and solo shows and producing more than 50 public artworks from New York to Paris. By finding a direct means of expressing universal concepts of birth, death, love, sex and war, Haring created a lasting imagery that has been embraced around the world. He died of AIDS-related complications on 16 February 1990. Haring’s works can be found in the collections of many museums including the Art Institute of Chicago, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, or the Albertina in Vienna.

 

 

Keith Haring was destined to be an artist. From a young age, Haring grew up learning to draw from his father, and though he was inspired by famous illustrators such as Walt Disney and Dr. Seuss, his father encouraged him to invent his own characters. This impetus to originate his own images rather than to copy or emulate those already existing in the media is what inevitably skyrocketed Haring to fame, gaining first New York City-wide and soon after national and international recognition for his visual lexicon including radiant babies, barking dogs, best buddies, and breakdancer.

 

Early Years in New York

Haring moved to New York City in 1978 following a short stint at the Ivy School of Professional Art in Pittsburgh—his parents had encouraged him to pursue commercial art, yet he quickly knew that he wanted to pursue a different path. Haring enrolled in the School of Visual Arts and quickly found himself in a thriving community of young artists both at SVA and downtown in the streets, including Kenny Scharf and Jean-Michel Basquiat, who were building their careers outside of the institution of galleries and museums. The young community of artists organized and participated in exhibitions and performances at Club 57, the Mudd Club, and Paradise Garage; through these alternative venues Haring met further arts celebrities of the time such as Andy Warhol, Grace Jones, and Madonna, whom he collaborated with and who supported Haring during his formative years as an artist.

 

Keith Haring, Andy Warhol, and Jean-Michel Basquiat in Warhol’s Broadway Studio
Credit: The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc.

 

Haring was fascinated by the graffiti he saw around New York City, and he felt an immediate affinity for the work. He saw forms similar to the drawings he was already creating, which boasted strong lines executed without hesitation; Haring never approached a drawing with a premeditated plan. One day on the subway in the early 1980s, Haring noticed a black-papered subway ad and immediately was inspired to draw on the matte paper. He went above ground to purchase a piece of chalk, and after that first drawing, Haring began establishing his vocabulary of images in subway stations all around New York City. Through this act of guerilla art-making, Haring’s images not only became visually recognizable and integrated into the landscape of the city, but the sheer number of drawings allowed Haring to experiment with and ultimately refine his vocabulary of images in his early years as an artist, establishing his alphabet which he would then draw from throughout the span his career.

 

Haring drawing in the New York City subway system. (photo courtesy of the Keith Haring Foundation)

 

In June of 1980, Haring participated in The Time Square Show, organized by Collaborative Projects. This landmark exhibition brought together over 100 artists who were primarily street artists working outside of the gallery system; artists such as Kiki Smith, Jenny Holzer, and Basquiat participated and for many of them, it was one of their first shows. Held in an abandoned massage parlor on 41st Street and Seventh Avenue, The Times Square Show provided commentary on democratizing art—this ethos is something that stayed with Haring, who throughout his career felt committed to bridging the gap between the high end art world and street art, endeavoring to make art accessible to everyone.

 

Entrance to the Times Square Show, a landmark exhibition

 

Haring was working as an assistant for Tony Shafrazi while a student at the School of Visual Arts, yet he never mentioned his own art to the gallerist—he was not interested in gallery representation but instead invested in the burgeoning downtown scene. As his subway drawings and graffiti gained more and more recognition, however, it was gallerists who were interested in him, and once Haring realized he did not have the time to both sell and create work on his own, he joined Tony Shafrazi Gallery and had his first solo show there in 1982—his debut was packed wall-to-wall with Haring’s friends, fans, celebrities, and those already eager to purchase Haring’s work.

 

Keith Haring at his debut solo-show at Tony Shafrazi Gallery

 

Having learned about Semiotics while at SVA, Haring carried forward with him the potential for images to speak as a language. Part of this was recognizing the value of repetition, which Haring employed in his oeuvre starting with his subway drawings; once his visual lexicon was established and recognizable, he continued to repeat the same images using varying mediums throughout his body of work. Haring recognized his ability to craft narratives through the myriad combinations and juxtapositions of his figures, in effect telling a story without words that could be relatable to anyone who came across his work.

 

 

While his visual vocabulary builds a narrative, the compositions also embody Haring himself as an artist. The images which became central to his work were also central to his life, and to the broader socio-political issues which he was compelled to address. The radiant baby and barking dog serve as the primal symbols of humanity and life; Haring also addressed central themes such as sexuality, war, friendship, and technology.

 

Keith Haring’s Pop Shop

 

 

In 1986, Haring opened the flagship location of his Pop Shop in Manhattan’s SoHo neighborhood, with the storefront at 292 Lafayette Street. Taking Warhol’s concept of the factory one step further, Haring saw the Pop Shop as a logical next step from his subway drawings—it was rooted in his desire to make art for a wide range of people, not just collectors and gallery goers. In response to criticism and being called a sell out, Haring explained, “The Pop Shop sort of grew naturally out of what the work was becoming anyway. The images had become part of the world and part of a universal culture. I had to go with that idea and let it happen, let it become part of the culture, let it become part of the mass culture instead of taking it back into the art world and hiding in the art world, which is where I was trying to break out of in the first place.” For Haring, the Pop Shop was itself an art statement, making his work easily accessible to communities throughout New York. It was met with large success, and in 1988 a second location of the Pop Shop opened in Tokyo.

 

 

While the project was praised by friends such as Andy Warhol who was fascinated by the possibilities of the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction, it was snubbed by many leading art world figures who placed more value on original works of art. Speaking of the importance of opening the shop as opposed to making large canvases to please collectors, Haring said, “I could earn more money if I just painted a few things and jacked up the price. My shop is an extension of what I was doing in the subway stations, breaking down the barriers between high and low art.” The Pop Shop remained open until 2005 and, contrary to many critics’ predictions, barely affected his market or cultural value. In every way, the Pop Shop was an extension of Haring’s work: he even painted the entire interior of the store with a black and white mural. Through the merchandise sold at his Pop Shop, Haring’s visual vocabulary was even further integrated into the fabric of the city. Posters were sold for a dollar, buttons for 50 cents. Tshirts, sweatshirts, skateboards, and more displaying Haring’s lexicon—images that were essentially established in the twelve drawings comprising the present sale—were available to fans of his work at a low cost, ultimately breaking down the barrier that blocked access to the sphere of an elitist art world. Profits were distributed to children’s charities and educational organizations as well as AIDS research, areas of commitment for Haring that were also incorporated in the mission of the Keith Haring Foundation, established by the artist in1989, one year before his death in 1990 due to AIDS-related complications.

 

Printmaking and Messaging

Haring’s desire to make his work more accessible perhaps contributed to his experimentation with print techniques such as lithography in the late ’70s and ’80s. In 1983 he began making screenprints. Soon he was producing ever more inventive and bold prints in editions of 100. Today his prints are frequently among the most sought after multiples on the market. Unsigned editions also sell well, as long as they have been verified by the Keith Haring Foundation. Just before he died Haring experimented with embossing, creating the elegant White Icons series featuring his signature motifs without his signature bold colors.

Retrospect, 1989

 

Haring’s work often carried a socio-political message and he spoke out frequently about drugs, most notably with his famous Crack is Wack mural in Harlem, apartheid and the AIDS crisis – his work Silence = Death mirrors the Act Up group’s slogan.

Silence = Death, 1989

 

Despite advocating safe sex for much of his career Haring sadly died from an AIDS related complication at the age of 32. He remained philosophical about his life and work until the end, however, saying “All of the things that you make are a kind of quest for immortality. Because you’re making these things that you know have a different kind of life. They don’t depend on breathing, so they’ll last longer than any of us will.” Indeed, his work appears in the collections of the world’s major museums and galleries and on city streets around the world, remaining accessible to all.

 

The Keith Haring Foundation

In 1989, the year before he died, Haring established The Keith Haring Foundation which perpetuates his legacy through the circulation of his artwork and archives, and by providing grants to children in need and those affected by HIV/AIDS.