In Keith Haring’s 1990 Icons suite, each print presents a single symbol from the artist’s lexicon. Employing commercial advertising’s flattened and saturated colours, Haring highlights his best-known icons—the radiant baby, angel, flying devil, three-eyed monster and barking dog—in unusual isolation, in acknowledgement of the fame these symbols had by attained.
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Featuring some of his most recognisable motifs, Haring’s Icons is a set of five prints, each a single symbol rendered in his vivid and linear style Depicted in flattened, saturated colours and contoured in thick, bold lines, the series presents five Haring icons; the radiant baby, angel, flying devil, three-eyed monster and barking dog.
Much like fellow graffiti artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, Haring reuses particular symbols, all present in the Icons series, to produce a memorable pictorial language. The symbols used in this series first appeared in Haring’s New York subway drawings from early on in his career, notably the radiant baby ‘tag’ that the artist used in place of his signature on public art projects. Uncompromising in its positive tone, Haring’s syntax of signs in this series creates a universal language to be seen and understood by the masses of New York, thus producing a true public art charged with meaning.
Using light-hearted imagery and the visual language of commercialism and mass-media, Haring critiques the proliferation of capitalism in 1980s New York. Haring used his art to oppose the negative effects of capitalism and mass consumerism, undoubtedly inspired by the Pop Art movement of the 1960s and his friend, Andy Warhol. The Icons series prints are rendered in flat, saturated colours as a nod to the rise of commercialism and mass production in Haring’s lifetime. Heavily influenced by Andy Warhol and the wider Pop Art movement of the 1960s, his work bridges the gap between high art and mass consumerism so as to dissolve boundaries between fine art, political activism and popular culture. As evidenced by his famous Pop Shop, Haring conflated high art with commercialism and so claimed to mirror the capitalist world that he lived in.
The Icons series is also notable for its reworking of traditional Christian iconography to critique organised religion and the government amidst the HIV/AIDS epidemic of 1980s New York. Rooted in his encounter with the Jesus Movement of the 1970s, prints like the Radiant Baby, Angel and Flying Devil, are demonstrative of the way the artist shapes religious source material to reflect contemporary concerns of his generation. Haring’s use of redemptive imagery overflows with paradoxical themes like life and death, good and evil, religion and sexuality, heaven and hell, to speak to the ambiguities and socio-political injustices of the time.
Image © Rob Bogaerts (Anefo), CC0, via Wikimedia Commons
From early on in his career, Haring created his own recognisable symbols to use in his New York subway drawings. Haring created drawings on the subways as a quick and effective way to bring art into the public. He would hop on and off the trains and use chalk to draw his iconic figures onto blank advertising boards on the platform.
Radiant Baby © Keith Haring, 1990
Used very early on in his career, the radiant baby symbol in this series was originally used by Haring in place of his signature on public art projects on the street. As a result, the radiant baby has become one of Haring’s most iconic and highly recognisable symbols.
Angel © Keith Haring, 1990
Rooted in his encounter with the Jesus Movement of the 1970s, prints like Radiant Baby, Angel and Flying Devil, are demonstrative of the way the artist shapes traditional religious symbols to reflect the contemporary concerns of his generation. Haring reworks this Christian iconography to critique organised religion and the government amidst the HIV/AIDS epidemic of 1980s New York.
Three-Eyed Monster © Keith Haring, 1990