Known for his bold graphic style and playful sense of humour, Keith Haring is one of the most influential and adored artists of the 20th century.
Born in Pennsylvania, in 1958, Haring was a talented draughtsman as a child and developed his cartoonish style at the hands of his father and the work of Walt Disney and Dr Seuss. However it would take some time before he realised he could marry this kind of drawing with being a fine artist. Upon graduating from high school he enrolled in a commercial art school before realising he had little interest in pursuing a career as an illustrator or graphic designer. After dropping out of college he joined the hippie movement and hitchhiked across the country where he made anti-Nixon t-shirts to pay for food and Grateful Dead tickets.
In 1978 he moved to New York to study at the city’s School of Visual Arts where he was taught by Joseph Kosuth and learned about semiotics. In the city he found a like minded community of artists, musicians, performers and graffiti artists who helped define his style. This alternative art scene eschewed museums and galleries in favour of the street, the club and the subway, where Haring began drawing with white chalk on black disused advertising panels. He called the subway his ‘laboratory’, somewhere he could experiment with simple lines and engage with his audience directly. This approach occasionally led him to being arrested however it often ended well, “More than once,” he said, “I’ve been taken to a station handcuffed by a cop who realised, much to his dismay, that the other cops in the precinct are my fans and were anxious to meet me and shake my hand”.
Haring once said that ‘Art is life, and life is art’, and it is this all encompassing approach to art as well as his prolific output that brought him his success. Though he had been operating outside the gallery scene, in 1982 he joined the Tony Shafrazi Gallery in order to be able to quit his day jobs as a cook and deliveryman and dedicate himself wholly to art. He was soon invited to participate in numerous solo and group exhibitions and became known for his street art style. By the mid-80s he was exhibiting in international biennials and even designed a billboard for Times Square, an advertising campaign for Absolut Vodka and a Swatch watch as well as painting murals all over the world.
This success led him to open his famous Pop Shop in New York’s SoHo, which he hoped would make his work more affordable for the masses, in his words, "Taking art off the pedestal. I’m giving it back to the people, I guess." He sold t-shirts, badges and magnets featuring his now ubiquitous motifs of the ‘radiant baby’, dancers surrounded by energy lines, the barking dog and love hearts for as little as 50 cents. 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.
Warhol’s influence on Haring was undeniable; "Warhol’s life and work made my work possible. … he was the first real public artist and his art and his life changed our conception of art and life in the 20th century". Haring paid tribute to Warhol in a 1986 series entitled Andy Mouse that saw the famous Pop artist appear in Mickey Mouse shorts with his trademark spiky wig.
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 Iconsseries featuring his signature motifs without his signature bold colours.
Throughout his career Haring collaborated with the musicians, designers and artists he met in New York, including Grace Jones, whose body he painted for her music video I'm Not Perfect (But I'm Perfect For You), Madonna and Vivienne Westwood. He also worked with writer William Burroughs on a series entitled Apocalypse and a suite of etchings named The Valley, dated 1988 and 1989 respectively.
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. 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.
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.