Famous for his bold black-outlined figures and joyful primary colours, Keith Haring believed art was for the people. As well as producing high profile works of street art on the Berlin Wall and billboards for Times Square, Haring was also known for drawing on construction site hoardings and the walls of New York’s subway system, ensuring his name became known by both the critic and the everyman.
This fascination with accessibility led him to open numerous ‘Pop Shops’, where people could buy his work for as little as 50 cents, and also to experiment with the medium of print, which allowed him to reproduce his paintings over and over again. In his words, this was a way of ‘Taking art off the pedestal. I’m giving it back to the people, I guess.’
Though he had experimented with print techniques such as lithography in the late 70s and 80s it wasn’t until 1983 that Haring began making screen prints, or serigraphs. Soon he was producing ever more inventive and bold prints in editions of 100. This move to screen printing was undoubtedly due in part to the method being popularised by Andy Warhol, one of Haring’s most important influences.
Haring readily acknowledged his debt to the great Pop artist in helping him realise the possibilities of the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction. And though he was always looking back at those who had come before him he was also very concerned with the future of art; ‘[I am] continually amazed at the number of artists who continue working as if the camera were never invented, as if Andy Warhol never existed, as if airplanes and computers and videotape were never heard of.’
Having grown up with comics and cartoons, his was an iconography of reproduction. His love for commercial and Pop Art was evident in his first experiments with street art which saw him creating signature figures he named ‘icons’, such as the barking dog, the radiant child and the winged superman. He would reproduce these figures over and over again, in rich silk screened colours reminiscent of advertising and later, just before his death from AIDS in 1990, in plain white embossing.
Offering both playful and insightful comments on the issues that plagued his city – from AIDS to the ongoing violence and the drugs crisis – Haring’s work has been compared to masters of print before him, from Goya and Jacques Callot to Albrecht Dürer. This influence is particularly evident in his seventeen Blueprint Drawings, drawn on vellum with Chinese sumi ink that depict scenes of triumph and woe, combat and destruction in an almost biblical style, complete with tempting snake and imposing pyramid, as well as his own playful iconography of the flying saucer, the barking dog and the phallus.
Similarly, dramatic scenes can be found in Haring’s Apocalypse series, made to illustrate a text by writer William Burroughs, that features explosions, nuclear weapons and the constant threat of AIDS. Later his bold black outlines turn to spidery threads – in a series of delicate etchings entitled From the Valley, apocalyptic visions are replaced by robots, children and mythical creatures.
Early on in his career it became evident that the energy and curiosity he demonstrated for painting translated perfectly into printmaking and he soon began to work with publishers across the US, Switzerland, Japan, Germany, France, Denmark and Holland. Though his prints were made in large editions, there is an element of precision in every single one that shows the level of care with which he supervised the process.
By the time of his death, Haring had produced so many prints that the exact number has become impossible to count. There are many unsigned editions on the market, though these tend only to be considered valuable if approved by the Keith Haring Foundation. Today his prints are frequently among the most sought after multiples on the market, with signed editions selling for up to six figures.