Dedicated to the democratisation of art and creating art for the people, Keith Haring’s brightly coloured figures and symbols are recognised across the world – his Radiant Baby, the Barking Dog, the Dancing Figures, the three-eyed smiling monster. Uncompromising in its positive energy, Haring used refreshingly simplified shapes and bold lines to create works that appeal to both children and adults alike. Here we take a closer look at the artist’s key influences, materials and meanings behind his works.
- What inspired Keith Haring?
- What materials did Keith Haring use in his work?
- Does Keith Haring’s art have a symbolic language?
What inspired Keith Haring?
Haring developed a strong interest in drawing as a child, learning basic cartooning skills from his father and inspired by popular culture animations like Walt Disney, Dr. Seuss and Looney Toons. The artist’s playful and brightly coloured style plays into the visual language of these iconic cartoons in an entirely unique way and it is clear why Haring’s work is still so popular today.
After moving to New York in 1978, Haring became immersed and heavily influenced by the emerging street art and hip-hop scene that often took the form of graffiti and murals across Harlem and the subway. Jean-Michel Basquiat and Kenny Scharf, key figures in this alternative art scene, became close with Haring and the three artists developed a shared interest in making work outside of traditional art spaces. Haring used his distinct graffiti-inspired style to create a truly public art, just as Basquiat had done before him, that merges high art with popular culture. Crucially however, Haring never considered himself to be a graffiti artist, his Subway Drawings differing in location, timing and medium from his contemporaries.
As an artist who grew up in the 1960s and ’70s, Haring was undoubtedly inspired by the Pop Art movement in his use of saturated block colours like blue, red and yellow, flat, simplified shapes and dark, bold lines. Haring’s work sought to bridge the gap between high art and popular culture, a key component of the Pop Art movement, by using the visual language of mass consumer objects. Notably, as Haring shot to stardom, he was befriended by leader of the Pop Art movement, Andy Warhol, who became his mentor. From Warhol, Haring learned about the importance of repeating images and expanding his artwork through unprecedented channels in the commercial world. It is important to note that Haring’s intuitive working process that prioritised the hand of the artist, through his use of organic shapes and motifs, marks him as distinct from his predecessors.
What materials did Keith Haring use in his work?
Across his short but prolific career, Haring worked across a variety of different mediums creating more than three thousand works on paper and around three hundred paintings. Some of Haring’s most iconic motifs emerged from his Subway Drawings from 1980-85, of which he produced around 5,000, that were created with white chalk on blacked out advertisement panels. Through obsessive repetition of subject across the drawings, Haring produced a memorable pictorial language, a syntax of signs, that was quick and simple to execute to avoid being arrested. Unlike the graffiti artists who he is often closely associated with, Haring used white chalk and worked during the day so that he could interact with his audience. Whilst his contemporaries used spray paint or markers, Haring’s use of chalk meant that his work could be removed more easily and had an ephemeral and performative quality to it. Haring’s friend from the School of Visual Arts, Tseng Kwong Chi, would follow him around the subways and photograph his chalk drawings before they were covered or stolen.
Haring experimented with a number of printmaking techniques in his career such as lithography, screen printing, etching, woodcuts and embossing. These printing mediums worked to bridge the gap between his unique pieces and the reproduction of his imagery to promote the accessibility of his popular imagery. Finally, Haring also worked in painting and sculpture, creating life-sized figures in 3D and billboard-sized murals that occupied public spaces and communicated strong messages to the community.
Does Keith Haring’s art have a symbolic language?
Haring was best known for his iconic motifs, such as barking dogs, crawling babies and flying saucers, but what do these symbols actually have meaning? Often depicted in flattened, saturated colours and contoured in thick, bold lines, these highly simplified motifs are repeated across Haring’s oeuvre to produce a pictorial language. Having been interested in semiotics whilst studying at the School of Visual Arts in New York, Haring was strongly aware of how pictures could function just like words. As Haring told it: “I was always totally amazed that the people I would meet while I was doing them were really, really concerned with what they meant. The first thing anyone asked me, no matter how old, no matter who they were, was what does it mean?”
Inspired by Egyptian hieroglyphics, Haring adopted a system of expression that reduced complex and weighty concepts into a simple and brightly coloured symbol. Evolving the abstract shapes of his early drawings, each recurring motif holds its own set of meanings that have come to form a universal language to be seen and understood by the masses of New York. Some of his most famous motifs are included in Haring’s Icons series from 1990.
Haring’s Radiant Baby is one of his most recognisable symbols showing a crawling child on its hand and knees, often with radiating lines pulsating from its body. The symbol first emerged in Haring’s work during his days as a subway artist, where he used the ‘radiant baby’ in place of his signature, known as his ‘tag’. As a noteworthy example of how Haring created optimistic icons for his generation, the artist described the ‘radiant baby’ as “the purest and most positive experience of human existence” and used the figure as a symbol of hope for the future.