Icons Keith Haring
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Featuring some of the artist’s most recognisable motifs of his prolific career, Keith Haring’s Icons series is a set of five prints each showing 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.
Why is Icons important?
Haring’s true legacy is seen in the Icons series through the way in which he was able to communicate critical messages with the creation of unique and highly simplified images. In using the screen printing method for which he is famed, adopted from the commercial printing world, Haring was able to produce multiple versions of the same image with little difference between them and in vivid colour. This medium therefore lent itself well to Haring’s idea of the democratisation of art that was heavily inspired by the shrill iconography of advertisements around New York at the time. Indeed, to the uninitiated bystander, Haring’s stylised works read as elusive advertisements themselves, usually inexplicit in their critique of oppressive systems. The Icons series is an example of the artist’s censored critical messages produced through seemingly light-hearted, simplified images, to mimic advertisements and appeal to a vast audience.
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