Influenced by his study of Semiotics at the New School, Keith Haring filled his work with signs and symbols in order to create a pictorial language that was both deeply personal and easily accessible to the general public who first encountered his drawings on the New York subway.
In this way they became a truly ‘public’ art form, existing outside what he saw as the elitist market of contemporary art and exuding joy and positivity to passers-by who became familiar with his Radiant Baby and Barking Dog long before the critics knew what had hit them. Here we take a closer look at some of the most familiar images from Haring’s work, and what they symbolise.
The Barking Dog
The Barking Dog has become one of Haring’s most iconic symbols, first appearing in his New York subway drawing series from 1980–85. It emerged as a symbol of oppression and aggression, acting as a warning to the viewer of the abuses of power that pervade everyday life in America and beyond. Traditionally used by artists to represent loyalty, companionship and obedience, Haring subverts the symbol of the dog to remind viewers to think critically about those who shout the loudest. Similarly, street artist Banksy can be said to have picked up Haring’s mantle, appropriating symbols such as the barking dog to spread a new message of distrust in figures of authority.
The Radiant Baby
Rooted in Haring’s encounter with the Jesus Movement of the 1970s, motifs such as the Radiant Baby, Angel and Flying Devil, demonstrate how the artist appropriated and subverted religious iconography to reflect contemporary concerns of his generation. Many have read this subversion as an overt critique on organised Christianity, and particularly the church’s position on the HIV/AIDS epidemic of the 1980s, to which Haring tragically succumbed.
Here the baby represents the ultimate symbol of innocence, radiating positive energy from its crawling pose, in what Haring called, “the purest and most positive experience of human existence.” As his career progressed, however, the baby motif found itself in ever darker scenes, covered in the Kaposi’s sarcoma associated with advanced HIV infection, or at the centre of a mushroom cloud or UFO abduction. In this way the baby is often associated with Haring himself, a figure whose innocence and purity led him to revolutionise the art world for a brief moment before his untimely death.
Similarly to the radiant baby, Haring’s Heart motif, often seen being held aloft by a crowd of dancing figures, is a symbol of optimism and love. While it can sometimes represent romantic love – as when it is held between an androgynous couple – it is also read as a wider symbol of collectivity, community and compassion, as when it is held by two hands or when it also encompasses a globe within it. Here again a religious meaning can be inferred, as the sacred heart is pervasive across Christian art, however the heart is also a staple of cartoon imagery in which Haring was well versed from a young age. And while his later work often took a more erotic or tragic turn, the innocence of the love heart, usually painted in a bright primary red, remained present all the way through.
The Dancing Figure
The dancing figure or stick figure is perhaps one of Haring’s most well known motifs, appearing on t-shirts and billboards across the world still today, and can be seen to represent the joy and energy of the New York club scene – and in particular the gay scene – in the ’70s and ’80s. With bold energy lines radiating from their bodies the figures effortlessly evoke freedom and ecstasy, whether engaged in the act of breakdancing or holding their hands high above their head as if moving to the beat of an unseen DJ.
Occasionally the figures become conjoined or stacked evoking a further sense of community and solidarity, their energy lines turned into the squiggles and symbols usually associated with Aztec or Aboriginal art. Commenting on this particular motif, Haring has said “My drawings don’t try to imitate life; they try to create life, to invent life.”
Often depicted above a crowd of dancing figures or inside a cartoon heart, the globe is immediately recognisable as an icon of peace and collectivity. As with many of Haring’s other motifs it is usually surrounded by radiant energy lines or supported by a pair of hands, suggesting the artist’s belief in the importance of collaboration and positivity in the face of the prejudice and division brought about by politics and the global AIDS crisis which had a huge impact on New York counterculture.
In the globe and other symbols we can see the artist’s fascination with hieroglyphs, pictograms and other universal languages, something that still resonates with art lovers today who are used to communicating with images and emojis as well as words.