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Keith Haring

Art for all

Art should be something that liberates your soul, provokes the imagination and encourages people to go further.

Keith Haring is one of the key members of a group of avant-garde New York-based artists who helped redefine the boundaries of Modern art in the 1980s. His works run parallel to that of Jean-Michel Basquiat and Kenny Scharf and showcase a wide variety of media and techniques - such as drawing, painting, body art and graffiti. Haring produced many monumental public works that contributed to the recognition of Street art as an independent art form deserving of a place in museums.

Keith Haring was born in 1958 in Reading, Pennsylvania. His love for drawing started at a very young age; he was fascinated by the cartoon art of Walt Disney and the illustrations of Dr. Seuss and he spent many hours drawing with his father, an engineer, whose hobby was cartooning.

After his graduation from high school, Haring enrolled at the Ivy School of Professional Art in Pittsburgh, a commercial arts school. He however soon realized that he had little interest in becoming a commercial graphic artist and after two semesters he dropped out. In 1978, he decided to return to school, moving to New York City to enrol at the School of Visual Arts.

In New York, Haring found a thriving alternative art community outside of the gallery and museum system. The downtown streets, clubs and former dance halls harbored a multifaceted group of artists on the cusp of stardom. Here, he became friends with fellow artists such as Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat, who shared his interest in the colorful and transgressive graffiti art of the city's streets. Swept up in the energy and spirit of the scene, Haring began to participate in exhibitions and performances at downtown nightclubs and other alternative locations, where art, music and fashion all came together in one dynamic mix.

In 1980, he started to use the city as his canvas. Riding the New York subway, he had noticed the black paper rectangles of empty advertising panels on station walls - using white chalk, he began to fill these black panels with simple, quickly drawn pictures.

His signature images included dancing figures, a radiant baby, a barking dog, a flying saucer, large hearts, and figures with televisions for heads. Between 1980 and 1985, Haring produced hundreds of these public drawings, sometimes creating as many as forty “subway drawings” in one day. The subway became, as Haring said, a “laboratory” for working out his ideas and experimenting with simple lines. These graffiti drawings did however not only attract the attention of New York commuters, they also caught the eye of the city authorities: Haring was arrested for vandalism on numerous occasions.

More than once, I've been taken to a station handcuffed by a cop who realized, much to his dismay, that the other cops in the precinct are my fans and were anxious to meet me and shake my hand.

By 1984, Haring’s work was so popular that people would steal his chalk drawings from subway stations and sell them.

Meanwhile, the artist completely immersed himself in the music and dance scene of the 1980s. The pulsating rhythm and moves of hip-hop particularly attracted Haring, who transferred these elements directly onto his compositions. He would listen to hip hop music while he painted, stroking the brush to the beat. If you look closely, you can see the rhythmic lines in his work that give the pieces a kind of musical energy that is unique to his style. 

His subjects can often be seen performing specific hip-hop and break-dance moves, like head spins, the so-called “electric boogies”  and other moves such as balancing on one hand. Many of his paintings were even done on vinyl tarpaulin which was often used by breakdancers as a surface for their street performances.

The energy and optimism of his art, with its bold lines and bright colors, made Haring popular with a wide audience. In 1981, he had his first solo exhibition, at the Westbeth Painters Space in Manhattan and throughout the 1980s, Haring's work was exhibited widely both within the United States and internationally.

During this time, Haring frequently collaborated with other artists and performers. He worked alongside artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat as well as fashion moguls Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren. In a series of paintings called Andy Mouse, Haring depicted his friend Andy Warhol with sunglasses and Mickey Mouse ears. He also collaborated on several projects with Grace Jones where he painted her body with graffiti for her musical performances and he even made a cameo in her music video I’m Not Perfect (But I’m Perfect For You).

Throughout the 80s Haring worked on a series of impressive projects around the world, such as a mural at the Melbourne National Gallery of Victoria (1984), backdrops and costumes for contemporary ballets, a logo for an anti-litter campaign for the city of New York, an animation for the Spectacolor billboard in Times Square, watch designs for Swatch and an advertising campaign for Absolut vodka. This extremely varied string of commissions established his style as iconic and recognizable. 

In April 1986, Haring opened the Pop Shop, a retail store in Soho selling T-shirts, toys, posters, buttons and magnets with images of his artworks on them. Haring considered the shop to be an extension of his work and painted the entire interior of the store in an abstract black & white mural. His intention was to allow more people access to his work at a much lower price point. Critics accused the artist of engaging in crass commercialism but Haring asserted that he was doing the opposite of "selling out."

My work was starting to become more expensive and more popular within the art market. Those prices meant that only people who could afford big art prices could have access to the work. The Pop Shop makes it accessible.

Throughout his brief career, Haring devoted much of his time to public works, which carried social messages. The topics of these work often stood in stark contrast to their fun shapes and colours. Between 1982 and 1989 he produced more than 50 public artworks, in dozens of cities around the world, many of which were created for charities, hospitals, children’s day care centers and orphanages. 

The now famous ‘Crack is Wack’ mural of 1986 has become a landmark along New York’s FDR Drive. Other famous projects include; a mural created for the 100th anniversary of the Statue of Liberty in 1986, on which Haring worked with 900 children; a mural on the exterior of Necker Children’s Hospital in Paris, France in 1987; and a mural painted on the western side of the Berlin Wall three years before its fall. His many public works were a tangible expression of his opinion that: 

Art is nothing if you don’t reach every segment of the people.

Haring also held drawing workshops for children in schools and museums and produced imagery for many literacy programs and other public service campaigns.

In 1988 Haring was diagnosed with AIDS. In 1989 he established the Keith Haring Foundation to provide funding to AIDS organizations and children’s programs. During the last years of his life, Haring used his imagery to raise awareness about his illness. Works, such as Ignorance=Fear (1989) and Stop AIDS (1989), actively engaged with the epidemic, seeking to eliminate the stigma attached to the disease.

Haring died in New York on February 16, 1990, of AIDS-related complications. He was 31 years old. To this day, his art is exhibited worldwide, and many of his works are owned by prestigious museums, including the Art Institute of Chicago, the Museum of Modern Art in New York City and the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, France. His art, with its deceptively simple style and themes of love, death, war and social harmony, continues to appeal to a worldwide audience.

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