Keith Haring
Biography of American Graffiti Artist.

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Keith Haring (1958-90)


Early Life and Street Art
Artistic Themes
Gallery Art
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The American street artist Keith Haring is famous for his instantly recognizable style of urban graffiti art - executed in marker ink, acrylic and Day-Glo paint - with its thick black lines and distinctive cartoon-like figures and forms. Although not as highly thought of, by art critics, as his friend and fellow artist Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-88), Haring attracted a widespread following for his brand of public art, exhibited with New York's most influential dealer Leo Castelli, and successfully bridged the gap between contemporary art proper and the more low-brow mass market. Probably best-known for his 1980 image "Radiant Baby" and his 1986 mural painting entitled "Crack is Wack", painted in orange and black on a playground wall adjacent to Harlem River Drive, in New York. Although his career was tragically cut short by AIDS, for a time he was one of New York's top contemporary artists, and his work was shown in several of America's best galleries of contemporary art, as well as a number of the best contemporary art festivals, such as Documenta 7, the Sao Paolo Biennial and the Whitney Biennial. Other famous works by Haring include: "Subway Drawing" (1980-81, Hyde Collection, New York); "Andy Mouse" (1985, Keith Haring Foundation, NY); "Berlin Mural" (1986, Berlin Wall, now lost); "Acrobats" (1986, KHF, NY); "Acrobats" (1986, KHF, NY); Skateboards (1986, KHF, NY); "Pop Shop Poster" (1986, KHF, NY); "Untitled" (Figure on Baby) (1987, National Gallery of Canada, Ottowa); and "Boxers" (1988, Daimler Collection, Berlin). Along with fellow New Yorkers Jean-Michel Basquiat and David Wojnarowicz (1954-92) and the English street artist Banksy (b.1973-4), Haring forms a quartet of street painters that have made a major contribution to postmodernist art in both America and Europe. That said, Haring's images - really the ultimate form of pop art - remain the simplest and most immediate of any produced by these three postmodernist artists, and this is reflected in his popularity among the general public.



Early Life and Street Art

Born in Reading, Pennsylvania, Haring came to New York in 1978 and studied at the School of Visual Arts. He was producing mostly abstract paintings when, toward the end of 1980, he noticed that the New York transit authority covered the posters on the subway platforms with black paper after the rental period on the advertisement expired. He found these black panels irresistible surfaces and his white chalk drawings in the subways soon became his consuming passion. By his own estimate, he drew over 5,000 of them between 1981 and 1985. The subway authorities would remove the drawings in a matter of days (arresting the artist if they caught him), but Haring replaced them as fast as new black frames appeared. The subject matter was a recurring repertoire of simple narrative images that travellers all over Manhattan began to recognize and look for: flying saucers with beams of energy empowering radiant babies and barking dogs, little androgynous people (often masses of them, all exactly the same), composite monsters with some human or animal body parts and often with television sets for heads.

Haring's avant-garde drawing deals with the life of Everyman in our television culture. Sometimes he put dollar signs on the television screens (suggesting advertising) or showed a barking dog (perhaps politicians or a soap opera). In one, an arm reaches out of the screen and grabs a helpless little figure by the throat (implying the ruthlessness with which television sometimes manipulates the unsuspecting viewer). In the catalog for a show of Haring's work, Barry Blinderman described the artist's underlying subject matter as:

"the hallucinatory interface of biology and technology in our increasingly cybernetic society. Audio-visual surveillance, genetic engineering, mass-media anesthesia - these are the conditions that characterize our so-called postmodern era."

Artistic Themes

The writing of William Burroughs was a formative influence on Haring in his efforts to come to terms with this postmodern condition. For Burroughs, experience comes in too much profusion and emotional intensity to attempt integration. Instead, he portrays himself as a neutral conduit through which all these psychic states pass: "I am a recording instrument... I do not presume to impose any kind of story, plot, or sub-text." But where Burroughs is desperately alienated from himself, Haring's figures are life-affirming, taking comfort in their communal anonymity.

Some of Haring's subway drawings had obvious political themes, such as the one labelled "South Africa" in three narrative frames: a little figure leads a giant by a rope around the neck, then the big figure rubs its sore neck (evidently assessing the situation), and in the third frame the giant stamps on the small figure. In another drawing Haring showed a little person pulled painfully in four directions by big hands that reach into the composition from the four corners, each grasping one of the little person's limbs. Haring created icons of mass culture to which everyone could relate, using the same devices as advertising: repeated trademark images with instantly understandable messages. He saturated his audience with them, painting on any surface at hand and even passing out free buttons and posters, as in an advertising campaign.

Gallery Art

In the painting Haring did for the art galleries - as distinct from the public venues - he drew many overtly sexual subjects, and winged phalluses. He wanted to address sexuality as the driving force in life. But even in the work Haring made strictly for art audiences he also courted the taste for popular entertainment, as in the fluorescent works he painted for his show at the Tony Shafrazi Gallery in 1982.

By 1985, Haring's was showing his paintings in at least one of New York's top galleries (Leo Castelli's), and had branched out into steel sculpture: see, for instance, his red and blue public sculpture "Boxer" (1985, Potsdam, Berlin). In 1986 he opened the Pop Shop on the edge of the SoHo gallery district, which mass-marketed his images as inexpensive souvenirs in the form of prints, posters and buttons. He also donated his images to help the Anti-Apartheid campaign, as well as publicity campaigns warning against AIDS and the use of drugs. As a result, his characteristic imagery and style of art became over-exposed, which led to a backlash from the critics, although his public following remained strong. Keith Haring died from AIDS on February 16, 1990.

Paintings by Keith Haring can be seen in several of the best art museums in America, including the Museum of Modern Art, New York.

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We gratefully acknowledge the use of material from "Art Since 1940" written by Jonathan Fineberg (2000, Laurence King Publishing), an essential work of reference for any serious student of contemporary art in America and Europe.


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