Keith Allen Haring (May 4, 1958 – February 16, 1990) was an American artist whose pop art and graffiti-like work grew out of the New York City street culture of the 1980s.
Haring’s work grew to popularity from his spontaneous drawings in New York City subways – chalk outlines on blank black advertising-space backgrounds – depicting radiant babies, flying saucers, and deified dogs. After public recognition he created larger scale works such as colorful murals, many of them commissioned.His imagery has “become a widely recognized visual language”. His later work often addressed political and societal themes – especially homosexuality and AIDS – through his own iconography.
Early life and education
A mural by Haring in Barcelona
Keith Haring was born in Reading, Pennsylvania, on May 4, 1958. He was raised in Kutztown, Pennsylvania, by his mother, Joan Haring, and father, Allen Haring, an engineer and amateur cartoonist. His family attended the United Church of God. He had three younger sisters, Kay, Karen and Kristen. He became interested in art at a very young age, spending time with his father producing creative drawings. His early influences included Walt Disney cartoons, Dr. Seuss, Charles Schulz, and the Looney Tunes characters in The Bugs Bunny Show.
In his early teenage years, Haring was involved with the Jesus Movement. He eventually left his religious background behind and hitchhiked across the country, selling Grateful Dead and anti-Nixon T-shirts he made and experimenting with drugs. He studied commercial art from 1976 to 1978 at Pittsburgh’s Ivy School of Professional Art, but eventually lost interest. He made the decision to leave after having read Robert Henri’s The Art Spirit (1923), which inspired him to concentrate on his own art.
Haring had a maintenance job at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts and was able to explore the art of Jean Dubuffet, Jackson Pollock, and Mark Tobey. His most critical influences at this time were a 1977 retrospective of the work of Pierre Alechinsky and a lecture by the sculptor Christo in 1978. Alechinsky’s work, connected to the international Expressionist group CoBrA, gave him confidence to create larger paintings of calligraphic images. Christo introduced him to the possibilities of involving the public with his art. His first important one-man exhibition was in Pittsburgh at the Center for the Arts in 1978.
He moved to New York in 1978 to study painting at the School of Visual Arts. He also worked as a busboy during this time at a nightclub called Danceteria. He studied semiotics with Bill Beckley, as well as exploring the possibilities of video and performance art. Profoundly influenced at this time by the writings of William Burroughs, he was inspired to experiment with the cross-referencing and interconnection of images.
He first received public attention with his public art in subways where he created white chalk drawings on a black, unused advertisement backboard in the stations. Keith considered the subways to be his “laboratory”, a place where he could experiment and create his artwork. Starting in 1980, he organized exhibitions at Club 57, which were filmed by the photographer Tseng Kwong Chi. Around this time, “The Radiant Baby” became his symbol. His bold lines, vivid colors, and active figures carry strong messages of life and unity. He participated in the Times Square Exhibition and drew animals and human faces for the first time. That same year, he photocopied and pasted provocative collages made from cut-up and recombined New York Post headlines around the city. In 1981, he sketched his first chalk drawings on black paper and painted plastic, metal, and found objects.
By 1982, Haring had established friendships with fellow emerging artists Futura 2000, Kenny Scharf, Madonna and Jean-Michel Basquiat. He created more than 50 public works between 1982 and 1989 in dozens of cities around the world. He often used lines of energy to emphasize kinetic movement, vitality, and euphoric spirit.One of his early works in 1982 depicts two figures with a radiant heart-love motif, which critics have interpreted as a boldness in homosexual love and a significant cultural statement. His “Crack is Wack” mural, created in 1986, is visible from New York’s FDR Drive. In 1989, he criticized the avoidance of social issues such as AIDS through a piece called “Rebel with Many Causes” that revolves around a theme of “hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil”.
He got to know Andy Warhol, who was the theme of several of Haring’s pieces, including “Andy Mouse”. His friendship with Warhol would prove to be a decisive element in his eventual success. In December 2007, an area of the American Textile Building in the TriBeCa neighborhood of New York City was discovered to contain a painting of Haring’s from 1979.
Haring painting a mural at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, 1986
Sculpture by Haring in Dortmund, Germany
In 1984, Haring visited Australia and painted wall murals in Melbourne (such as the 1984 ‘Detail-Mural at Collingwood College, Victoria’) and Sydney, and received a commission from the National Gallery of Victoria and the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art to create a mural which temporarily replaced the water curtain at the National Gallery. He also visited and painted in Rio de Janeiro, the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, Minneapolis and Manhattan. He became politically active, designing a Free South Africa poster in 1985. In spring 1986, he had his first solo museum exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, where he also painted a mural on the museum’s then-storage facility. On October 23, 1986 Keith was asked by the Checkpoint Charlie Museum to create a mural on the Berlin Wall. The mural was 300 meters long and depicted red and black interlocking human figures against a yellow background. The colors were a representation of the German flag and symbolized the hope of unity between East and West Germany. He was interested in working with children and this inspired the project Citykids Speak on Liberty, which involved 1,000 children collaborating on a project for the centennial of the Statue of Liberty.
In April 1986, Pop Shop was opened in Soho and made Keith’s work readily accessible to purchase at reasonable prices. When asked about the commercialism of his work, Haring said: “I could earn more money if I just painted a few things and jacked up the price. My shop is an extension of what I was doing in the subway stations, breaking down the barriers between high and low art.” By the arrival of Pop Shop, his work began reflecting more socio-political themes, such as anti-Apartheid, AIDS awareness, and the crack cocaine epidemic. He even created several pop art pieces influenced by other products: Absolut Vodka, Lucky Strike cigarettes, and Coca-Cola. In 1987, he had his own exhibitions in Helsinki, Antwerp, and elsewhere. He also designed the cover for the benefit album A Very Special Christmas, on which Madonna was included. In 1988, he joined a select group of artists whose work has appeared on the label of Chateau Mouton Rothschild wine.
Haring also created public murals in the lobby and ambulatory care department of Woodhull Medical and Mental Health Center on Flushing Avenue, Brooklyn.
A rare video of Haring at work shows his energetic style. He wrote: “I am becoming much more aware of movement. The importance of movement is intensified when a painting becomes a performance. The performance (the act of painting) becomes as important as the resulting painting.”
When his friend Jean-Michel Basquiat died of an overdose in New York in 1988, he paid homage to him with his work A Pile of Crowns, for Jean-Michel Basquiat.
Haring was openly gay and was a strong advocate of safe sex; however, in 1988, he was diagnosed with AIDS. From 1982 to 1989, he was featured in more than 100 solo and group exhibitions as well as produced more than 50 public artworks in dozens of charities, hospitals, day care centers, and orphanages. He used his imagery during the last years of his life to speak about his illness and to generate activism and awareness about AIDS. In 1989, he was invited by the Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center to join a show of site-specific artwork for the building at 208 West 13th Street. He chose the second-floor men’s room for his mural Once Upon a Time. In June, on the rear wall of the convent of the Church of Sant’Antonio (Italian: Chiesa di Sant’Antonio abate) in Pisa, he painted the last public work of his life, the mural “Tuttomondo” (translation: “All world”).
Keith Haring Foundation
In 1989, he established the Keith Haring Foundation to provide funding and imagery to AIDS organizations and children’s programs, and to expand the audience for his work through exhibitions, publications and the licensing of his images. The foundation’s goal is to keep Keith Haring’s wishes and expand his heritage, crafts, art and goals by providing grants and funding to nonprofit organizations that target educating disadvantaged youths and informing individuals about HIV and AIDS. It also supports arts and educational institutions by funding exhibitions, educational programs, and publications. Haring also entrusted the foundation with carrying on his legacy through research and sharing his works and materials pertaining to his life.
He collaborated with Grace Jones, whom he had met through Andy Warhol. In 1985, Haring and Jones worked together on the two live performances Jones at the Paradise Garage, which Robert Farris Thompson has called a “epicenter for black dance”. Each time, Haring covered Jones’ body with graffiti. He also collaborated with fashion designers Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren on their A/W 1983/84 Witches collection, with his artwork covering the clothing which was most famously worn by a pink-wigged Madonna for a performance of her song “Like a Virgin” on the British pop-music programme Top of the Pops and the American TV dance program Solid Gold. Haring also collaborated with David Spada, a jewelry designer, to design the sculptural adornments for Jones.
Haring’s work very clearly demonstrates many important political and personal influences. Ideas about his sexual orientation are apparent throughout his work and his journals clearly confirm its impact on his work. Heavy symbolism speaking about the AIDS epidemic is vivid in his later pieces, such as Untitled (cat. no. 27), Silence=Death and his sketch Weeping Woman. In some of his works—including cat. no. 27—the symbolism is subtle, but he also produced some blatantly activist works. Silence=Death, which mirrors the ACT UP poster and uses its motto, is almost universally agreed upon as a work of HIV/AIDS activism.
Haring died on February 16, 1990, of AIDS-related complications. He (among others) is commemorated in the AIDS Memorial Quilt. As a celebration of his life, Madonna declared that the first New York date of her 1990 Blond Ambition World Tour would be a benefit concert for Haring’s memory and donated all proceeds from her ticket sales to AIDS charities including AIDS Project Los Angeles and amfAR; the act was documented in her film Truth or Dare. Additionally, his work was featured in several of Red Hot Organization’s efforts to raise money for AIDS and AIDS awareness, specifically its first two albums, Red Hot + Blue and Red Hot + Dance, the latter of which used Haring’s work on its cover.
Haring contributed to the New York New Wave display in 1981 and in 1982, had his first exclusive exhibition in the Tony Shafrazi Gallery. That same year, he took part in Documenta 7 in Kassel, Germany, as well as Public Art Fund’s “Messages to the Public” in which he created work for a Spectacolor Board in Times Square. He contributed work to the Whitney Biennial in 1983, as well as in the São Paulo Biennial. In 1985, the CAPC in Bordeaux opened an exhibition of his works, and he took part in the Paris Biennial.
Since his death Haring has been the subject of several international retrospectives. His art was the subject of a 1997 retrospective at the Whitney Museum in New York, curated by Elisabeth Sussman. In 1996, a retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia was the first major exhibition of his work in Australia. In 2008 there was a retrospective exhibition at the MAC in Lyon, France. In February 2010, on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the Haring’s death, Tony Shafrazi Gallery showed an exhibition containing dozens of works from every stage of Haring’s career. In March 2012, a retrospective exhibit of his work, Keith Haring: 1978–1982, opened at the Brooklyn Museum in New York. In April 2013, Keith Haring: The Political Line opened at the Musee d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris and Le Cent Quatre In November 2014, then at the De Young Museum in San Francisco.
Haring’s work is in major private and public collections, including the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City; Los Angeles County Museum of Art; the Art Institute of Chicago; the Bass Museum in Miami; Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris; the Ludwig Museum in Cologne; and the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. He also created a wide variety of public works, including the infirmary at Children’s Village in Dobbs Ferry, New York, and the second floor men’s room in the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center in Manhattan, which was later transformed into an office and is known as the Keith Haring Room. In January 2019 an exhibit called “Keith Haring’s New York” opened at New York Law School in the main building of its Tribeca campus.
Haring was represented until his death by art dealer Tony Shafrazi. Since his death in 1990, his estate has been administered by the Keith Haring Foundation. The foundation has a twofold mission of supporting educational opportunities for underprivileged children and financing AIDS research and patient care. The foundation is represented by Gladstone Gallery.
There is no catalogue raisonné for Haring; however, there is copious information about him available on the estate’s website and elsewhere, enabling prospective buyers or sellers to research exhibition history. In 2012, the Keith Haring Foundation disbanded its authentication board; that same year, it donated $1 million to support exhibitions at the Whitney Museum of American Art and $1 million to Planned Parenthood of New York City’s Project Street Beat. A 2014 lawsuit, filed by a group of nine art collectors at the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York, argued that the foundation’s actions have “limited the number of Haring works in the public domain, thereby increasing the value of the Haring works that the foundation and its members own or sell.”
In popular culture
The Boxers (1987), located near Potsdamer Platz, Berlin
Haring is the subject of a composition, Haring at the Exhibition, written and performed by Italian composer Lorenzo Ferrero in collaboration with DJ Nicola Guiducci. The work combines excerpts from popular chart music of the 1980s with samples of classical music compositions by Lorenzo Ferrero and synthesized sounds. It was featured at “The Keith Haring Show”, an exhibition which took place in 2005 at the Triennale di Milano.
In 2006, he was named by Equality Forum as one of their 31 Icons of LGBT History Month.
In 2008, filmmaker Christina Clausen released the documentary The Universe of Keith Haring. In the film, his legacy is “resurrected through colorful archival footage and remembered by friends and admirers such as artists Kenny Scharf and Yoko Ono, gallery owners Jeffrey Deitch and Tony Shafrazi, and the choreographer Bill T. Jones”.
Madonna, who was friends with Haring during the 1980s, used his art as animated backdrops for her 2008/2009 Sticky and Sweet Tour. The animation is standard Haring, featuring his trademark blocky figures dancing in beat to an updated remix of “Into the Groove”.
Keith Haring: Double Retrospect is a monster sized jigsaw puzzle by Ravensburger measuring in at 17 by 6 feet (5.2 by 1.8 m) with 32,256 pieces, breaking Guinness Book of World Records for the largest puzzle ever made. The puzzle uses 32 pieces of his work and weighs 42 pounds (19 kg).
On May 4, 2012, on what would have been Haring’s 54th birthday, Google honored him in a Google Doodle.
He designed the album cover for the A Very Special Christmas music compilation album which consists of a typical Haring figure holding a baby. Its “Jesus iconography” is considered unusual in modern rock holiday albums.
Haring had a balloon in tribute to him at the 2008 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.
Tim Finn wrote the song “Hit The Ground Running”, on his album Before & After, in memory of Keith Haring.
In 2017, his sister Kay Haring wrote a children’s book, Keith Haring: The Boy Who Just Kept Drawing, which ranked among the top ten sellers every week for over a year in the Amazon category of Children’s Art History.