Keith Allen Haring (1958-1990) was born in Reading and raised in Kutztown, Pennsylvania. He was the son of an engineer and amateur cartoonist. Growing up with Disney cartoons and Dr. Seuss, Haring loved cartoons and began drawing them at an early age. After graduating from high school, he began to study commercial art, but he decided it was not for him. He moved to the Lower East Side of New York City in 1978 to attend the School of Visual Arts. The New York art scene was flourishing. He joined this thriving art community and became friends with artists such as Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat.
His first drawings were on the matte black spaces between advertisements in the New York City subway stations. He said they were “a perfect place to draw.” From 1980 to 1985, using white chalk, he made over 5000 drawings. He developed several personal iconic images. A significant icon was “Radiant Baby.” Four babies crawl across the bottom of the drawing, and in the center of the heart-shaped head of an androgenous dancing figure is a “radiant baby.” The baby radiates lines of positive energy. For Haring, the baby was “the purest and most positive experience of human existence.”
The radiant heart and dancing figure were influenced by the booming New York club scene, particularly Danceteria (1979-1986), where performers such as Madonna, Billy Idol, and Cyndi Lauper got their start. Positive energy lines radiate from everything and represent freedom, spontaneity, and joy. Haring stated, “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.” His subway art was a performance of sorts because people often stopped and asked him questions: “I was always totally amazed that the people I would meet while I was doing them were really, really concerned with what they meant. The first thing anyone asked me, no matter how old, no matter who they were, was what does it mean?” Haring almost never titled his work.
By 1982, Haring’s hundreds of subway drawings were a major attraction, and he began to make a series of posters to support various messages. For Haring, “Art is nothing if you don’t reach every segment of the people.” Tony Shafrazi, a major art gallery owner in Soho, gave Haring a solo exhibition in 1982. “Keith Haring Drawings, Tony Shafrazi Gallery” was the cover design for the exhibition in Soho. Four crawling babies occupy the center of the poster and are accompanied by a cross in a circle, referencing the various Jesus movements of the 1970’s and 80’s, like the Campus Crusade for Christ and American cult leader Jim Jones whose followers committed mass suicide in Guyana in 1978.
In the lower section of the drawing, barking dogs, are another of Haring’s iconic images. Dogs are generally thought of as “man’s best friend” and are trusted companions. In Haring’s world, discrimination, racism, drugs, AIDS (1981), and Three-Mile Island (1979) became causes for his social activism. Barking dogs were meant to act as warnings to viewers to stop and think of abuses of power present in society. At the top of the drawing, two robust figures lift a radiating third figure into the air. Caution and hope are depicted in the same work.
In 1982, Haring became the first of twelve artists to show his work on the computer-animated billboard in Times Square, New York.
The United Nations commissioned Haring to design an image to commemorate International Youth Year. His poster of the same name (1985) (11”x 8.5” lithograph) (edition of 1000) contains a brilliant blue figure radiating energy and holding up a globe, another Haring iconic image to represent world peace and unity. This frequently employed image represented his belief in the need for collaboration and positivity in a world faced with numerous global issues.
“Free South Africa” (1985) (32”x40” lithograph) addresses one of the many critical issues Haring supported with his art. He distributed more than 20,000 posters in New York City in1986 to awaken consciousness about apartheid. In his journal he wrote, “Control is evil. All stories of white men’s ‘expansion’ and ‘colonization’ and ‘domination’ are filled with horrific details of the abuse of power and the misuse of people.”
“Crack is Wack” (1986) was Haring’s first major outdoor mural. After trying to help his friend Benny get off crack cocaine, and Benny’s subsequent death, Haring painted this large mural on the wall of an abandoned handball court in Harlem. The large mural features the skull, ribcage, and arms and legs of a skeleton holding on to a burning zero-dollar bill. The crack pipe and the raging and dying figures deliver a strong anti-drug message.
Haring was arrested and faced jail and a fine when The Washington Post, The New York Post, and local people wrote to support the anti-crack image. As a result, Haring was allowed to plead guilty to a lesser charge of disorderly conduct and paid a $100 fine. The mural was vandalized and had to be painted over. However, the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation offered Haring eight sights for repainting the mural. He chose the original location.
Haring voluntarily created from 1982 until 1989 over 50 public works of art many for hospitals, day care centers, and schools. He opened in Soho in1986 Pop Shop, a boutique to sell posters, prints, t-shirts, buttons, magnets, and more. Pop Shop made his art accessible to everyone. 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.”
As a gay man, he tackled the AIDS epidemic that started in 1981. “Ignorance=Fear, Silence=Death” (1989) is one of many images Haring developed to awaken America to the AIDS crisis. The figures stamp their feet and cover their eyes, ears, and mouth, representing the three monkeys See No Evil, Hear No Evil, and Speak No Evil. The images first appeared in a carving on a Japanese temple during the Muromachi period (1336-1573), and it has been in common use world-wide. Haring’s other AIDS related images depict loving couples and promote safe sex.
Haring formed the Keith Haring Foundation in 1989 to perpetuate his “artistic and philanthropic legacy through the preservation and circulation of his artwork and archives by providing grants to children in need and those affected by HIV/AIDS.” (Keith Haring Foundation web-site)
“The Last Rainforest” (1989) (detail) was one of Haring’s last three paintings. Haring traveled to Brazil frequently with Kenny Scharf and his Brazilian wife. His interest in saving the rainforest was intense. He planned an exhibition of 100 paintings to help create awareness of this environmental disaster. “The Last Rainforest” (72”x 96”) is a dense painting containing multiple colliding figures. Haring iconic images are included with burning, impaled, or roasting figures. Monsters, serpents, smoking guns, and stabbing knives, are woven together with branches of trees.
“The Last Rainforest” (detail) illustrates the density and intensity of the entire painting. In the chaos, there is one peaceful detail: Radiant Baby. This time, the baby sits in the lotus position of the meditating Buddha. Radiant Baby evolved in Haring’s work, coming to represent a warning about nuclear proliferation and the meltdown of nuclear reactors such as those of Three-Mile Island (1979) and Chernobyl (1986). Haring’s warnings were significant in all his work. In this instance Radiant Baby can be interpreted as Haring, knowing he has only a little time left, and has found peace in the chaos of the world. He painted only three of the 100 canvases, working on them as he was dying.
“Tuttomondo” (1989) (translation “All the World”) (591 square feet) was painted on the wall of the Church of Sant’ Antonio Abate in Pisa, Italy. In New York, Haring met graduate student Piergiorgio Castellani, who asked Haring to come to Pisa to paint the mural. The mural was painted in one week in mid-June 1989. Its theme is peace and harmony. The mural contains 30 Haring iconic figures, including red and yellow flying angels and dancing and loving people. In the center are a blue figure with a television for a head, another of Haring’s iconic figures, a red mother with a blue baby, and a red barking dog. At the top, a blue dolphin, another iconic figure, rides on the back of a purple figure. The popular image links humans with nature. Blue scissors cut in half the red serpent of evil. Haring stands at the base of the wall.
Haring describes the week-long experience: “Every day there would be more and more people.” Haring later recalled, “When I put my last stroke on the wall, it all seems incredibly Felliniesque. It all seems utterly unreal–beyond anything I had ever experienced before.” This was Haring’s last wall mural.
Keith Haring died from complications of AIDS on February 16, 1990. His memorial service at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine was attended by over 1000 people.
Beverly Hall Smith was a professor of art history for 40 years. Since retiring with her husband Kurt to Chestertown in 2014, she has taught art history classes at WC-ALL. She is also an artist whose work is sometimes in exhibitions at Chestertown RiverArts and she paints sets for the Garfield Center for the Arts.
“I don’t think art is propaganda; it should be something that liberates the soul, provokes the imagination and encourages people to go further. It celebrates humanity instead of manipulating it.” (Keith Haring)