Another great American artist whose career was cut short, yet Keith Haring’s distinct style and images defined the 1980s and remain iconic today.
Born May 4th, 1958 in Pennsylvania, Keith Haring developed a love of art and cartooning at a young age. Like many of our great artists, Haring was bored in school but eventually found his calling at the School of Visual Arts in New York City.
It wasn’t the classroom where he found inspiration, but he was instead drawn to the thriving alternative arts community developing in the galleries and on the streets of New York City in the 1980s.
In 1980, Haring found a highly effective medium that allowed him to communicate with a wider audience, when he noticed that unused advertising panels in subway stations were covered with matte black paper. He began to create drawings in white chalk on these blank paper panels throughout the subway system.
Between 1980 and 1985, Haring produced hundreds of these public drawings in rapid rhythmic lines, sometimes creating as many as forty “subway drawings” in one day. This seamless flow of images became familiar to New York commuters, who often would stop to engage the artist when they encountered him at work. The subway became, as Haring said, a “laboratory” for working out his ideas and experimenting with his simple lines.
Those same drawings would go on to become Haring’s defining images that we know see on products of all shapes and sizes.
Sadly, as iconic as his images are, many people today don’t know Haring by name. The art has become larger than the man.
They don’t know that Haring was one of the first and most notable openly-gay artists in the 1980s. They don’t know that he created one of NYC’s most well known murals, Crack is Wack, on the FDR bridge or that he painted on the Berlin wall three years before it fell. Nor do they know that Haring completed over 50 public art projects in over a dozen cities around the world, many of which were created for charities, hospitals, children’s day care centers and orphanages.
But most importantly, too many people do not realize the awareness Haring’s art brought to gay rights and AIDS during the 1980s.
Haring was diagnosed with AIDS in 1988. In 1989, he established the Keith Haring Foundation, its mandate being to provide funding and imagery to AIDS organizations and children’s programs, and to expand the audience for Haring’s work through exhibitions, publications and the licensing of his images. Haring enlisted his imagery during the last years of his life to speak about his own illness and generate activism and awareness about AIDS.
Haring’s diagnosis was never a secret; it was public knowledge and an accepted part of his persona in the media. Those publicly shared thoughts were reflected, often with more depth, in his work. Despite all the fear that led up to his diagnosis, in some ways Haring found his impending death liberating.
What I find incredibly inspiring is that it actually pushed him to produce more work as quickly as possible.
In a 1989 interview with Rolling Stone magazine, Haring stated, “That’s the point that I am at now, not knowing where it stops but knowing how important it is to do it now. The whole thing is getting more articulate. In a way it’s really liberating.”
That’s amazing. I can’t even imagine, but in some ways it makes sense.
So, while Haring’s work and style may seem simple and cartoonish, the next time you see something of his, take a moment and really take it in. You’ll come to see the themes of love, sexuality, aids, death, crack and apartheid.
You’ll also come to see why I find Haring so inspiring and why his work continues to be so iconic today, decades after his death.