Although invariably, and undeniably, tied to New York graffiti art of the 1980s, Keith Haring's (1958-1990) work represents a much more complex combination of primitive impulses, automatic writing, popular culture, and so-called "high" and "low" art.
Born on May 4, 1958, Keith Haring was raised in a traditional middle-class family in Kutztown, Pennsylvania. He would later remember fondly the creative drawing sessions he and his father, an amateur artist, would have together. Haring's early influences were not unlike those of many American children growing up in the 1960s-the cartoons of Walt Disney, Dr. Seuss, Charles Schulz, and the Looney Tunes characters he would watch on Saturday morning television's "The Bugs Bunny Show"; television sitcoms such as "I Dream of Jeannie" and "The Monkees"; and the powerful images in Life and Look magazines. These influences reflect the dominant role, emphasized by the Pop artists of the period, that mass media and popular culture had on American life.
After graduating high school in 1976, Haring attended the Ivy School of Professional Art in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Feeling stifled by the constraints of a commercial art education, he left school after only two semesters. The catalyst for this decision was the chance reading of Robert Henri's The Art Spirit (1923), which inspired him to concentrate on his own art.
While working in a maintenance job for the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts (then the Pittsburgh Arts and Crafts Center), Haring explored on his own the art of Jean Dubuffet, Jackson Pollock, and Mark Tobey. His most critical influences at this time were a retrospective of the work of Pierre Alechinsky in 1977 and a lecture by the site sculptor, Christo, in 1978. Alechinsky's work, connected to the international Expressionist group CoBrA, gave Haring the confidence to create larger paintings of calligraphic and automatic writing inspired images. Christo introduced him to the possibilities of involving the public with his art. Pittsburgh was also the host of Haring's first important oneman exhibition, at the Center for the Arts in 1978.
Haring's quest for a more vibrant artistic atmosphere, however, led him that same year to New York's School of Visual Arts where he studied semiotics with Bill Beckley and explored the possibilities of video and performance art. He was profoundly influenced at this time by the writings of William Burroughs, which inspired him to experiment with the cross-referencing and interconnection of images.
The social scene in New York's East Village was of immense importance to Keith Haring and his work. He became a prominent figure in the thriving underground art world, curating informal exhibitions at Club 57 and the Mudd Club. His active involvement with the gay lifestyle was reflected in his art, which often portrayed phallic images or explicit sexual encounters.
Inspired by his interest in language and by artist Jenny Holzer, Haring began to experiment with a more public art in the summer of 1980, pasting collages of fake New York Post headlines on lampposts or newsstands. His interest in automatic writing and semiotics, however, led him to explore the world of graffiti artists such as SAMO (Jean-Michel Basquiat) and Fab Five Fred (Fred Brathwaite). It was here, in the subways and on the streets of New York, that Haring created his own graffiti and developed his future vocabulary of primitive cartoon-like forms. Cryptic and yet accessible, Haring's chalk-drawn "radiant babies" and "barking dogs" became familiar features on the matt black surfaces used to cover the old advertisements in the subways. Striving to make his art even more accessible, Haring passed out buttons illustrated with his drawings and collaborated on a book of his graffiti (Art in Transit: Subway Drawings, 1984) with photographer Tseng Kwong Chi.
Leaving school before the fall semester of 1980, Haring embarked upon a wide distribution of his semiotic forms. He began to disassociate himself from the graffiti scene, painting instead on tarpaulins and other objects, and had a one-man show at Shafrazi Gallery in 1982. His meteoric rise to world prominence after this show was truly remarkable. By the end of 1984 he had gained international recognition, exhibiting in Brazil, Spain, Japan, Italy, and England. Attempting to reach a larger public, he immersed himself in popular American culture, forming friendships with Andy Warhol and with such pop entertainers as Madonna and Grace Jones (whom he would body-paint). He became politically active, designing a Free South Africa poster (1985) and painting a section of the Berlin Wall in 1986. His interest in working with children inspired the enormous project Citykids Speak on Liberty, which involved 1, 000 kids collaborating on a project for the Statue of Liberty centennial.
Ever increasing concern for making his art accessible led to commercial ventures such as the design for Swatch watches (1985); the Absolut Vodka advertisement (1986); and ultimately his Pop Shop (opened 1986) in which he sold T-shirts, posters, and other saleable items. It was these endeavors, as well as the graffiti images, that caused some critics and members of the art world to bemoan Haring's contribution, placing him instead among popular cultural figures. Haring maintained, however, that his intention was to make his art more accessible. Ideologically, he placed himself with Andy Warhol, the conceptual artists, and the earth artists—attempting to reach a broader public.
On February 16, 1990, at age 31, Keith Haring's life was cut short due to an AIDS-related illness. His work remains the most salient example of the diminishing line between consumerism, popular culture, and fine art in the 1980s. Despite their controversial nature, Haring's images reflect the 20th-century tradition of using primitive impulses to communicate the angst of modern times.
Keith Haring: The Authorized Biography by John Gruen (1991) includes interviews with the artist and those closest to him and is an invaluable source for understanding the art and life of Haring. The early work is illustrated in Art in Transit: The Subway Drawings (1984) and Keith Haring (Shafrazi Gallery, 1982). An enlightening interview by David Sheff appeared in Rolling Stone (August 10, 1989). Elizabeth Aubert directed an insightful video entitled Drawing the Line: A Portrait of Keith Haring (Biografilm, 1989). Later an attempt was made to place Haring within a broader art historical context in Keith Haring, edited by Germano Celant (1992). □