Artists in 60 Seconds: Keith Haring

Keith Haring (American, 1958-1990). Unfinished Painting, 1989. Acrylic on canvas. 39 3/8 x 39 3/8 in. (100 x 100 cm). Katia Perlstein, Brussels. © Keith Haring Foundation

Movement, Style, School or Type of Art:

A synthesis of Pop, Street, Comic and Animation Art, with elements of Performance Art and the graphic design training Haring so intensely disliked.

Do you get the feeling Keith Haring's work is hard to classify? If so, great! He would be delighted to know this. A quote from his Journals:

"Art in 1978 has seen numerous attempts at classifying or labeling and then exploiting an idea until the idea itself is lost in the process, and now I feel it is time to come out against group mentality. I don't know if this is a shared opinion, but by the lack of any existing movements or new movements or new directions, it looks as though we are seeing individual artists, individual ideas. They have been influenced, of course, and many are probably not sincere in their endeavors, but this void of "group movements" after the over-emphasized, unquestioned "movements" of the last ten years that happened so fast -- Pop, Conceptual, Minimal, Earth Works, post-this and anti-that -- it seems like it is high time for the realization that art is everything and everywhere."

Date and Place of Birth:

May 4, 1958, Reading, Pennsylvania

Keith Haring was born in nearby Reading because, as his mother, Joan, said, " ... there were no hospitals in Kutztown." He was the oldest of four children and the only son of Joan and her husband Allen, who became a manufacturing supervisor at AT&T in Allentown. All four of the Haring siblings were given names that began with "K," a trend that was popular during the late 1950s-early 1960s but has long since gone out of fashion.

Early Life and Training:

Keith had a normal childhood in conservative Kutztown. He bonded early with his father, who loved to draw simple figures and show his son how to turn things like, say, circles into balloons and ice cream cones. Haring remembered starting to draw on his own at age four, a pursuit he never dropped. He had many passions in his formative years: popular TV sitcoms; celebrity culture as seen in the Life and LOOK magazines his grandmother bought; a brief period in which he was a self-described "Jesus Freak;" and, most of all, rock music.

Always a somewhat indifferent student save for art class, the artist went through a rebellious phase -- marked by drinking and drug use -- in high school. After successfully generating enough negative attention to ensure that his future would not be in Kutztown, Keith pulled himself together and graduated high school in June, 1976.

His aprents and a guidance counselor had convinced him to attend The Ivy School of Professional Art in Pittsburgh and major in commercial art, so off he went that fall.

One semester at The Ivy School was all it took for Haring to learn that his future would not be in graphic design. He loathed it, even as he assimilated training that would later prove useful. As he once said, "I wanted to be an Artist." The capital A was important and, since The Ivy School also offered training in "Fine Art," he switched majors. He spent two years there, and may have stayed in Pittsburgh longer, but went on a life-changing cross-country trip in the summer of 1978.

In order to check out other art schools, Keith and his girlfriend hitchhiked their way west. Most of Keith's backpack was stuffed with t-shirts he'd made (one of the Grateful Dead logo, and one of President Nixon sniffing a bale of marijuana) for the couple to sell whenever they were short on funds. After several stops, they wound up in Berkeley and, somehow, found themselves being escorted around San Francisco's Castro District. During the trip back east to Pittsburgh, Haring realized that (1) he was gay, and (2) the place he really wanted to be was New York City.

New York: 1978-1981:

In hindsight, it seems highly unlikely that a gangly, small town boy with thick eyeglasses could assimilate into late-70s and early-80s Manhattan. Nothing in Keith Haring's past bore any resemblence to the underground music, neo-Dada art, and overall counterculture scene. In fact, anyone could have reasonably laid odds that New York would chew up and spit out the new kid in the city. The thing about Haring, though, was that he loved every aspect of his adopted home town -- he threw himself into a wholehearted embrace of All Things NYC with enthusiasm -- and a certain innocence -- that was impossible to resist.

Soon both the days and nights of the artist were filled with activity. Haring attended the School of Visual Arts in the Gramercy neighborhood, where he studied painting and semiotics (the theory of signs and symbols), and experimented with video, Installation and Performance Art, and collage.

At SVA he almost immediately met Kenny Scharf, who would become Keith's life-long friend and introduce him to Jean-Michel Basquiat. Nights were reserved for the Mudd Club, the Paradise Garage, Club 57 (the art students' favorite hang out) or the Club Baths.

Best Known For:

  • Exclusive use of black and white, and typical use of primary colors.
  • Pictograms: Haring's figures were simplified, and easily recognizable as his. They also formed glyphs that could be read, like an urban, tribal language.
  • Linear style: Everything Haring did was outlined, and not thinly, as in a coloring book or a comic. The outlines were thick and black (or white, if the background was black). His text -- when present -- was either thick or had blocky, outlined characters. Haring also frequently dashed in "action" lines to indicate energy, movement, sound, and light.
  • Spontaneity: Keith Haring did not appear familiar with the practice of preparatory sketches. He simply faced the surface of whatever he would paint, and started painting. The work would emerge whole -- sometimes surprising even the artist, who wondered if art came from the head or flowed through the hand from some other source.
  • Populism: Haring believed that art was meant for all people, not just those who could afford pricey works. Although he could (and did) eventually sell canvases for $300K-plus, he never strayed too far from his early days in New York City, when his art was free. He opened a small store called the Pop Shop, where inexpensive items featuring his work sat side-by-side with more upscale merchandise. This led to criticism that he was "too commercial," overlooking the fact that, given the opportunity, many people will gladly spend $2 to buy a button with a drawing by an artist they like. Ironically, this also led to criticism that he was cheapening his "brand" by not cutting down on output.

    It is also worth mentioning that Haring probably gave away far more art than he sold, considering all of his public projects, activism, and charitable work. Additionally, he never turned down a request to sign anything and usually drew something to which to affix his name. The number of original Harings that graced t-shirts, jackets, shoes, jeans, and pieces of paper is incalculable. Not that pointing things of this nature out has ever silenced detractors of any successful person.

    Important Works:

    Even after moving past his street art and subway drawings period, the vast bulk of Keith Haring's works were untitled. His most recognizable symbols are Barking Dog and Radiant Baby.

    That said, he freely lent his talents to a huge number of works dealing with issues about which he felt strongly. Some of these include:

    • Berlin Wall mural, 1986
    • "Crack Is Wack" mural, East Harlem Drive at 128th Street, New York City, 1986
    • Lady Liberty centennial banner, 1986
    • Necker Children's Hospital mural, Paris, 1987
    • Totem (sculpture), for the first ACT UP fundraising auction, 1989

    Haring himself was most enthused about his work with children. He searched them out and created opportunities to make art with them everywhere he traveled. He participated in more than 27 large-scale art projects with groups of children from 1984 to his death.

    Additionally, the last great passion of his life was AIDS awareness and activism. Not all "important works" carry a title.

    Date and Place of Death:

    February 16, 1990, New York City

    Haring died of AIDS-related complications rather quietly, having spent the previous weeks saying goodbye to friends and family. Two funeral services were held in Kutztown: one at the Harings' church, and the second on a local hilltop that Keith frequented as a boy. There, his family and closest friends scattered his ashes to the wind.

    A large memorial service for him was held on May 4, 1990, at New York's Cathedral of St. John the Divine. It was studded with luminaries, dealers, performers and art historians, and the whole affair seemed both official and, to his friends, artificial. For them, May 4 was Keith's birthday, the day on which he had always thrown his epic "The Party of Life" prior to 1990.

    Sources and Further Reading:

    • Atkins, Robert. "Keith Haring."
           Art in America, April, 2009.
    • Codrington, Andrea. "Keith's Kids."
           Sphere, July, 1997.
    • Gruen, John. Keith Haring: The Authorized Biography.
           New York: Macmillan General Reference, 1991.
    • Haring, Keith. Keith Haring: Journals.
           New York: Viking Adult, 1991.
    • Sischy, Ingrid. "Kid Haring."
           Vanity Fair, July, 1997, 106-116, 135-136.

    Video Worth Watching:

    • The Universe of Keith Haring (2010)
           Note: Sexual content. While excellent, this documentary is not for classroom use or young viewers.

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