Keith Haring and Street Art: Artist Spotlight

Keith Haring, "Pop Shop I," 1987. The complete portfolio. Sold for $19,200 via Sotheby's (April 2006).

Like many late 20th century artists, Keith Haring sought to expand the definition of art and push boundaries. While attending New York’s School of Visual Arts in 1978, Haring discovered graffiti art and became active in the alternative art scene. While riding the subway one day, he noticed an empty advertisement panel and decided to fill it with his own artwork using white chalk. This simple drawing gained much attention from passersby, and laid the groundwork for what would become a successful and influential career that helped define the street art movement.

Keith Haring Artwork and Iconic Motifs

Haring aimed to create work that could be easily understood by the masses. Because of this, many of his works contain recurring images and themes that symbolized a greater meaning. He often drew lines around these icons, which indicated physical movement, as well as spiritual or sexual energy.

Keith Haring’s Barking Dog

The “barking dog” is one of the most well-known of Haring’s recurring symbols and is meant to represent an abuse of power or authoritarian government.

 


Keith Haring’s Radiant Baby

“Radiant baby,” a crawling baby with lines emanating from its body, is another popular symbol which is meant to represent Haring himself, as well as purity and innocence.

 


Keith Haring’s Pink Triangle

The pink triangle is a more politically charged symbol, signifying both gay pride and AIDS awareness. Haring’s symbols enabled him to comment on some of the most prominent issues facing society, while creating works that were easily understood and accessible to the masses.


Signature Style and International Acclaim

Haring created many public drawings early in his career, quickly developing his signature, cartoon-inspired style. In these early years, he was considered a rebel within the art scene and had no problem voicing his opinions on the exploitative nature of New York City’s art world. Despite this, Haring accepted representation from Tony Shafrazi Gallery, a powerful art dealer, in 1982. Suddenly, the rebel street artist was being featured in acclaimed shows and exhibitions, both in New York City and internationally.

Inspiration and Collaborations

Keith Haring was inspired by and worked alongside fellow artists and designers to produce works of art and consumer goods. Notable members of Haring’s inner circle included Pop artist Andy Warhol and street artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. Haring became friends with Basquiat early in his career while he was still considered an alternative artist and the two quickly rose to fame almost simultaneously. The friendship that Haring formed later in his career with Warhol only further solidified his status as an elite artist. Warhol had paved the way for the merging of art and commerce, so it’s no surprise that he encouraged Haring to pursue more profitable collaborations.

Left: Keith Haring and Andy Warhol, “Andy Mouse,” 1986. Screentprint in colors. Sold for $68,500 via Sotheby’s (April 2011). Right: Jean-Michel Basquiat, “Portrait of Keith Haring,” c. 1984. Sold for $314,500 via Christie’s (May 2010).

Commercial Designs

His work soon stretched beyond the art world as he signed onto several commercial deals, including watch designs for Swatch. Other commercial collaborations included an advertising campaign for Absolut Vodka, designing sets for theaters and clubs, and creating a Grace Jones video for MTV. Some criticized Haring’s commercial collaborations, seen by critics as an abandonment of the alternative art scene he had risen from. The criticism didn’t bother Haring, who believed that his work remained pure so long as these opportunities came about naturally and did not interfere with his work’s integrity. Haring never forgot where he came from and his roots as a street artist.

Swatch by Keith Haring, Modele Avec Personnages, c. 1985. Sold for $1,020 via Auctionata (January 2015).

Keith Haring Subway Drawings and Advocacy

Despite the lucrative commercial projects he pursued, Haring’s subway drawings and public projects remain some of his most well-known works. Keith Haring’s subway drawing (pictured below) depicts an image that appeared in many of Haring’s early public drawings. The image depicts two men in love, their bodies moving with joy and a large, radiant heart placed over them like a setting sun. While it seems innocent enough today, the image was considered controversial in the 1980s because of its depiction of homosexuality as innocent and romantic. Haring’s boldness made a statement to the world and helped propel the gay rights movement.

Keith Haring, “Subway Drawing,” c. 1985. Sold for €29,348 via Leclere (February 2017).

The subway drawings were meant to get his work out to the public at large, which worked. However, as Haring’s fame grew, strangers would cut the drawings out of their panels mere minutes after a drawing was finished in order to sell it for a large sum. This put a halt to Haring’s subway drawings, as his work was no longer remaining in a public setting as he intended.

Art with a Message

As Warhol did before him, Haring set out to blend popular culture with “low art” into the “high art” locations of acclaimed museums and galleries. Additionally, his work remained politically charged as he sought to raise awareness of political and social issues such as the AIDS crisis of the 1980s and Apartheid in South Africa.

Keith Haring, “Untitled 2 (Free South Africa),” 1985. Color lithograph. Sold for $7,500 via Los Angeles Modern Auctions (December 2012).

Public Art

In 1986, Haring created the Crack is Wack mural on a handball court in Harlem. Though the work was never solicited by the city of New York, the city quickly adopted it because it addressed an important issue afflicting the area. The crack epidemic, which surged from 1984 to 1990, was particularly rampant in African American urban communities such as Harlem, and this message was strategically placed there in order to reach those most affected by it. Crack is Wack shows Haring’s commitment to shining a light on important issues that were plaguing parts of the country that were often overlooked.

Keith Haring, “Crack is Wack,” 1986. Image via haring.com.

As Haring’s career continued to develop, he further examined the relationship between popular culture and art. In 1986, he opened Pop Shop in downtown Manhattan. The walls of this small store were decorated with his drawings and offered affordable t-shirts, toys, and other objects that featured his iconic imagery.

Keith Haring’s Legacy

In 1988, Haring was diagnosed with AIDS. Shortly thereafter, he established the Keith Haring Foundation to further the education and research for AIDS. He passed away in 1990 of AIDS-related complications at just 31 years old. Today, we can see Haring’s influence on artists such as Jeff Koons and Takashi Murakami, who continue to blur the lines between mass produced items and art. He also helped pave the way for today’s successful street artists, such as Banksy. Without Haring’s penetration of the mainstream art world, it’s hard to imagine that contemporary street artists would receive the same exposure and recognition as they do today.

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Sources: de Young Museum |  The Art Story | The Keith Haring Foundation