Top 10 Things to Know About Keith Haring
Keith Haring’s art celebrates the NYC street culture of the 1980s and ’90s. He found inspiration all around him, drawing from popular culture, graffiti, and the vivid alternative arts culture of New York City. He devoted his life and career to public art, making the whole world his studio. His iconic style rose to international acclaim as a leading visual voice of the 20th century.
1. He was born in Reading, PA
Keith Haring was born in 1958 in Reading, PA to a middle-class family. He loved Disney and Looney Tunes cartoons, as well as Dr. Seuss stories and illustrations, citing them as early influences to his later art style.
2. He went to the School of Visual Arts
Image Source: Christie’s
In 1978, Haring moved from Pittsburgh to NYC on a scholarship from the School of Visual Arts. At SVA, he found a great support group of peers and teachers that he would later credit for their overwhelming influence in his art and life. He never graduated though – he was expelled after using the school interior as a graffiti art project with his friend, fellow artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. Hey, at least he was in good company!
3. He gained first fame in the subway
In 1980, Haring began to use the empty, black paper-covered advertising panels throughout the New York subway system as canvases to his work. With white chalk, he drew large-scale murals in the graphic style he would become famous for. From 1980 to 1985, Haring produced hundreds of these murals with his simple, stylistic lines, becoming well recognized by city commuters and drawing attention from the art world. He viewed the subway as a testing ground for his ideas and the means to communicate social activism in a well-traveled public space.
4. His Radiant Baby is iconic
Image Source: artnet
Radiant Baby was one of the most symbolic graphics of Haring’s work. It first started appearing in his subway art in the early ’80s, becoming a signature hallmark in Haring’s murals. In his youth, Haring was greatly influenced by Christianity and religion, themes that would continue to appear in his artwork throughout his life. Radiant Baby is a Christ-child like image: pure, innocent, vulnerable, but radiating positive energy. The rays surrounding the figure are a nod to the rays surrounding religious figures in Renaissance art, particularly of the Virgin Mary.
5. He painted on the Berlin Wall
In October 1986, Haring painted a 100-yard mural on the Berlin Wall – a mural showing interlocking black and red figures against a yellow background. The colors were inspired by the East and West German flags. Although the work was technically illegal, Haring was actually invited to do the mural by a West Berlin activist group called Arbeitsgemeinschaft 13 August, who advocated for human rights in East Germany.
6. Madonna slept on his couch
Image Source: The Red List
Haring counted some of the most influential artists his friends, including Jean-Michel Basquiat, Andy Warhol, Yoko Ono, Nick Rhodes of Duran Duran, and – the Material Girl herself – Madonna. Haring became friends with Madonna when she was new to NYC, struggling to make a living as a dancer and singer. They rose together in fame, remaining close throughout Haring’s life. In his diary, Andy Warhol mentioned her robust sex life as heard by Haring…on his couch.
7. AIDS was a predominant theme in his work
Image Source: The Keith Haring Foundation
Haring was openly gay and an advocate for safe sex, using his art as a social commentary on the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s and ’90s. He saw much of his social circle affected by the virus and its isolating stigma. His work Silence=Death of 1989 is an exceptional work that portrays the loneliness, lack of support, and aggression that AIDS victims dealt with during the 80s. Figures cover their bodies, ashamed to be shown. The pink triangle is a symbol of male homosexuality. It dates back to the same symbol used during the Holocaust to signify the same. Sadly, Haring contracted the virus in the late ’80s.
8. Club 57 was his home away from home
At 57 St. Mark’s Place in New York’s East Village, Club 57 was an underground art, performance, and music venue from the late 1970s to early 1980s. Haring had his first exhibit at Club 57 and spent a lot of time in the venue, forging friendships with other emerging talent including Cyndi Lauper, Madonna, RuPaul, and others.
9. His art dealer was quite the rebel
Tony Shafrazi is a well known art dealer in NYC who deals in powerhouse names like Francis Bacon, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Donald Baechler, and Kenny Scharf. He was also Keith Haring’s dealer until his death. Shafrazi is a social activist who often protests US war involvement. Most famously in 1974, he spray-painted “KILL LIES ALL” on Pablo Picasso’s Guernica painting in New York’s Museum of Modern Art. The phrase was easy to remove due to the varnished surface of the painting, but Shafrazi had vandalized the work to protest William Calley. Calley was a US lieutenant who was on trial for war crimes in Vietnam, but released on bail and then pardoned by Richard Nixon. Guernica is one of Picasso’s most iconic works, depicting the destruction of war upon innocent citizens. Shafrazi was given five years’ probation.
10. He died in 1990
Image Source: www.popandroll.com
Following complications from the AIDS virus, Haring died in 1990 at the young age of 31. His ashes were scattered in the countryside near Bethel, PA. The year before his death, Haring started the Keith Haring Foundation to protect the legacy of his work but also as an advocacy for AIDS research and childhood education.
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