Keith Haring

Keith Haring - Biography and Legacy

American Graffiti Artist, Sculptor, and Muralist

Born: May 4, 1958 - Reading, Pennsylvania
Died: February 16, 1990 - New York, New York

Biography of Keith Haring


Keith Haring was born on May 4, 1958 in Reading, Pennsylvania, but grew up in nearby Kutztown, Pennsylvania. He had three younger sisters. He discovered a love for drawing at an early age, learning basic cartooning skills from his father who drew comics as a hobby. Like many children of his generation he was an admirer of the popular animation of Disney, Dr. Seuss, and Looney Toons.

Haring was raised in a religious family who attended the United Church of Christ, and as a teen he participated in the evangelical “Jesus Movement”. Later in his teen years, he travelled across the country by hitchhiking, making a few dollars by selling t-shirt that he made, promoting the band The Grateful Dead, as well as spreading anti-Nixon messages.

Early Training

After High School In 1976, Haring studied commercial art in the Ivy School of Professional Art in Pittsburgh. After only two semesters, and reading The Art Spirit (1923) by Robert Henri, which starts with the line “Art when really understood is the province of every human being,” and which promotes an interactive approach to creative production, he realized that he had no interest in becoming a commercial graphic artist and dropped out.

He remained temporarily in Pittsburgh and continued to study on his own, simultaneously working at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts, where he was able to view the work of Jean Dubuffet, Jackson Pollock, and Mark Tobey. His other critical influences at this time were a 1977 Pierre Alechinsky retrospective, which inspired him to create large-scale works featuring text and figures, and a lecture by the sculptor Christo, who encouraged artists to involve the public in their work. In 1978 Haring had the good fortune to be invited for his first solo exhibition at the Pittsburgh Arts and Crafts Center when the Center's first choice artist cancelled. This gave him the confidence for the next big move in his fledgling art career - relocating to New York City.

Haring moved to New York’s Lower East Side in 1978, and enrolled in The School of Visual Arts (SVA), supporting himself by working as a busboy at the Danceteria nightclub. At school, he studied semiotics with conceptual artist Bill Beckley, and also dabbled in Performance, collage, Installation, and Video art. It was also at school that he befriended fellow artists Kenny Scharf and John Sex. He soon discovered an alternative art scene happening in the streets and subways led by Street and Graffiti artists. He became friends with fellow artist Jean-Michel Basquiat and photographer Tseng Kwong Chi.

Haring first started doing his own white chalk drawings in the subways on the readily available plain black empty background of advertising spaces. In his own words: "One day, riding the subway, I saw this empty black panel where an advertisement was supposed to go. I immediately realized that this was the perfect place to draw. I went back above ground to a card shop and bought a box of white chalk, went back down and did a drawing on it. It was perfect-soft black paper; chalk drew on it really easily."

These drawings about life, love, sex and death became conversation starters for New York's subway riders. As Haring told it: "I was always totally amazed that the people I would meet while I was doing them were really, really concerned with what they meant. The first thing anyone asked me, no matter how old, no matter who they were, was what does it mean?" He credited the immediate and continuing feedback of these encounters with helping him channel his stylistic choices. Between 1980 and 1985, he produced thousands of public drawings, developing his style of cartoon-like characters and symbols while also developing name recognition. Eventually, along with other artists, musicians and poets, he organized exhibitions at clubs, restaurants, and even in illegally appropriated buildings or "squats," which were common in the New York City of the early 1980s. Two spaces in particular - The Mudd Club and Club 57 - became "go-to" hot spots for aspiring, young, creative individuals.

At the age of only 20, Haring already had strong opinions about the art world, as shown in the following quote from his journal: "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." Later in the same journal entry he stated the idealist notion that "Art is life and life is art".

Mature Period

Between 1978 to 1982 Haring established himself as a respected "rebel" artist of the street and alternative indoor spaces, outside the elite New York art world. Eventually, he accepted representation from Tony Shafrazi and in 1982 made his high visibility fine art debut with a popular and highly acclaimed one-man exhibition at Shafrazi's Soho gallery. Over the next few years he participated in notable international exhibitions such as Documenta 7 in Kassel, the Sao Paulo Biennial, and the Whitney Biennial in New York.

Throughout the 1980s he produced dozens of murals and public works all over the world, including in Europe, South America, and Australia. Through his travels, he saw the art of ancient cultures up-close, such as the Maya of Central America, Bahia-Brazil's peoples of mixed African and native descent, and the Aboriginal people of Australia, all of which had a lasting influence on his artwork. He also created a mural for the 100th anniversary of the Statue of Liberty in 1986, on which he worked with 900 children. The following year he created a mural for Necker Children's Hospital in Paris, France, and a mural on the western side of the Berlin Wall (three years before it fell.) He also made lucrative commercial deals developing watch designs for Swatch and an advertising campaign for Absolut Vodka. He even painted bodies, including celebrities such as the iconic 1980's musician and performing artist Grace Jones. Much of his art was now politically charged such as the campaign to raise awareness about AIDS and South African Apartheid.

Haring pictured in 1986 at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, executing a series of murals.

It was during this period that he developed a friendship with the famous Pop artist Andy Warhol. As with Basquiat, this relationship added to Haring's prestige and to the gradual, grudging acceptance of his work by the elite fine art establishment. American museum curators were still unsure about Haring's place in the canon of contemporary artists. This slow acknowledgement was similar to an earlier era when forward-looking European museums had acquired some of what became the most significant American modern artists of the 1950s and 1960s before the more conservative American museums accepted them into their prestigious institutions. To this day the biggest American museums such as the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Art Institute of Chicago have only acquired a couple of Haring's lesser drawings, and other museums such as The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and Los Angeles County Museum of Art have none at all.

Keith Haring pictured a few years before his death, circa 1988.

In 1986 Haring opened Pop Shop, his own art merchandise store in downtown Manhattan. He decorated the interior and his many black and white style doodles filled every corner of the retail space. The merchandise was meant to be popular and affordable, and T-shirts, toys, posters, buttons and magnets bore his images. Pop Shop opened the door for later experiments and crossovers to mass-scale or low-cost retail items from the hands or minds of celebrated "fine" artists such as Murakami, Koons, and even Banksy.

Haring executed this mural, We Are The Youth in 1987 at 22nd and Ellsworth Streets in Philadelphia, in collaboration with the youth organization CityKids Foundation.

In a sad, ironic twist of fate, at the peak of his career Haring, who, throughout the 1980s had used his artwork to advocate for AIDS awareness, was diagnosed with AIDS in 1988. In 1989, he established the Keith Haring Foundation to provide funding and images to AIDS organizations, and allocate resources towards finding a cure for the devastating disease. He was prolific in creating artwork right up to his death but died in 1990 of AIDS-related complications at only 31 years old.

The Legacy of Keith Haring

Red Dog (1987), created by Haring for the Kunsthalle Weishaupt in Ulm, Germany.

Many understand the overall ethos of street art as a rebellion against the status quo. For Haring this included the elitist fine art world itself. Though technically untrained rural folk art had found a niche, urban street art was only widely recognized after the 1980s commercial success of Haring and others such as Basquiat. Haring's success lent credibility and legitimacy to Street Art by proving it worthy of exhibition in fine art galleries and museums. As one very powerful example, Haring's didactic, subversive and cartoon-like art opened up the path for underground cartoonist Matt Groening's extremely successful Simpsons franchise (which included the longest running television show in American history, among other media that Groening's characters and images appeared in), a satire on the modern nuclear family and American values.

In the early-21st century murals and urban graffiti art are now a worldwide phenomenon, with periodicals and websites dedicated to them as art forms. Successful street artists from the early 1980s paved the way for future street-to-gallery artists such as Shepard Fairey, Banksy, and Swoon. These artists were and are still considered rebels, at times risking arrest and/or censorship to display their often politically charged art in both public and private spaces. By choosing this contrarian path they have in many cases ultimately been able to negotiate better terms for the exhibition and compensation of their work within the usually more closed, elitist circles of the fine art world.

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Content compiled and written by The Art Story Contributors

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Alexandra Duncan

"Keith Haring Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. .
Content compiled and written by The Art Story Contributors
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Alexandra Duncan
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First published on 07 Dec 2015. Updated and modified regularly
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