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Keith Haring Moses and the Burning Bush, 1985

Keith Haring

Keith Haring was an American Pop and Graffiti artist, painter and muralist, whose politically-fueled work stamped an indelible impression upon the visual language of the last half of the 20th century.


Haring was born in 1958, in Pennsylvania to Allen and Joan Haring. His Father was an engineer and an amateur cartoonist. His Father’s cartooning had a productive, early influence on Haring - especially in the introduction to Walt Disney’s cartoons.  Haring’s hallmark proclivity for bold-lined images and appropriation of cartoonish iconography has been widely attributed in part, to this aspect of his artistic upbringing.


After studying commercial art at Pittsburgh’s Ivy School of Professional Art for two years between 1976 and 1978, Haring became despondent about not having the freedom to produce art for himself. In the late 1970s, he enrolled at the School of Visual Arts, in New York, to study painting.


Along with his friends and artistic contemporaries, Kenny Scharf and Jen-Michel Basquiat, he was one of several artists in 1980s New York, successfully transplanted artefacts of low-brow cultural status, into the fine art context, within museums and galleries.


Drawn to the energy of street art, Haring’s attempts to engage with as wide a public audience as possible, included such provocative, albeit seemingly meaningless reconfigurations of newspaper headlines as “Mob Flees at Pope Rally”, “Reagan’s Death Cops Hunt Pope”, and “Ronald Reagan Accused of TV Star Sex Death”, which were emblazoned upon cheap photocopied paper and plastered onto lampposts and on walls. His suspicion for Reagan’s America is evident throughout much of his work from the beginning of Reagan’s presidency onwards.


Haring’s opportunistic attitude to artistically engaging public spaces, led to his prolific commandeering of the black backing of the spaces occupied by posters on the New York subway, when in-between advertisements. These many thousands of lively chalk drawings sporadically and regularly decorated the subway stations across New York between 1980 and 1985, in spite of his incurring multiple fines and having been arrested. The sheer ubiquity of Haring’s subway drawings has been said to resemble a mass-media campaign, despite the individual drawings’ ephemerality.


His fame increased exponentially with a number of commissions for murals in the mid-1980s from galleries in Manhattan, Minneapolis, Rio de Janiero and Sydney and Victoria in Australia.

His work, Crack is Wack (1986), is one such example of these murals. Characteristically sporting a subversive and colloquial slogan, the mural includes skulls and delirious-faced animals; an ode to Picasso’s Guernica. Situated at the roadside, just before the Tribero Bridge in New York City, this mural, for which Haring is perhaps best known, is still visible today and considered by some to be New York City’s most famous mural.


Other major mural works of his include the Chicago mural project, for which he collaborated as he often did, with children. Another notable instance of such collaboration is one which he made with 1,000 New York City children in homage to the Statue of Liberty in 1986. Many of these murals are still installed in the hospitals, churches, and day care centers that originally commissioned them. Regardless of his newfound celebrity, Haring remained dedicated to his grassroots activism. He produced and distributed 20,000 free copies of a poster which he made for an anti-nuclear weapons rally in 1982. He also produced an antiracism poster entitled Free South Africa (1985), which emphasizes the figure of a black silhouette with a white noose around its neck trampling a smaller white figure.


In his life and his work, Haring was open about his homosexuality. His work towards the end of the 1980s, was made directly in address of the AIDS epidemic which was killing many of his friends in the gay community. He said of witnessing the disease’s affect that, “no one deserves to watch this kind of slow death”.


Following a period of expecting to contract the disease himself, Haring was indeed eventually diagnosed as having it, in July of 1987. His diagnosis seemed only to escalate his activeness. He was during his final two years a constant presence on the New York art scene and beyond, from designing a label for Absolut Vodka and a carousel for a funfair in Hamburg. He eventually however, succumbed of AIDS on February 16, 1990.

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