Happy Birthday, Keith Haring

While studying fine art at the School of Visual Arts in New York City during the 1980s, Keith Haring immersed himself in the city’s graffiti culture. After befriending fellow contemporary artists such as Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Kenny Scharf, Haring became an integral part of the legendary New York art scene. He also collaborated with several well-known celebrities, such as Madonna and Grace Jones.

Inspired by other graffiti artists and the innovation of his contemporaries, Haring began using the city as his canvas by drawing with chalk on the sidewalks and subways stations of New York City. Through this method, Haring deliberately made art accessible to everyone rather than just museum-goers and gallery visitors. Keith Haring broke out of the typical art world mold because he gave people immediate access to his works without having to pay the price of an admission ticket. He sparked great interest, not only because his works were readily available to the mainstream public, but also because his drawings were so easily recognizable. His singular style of graphic expression made his work easily digestible and familiar to the common daily commuter on the New York subway. Although Haring’s work may have seemed simplistic and humorous, his message was far deeper and carried more nuanced meaning. His symbolism, in a sense, created a new language. His iconic motifs, such as dancing human figures, crawling babies, barking dogs, hearts, pyramids, angels and devils, all displayed different commentaries on religion, spirituality, youth, purity, authoritarianism, and power. The distinctive style of Haring’s work was playful and childlike, dominated by linearity, patterns, bright palette, and easily legible subjects, but the message behind it was often concerned with deeper social issues.

Haring used street art as a form of social activism. Haring was openly gay and diagnosed with AIDS in 1987. In 1989, he established the Keith Haring Foundation in order to promote art programs for children and raise awareness about the AIDs epidemic. Although Haring mainly devoted his art to AIDS awareness and civil rights, he also used his illustrative depictions to expose many other social and political issues including South African apartheid, the crack cocaine epidemic in New York City, and conservative American politics of the 1980s. Haring’s use of street art allowed him to inform the public of the social issues he was concerned with, allowing him to potentially shape greater opinion on these topics.

Keith Haring passed away on February 16, 1990 in New York at the age of 31 due to his incurable disease. Since his untimely death, Haring has been the subject of numerous exhibitions around the world. Haring’s most recent retrospective was at the Tate Liverpool, centering on how activism played a key role in his art. The exhibition, which was open from June to November 2019, focused on Haring’s response to contemporary issues such as racism, homophobia, drug addiction, AIDs awareness, capitalism, and the environment. Haring’s impact on street art was displayed through over 85 works of art, including paintings, drawings, posters, photographs, videos at the Tate Liverpool only six months ago.

Haring’s artwork can still be seen in museums and galleries throughout the globe. His artwork is still being sold internationally with great demand at prominent auction houses and galleries. His iconic symbolism can be seen on designer t-shirts, sweatshirts, phone cases, and coffee mugs at both local pop-up shops and international retailers. In other words, Keith Haring, his artwork, and his messages remain strongly relevant to our contemporary society. Happy Birthday, Keith!

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