Keith Haring: A Shining Light Extinguished Too Soon

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Keith Haring was on of many pop and graffiti artists in the twentieth century who sought not only to bring art to the masses, but to connect with them in a playful, but visceral way. His style was one of bold, clean lines a palette that was indicative of his love of street art and in his earlier life, cartoons. But his dedication to simplicity in his art was underpinned by a desire to spread a message and to communicate that message to anyone who cared enough to read it. Haring’s work is meant to be fun, to be enjoyed, but also to educate and remind us of issues that we tend to sweep under societies carpets. His activism included dedicated commentary on the AIDS epidemic that swept through America in the 1980’s, a vehemently anti-apartheid stance, and many other social ills. Haring’s art struck a major chord with people who previously had no connection to the art world, and his work is widely considered to be one of the cornerstones of the visual language of the 20th century.

Haring was born on the 4th of May 1958 in Reading, Pennsylvania and had a love for drawing from an early age. Walt Disney, Charles Shulz, Looney Tunes and Dr. Seuss were his primary influences as a child. In 1976 he enrolled in the Ivy School of Professional Art in Pittsburgh but left soon after as he began to realise he had no interest in eventually becoming a commercial graphic designer. After enjoying minor success hosting his own shows in Pittsburgh, Haring left for New York in 1978 and enrolled in the School of Visual Arts (SVA). As with so many artists in history, the move did him the world of good and he was greeted by an already adolescent alternative art scene that was booming outside of the gallery space. It was here that he met two great friends who also went on to achieve some success in the art world namely Kenny Scharf and Jean-Michel Basquiat. He immediately fell in love with the spirit of the community and was heavily involved in exhibitions and performances particularly at Club 57.

While Haring drew great inspiration from those around him at the time, his love for the primary line and his desire to work independently as an artist was catalysed by Robert Henri’s 1923 manifesto The Art Spirit. His need for public involvement in his work came from an appreciation of the sculptor, Christo, specifically a piece entitled ‘Running Fence’. This was characterised by his ‘subway drawings’ done between 1980 and 1985, where he produced hundred of white charcoal drawings on vacant black advertising boards. The subway became his ‘Laboratory’ in his own words, and he would regularly converse with commuters as part of the project.

Haring received international acclaim in 1981 with his first solo exhibition at the Westbeth Painter’s Space and his 1982 exhibition at the Tony Shafrazi Gallery in Soho, he had earned more plaudits than he knew what to do with. He also diversified his artistic portfolio designing sets for theater productions, conceptualising designs with Swatch and even a pop art collaboration with Absolut Vodka.

But as always, it was Haring’s sense of community and humanity that would centre him. He produced no less than 50 public works and even a pop-up shop where he would sell shirts and buttons and prints all imbued with the purity of his lines that had found their way into galleries the world over. The art world didn’t like it, he didn’t care. Haring held workshops for children in London, Amsterdam, Bordeaux and Tokyo and produced designs for many literacy programs, public service initiatives and charities. In 1988, he was diagnosed with AIDS, in 1989 he started the Keith Haring Foundation. The sole purpose of the foundation was to provide imagery and funding for children’s programs and other AIDS organisations as well as to provide a platform for Haring’s work.

On the 16th of February 1990 Keith Haring died of an AIDS-related illness, he was 31. Like a brief, bright, flash of light, Haring illuminated the world not only with his work but his devotion to the human spirit and the understanding of what binds us. His brief career featured over 100 exhibitions and countless collaborations. He was a great artist, a great man and he was gone too soon.