Keith Haring

An art icon - Japeur Bermudez

Who is Keith?

Keith Haring (1958–1990) shot to fame in the art world at an unusually young age. He was in his early 20s when he first gained notoriety as a graffiti artist who crossed over to become a defining figure in New York City’s downtown scene of the 1980s—a decade when artists of the baby boomer generation made their outsize demographic felt by breaking down the last remaining barriers between high and low culture. Haring’s rapidly dashed-off combinations of hieroglyphics and coloring-book outlines epitomized these developments, as his work went from street to gallery and finally to the auction house, where it ultimately fetched millions of dollars. Cut down by AIDS in 1990 at age 31, he left behind a legend that rivaled Warhol’s and that of his coeval, Jean-Michel Basquiat. Capturing lightning in a bottle, Haring reflected a cultural moment in New York that matched the louche glamor of Paris in the 1920s. Both milieus witnessed an influx of creatives prompted by larger historical forces: the aftermath of World War I for the French capital, and municipal bankruptcy for NYC during the 1970s, when white flight to the suburbs collapsed the city’s tax base.

NYC became nearly as empty as its coffers, clearing a space for a tsunami of artistic aspirants—many of whom, ironically, were escaping suburbia, where they’d come of age amid the fruits of postwar prosperity and a firehose stream of television programming.Thanks to television, Boomers grew up immersed in sitcoms, variety shows, dramas, commercials, and B-movies that introduced its impressionable audience to genres such as horror and sci-fi. Just as important, TV brought world-shattering events—JFK’s assassination, civil rights protests, the Vietnam War—into suburban living rooms. The result transformed images into a generationally shared shorthand.It’s no surprise, then, that artists shaped by midcentury mass media—which also included rock-and-roll music and comic books—saw that the high-minded abstractions of 20th-century modernism had been exhausted after Conceptual Art and Minimalism, driving a return to representation. For Haring, this meant reviving a kind of Pop Art that was even more energetic and democratized than the original.Early Life and Career

Early Life and Career

Haring, who evinced a talent for drawing early on, was born in Reading, Pennsylvania, and was raised in nearby Kutztown, 130 miles west of New York City. Founded in 1815, the town had been settled by German immigrants and was home to a Mennonite community; it also boasted a university. With a population exceeding 95 percent white, Kutztown was a postcard version of Middle America.Haring’s parents were members of United Church of Christ, and as a teenager Haring got caught up in the Jesus Movement, a hippified branch of evangelism that started on the West Coast in the 1960s. His father encouraged his gifts by teaching him cartooning. While still in high school, Haring hitchhiked across the country, selling Grateful Dead and anti-Nixon T-shirts that he’d created.In 1976 Haring enrolled in Pittsburgh’s Ivy School of Professional Art to study commercial design, but he stayed for just two semesters. After reading Robert Henri’s 1923 treatise, The Art Spirit, Haring moved to New York in 1978 and entered the School of Visual Arts as a scholarship student. (According to various sources, he was either expelled or dropped out.)

Pop Shop VI, 1989

Work in New York

                                         Keith making art in the NY subway (c) 1982

Haring’s New York was experiencing a renaissance amid the chaos and crumbling infrastructure of a city left for dead. This was especially evident downtown—demarcated by 14th Street but more like a state of mind than a neighborhood—where a cross-fertilization between the art world and an exploding club scene created a vibrant cultural synergy. Basquiat, for example, designed a VIP lounge for the era’s mega venue, Palladium, while Danceteria, where Haring worked briefly as a busboy, showcased performance artists like the controversial Karen Finley. Clubs became an adjunct to the nonprofit alternative spaces in Lower Manhattan that programmed such fare.More important to Haring was the influence of graffiti, which began during the early ’70s in communities of color in the Bronx and Brooklyn. Although considered vandals by City Hall, figures such a Lee Quinones and Dondi White were undeniably ambitious, covering entire subway trains with murals comprising futuristically baroque tags interlaced with cartoonish imagery.

Concurrent with the rise of hip-hop, this work, under the rubric Wild Style, became a ubiquitous presence on the urban landscape, inspiring both Basquiat and Haring.Like Quinones and White, Haring used the subway for his art, albeit more modestly. Instead of “bombing” trains, Haring made transit stations his studio, using white chalk to spontaneously generate images on the sheets of black paper that the Transit Authority would temporarily install in frames awaiting advertising posters. He developed a symbology that was accessible and instantly recognized as his own: flying saucers, human bodies with barking dog heads, and most iconically, his “radiant baby”—an infant on all fours, encircled by lines emanating outwards to suggest a radioactive glow. These images and others like them would define his work going forward.Haring’s approach, however, was hardly unmoored from art-historical sources.

Late Career

As Haring moved from subways walls to canvas, his practice expanded to include sculpture and performance. He was a regular at the art/nightlife outlet Club 57, on St. Marks Place, where he’d recite Neo-Dada poetry while wearing an empty TV chassis over his head. He also collaborated extensively with the renowned choreographer Bill T. Jones. In one collaboration at The Kitchen, Jones danced as Haring worked behind him, furiously executing a painting that stretched the width of The Kitchen’s capacious loft. Later Haring designed the sets for a production at the Brooklyn Academy of Music starring Jones.

Perhaps their best-known project together was a performance staged for the camera and captured by photographer Tseng Kwong Chi, in which Haring completely covered Jones’s naked body with motifs resembling tribal markings painted in white. Haring also executed several murals both outdoors and in, including Crack Is Wack, an anti-drug message on the wall of a handball court at the intersection of Harlem River Drive and FDR Drive, and an immersive piece for the bathroom of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis that spoke to Haring’s AIDS activism. He employed similarly all-encompassing décor for his Pop Shop, a boutique following Warhol’s Business Art model that sold Haring-branded paraphernalia. Given Haring’s prodigious output—he could sometimes create up to 40 paintings in a day—and its consistency, it’s easy to deride his art as the product of an artist playing to the cheap seats, but that would ignore its refinement and complexity. Haring lived fast and died young, yes, but he left an elegant body of work that remains compelling today.

International Youth Year, 1985


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