“I am not a beginning
I am not an end
I am a link in a chain”
You only have to look at one of Keith Haring’s pieces to feel that you’ve seen it somewhere before. All those funny little dancing figures and brightly-coloured cartoon-like graphics seem very familiar. They evoke memories of children’s puzzles, mazes in comics or even aboriginal art and they inevitably leave you with a good feeling and a smile on your face. Maybe the reason is that his work became so widely commercialised, that his images appear on everything from coffee cups and mouse mats, to murals in our cities and powerful slogans from good causes.
He began as an underground artist (literally) but became a much sought-after, art-establishment darling whose public art achieved its stated aim and reached a huge public. If you can recognise an Andy Warhol, you’ll probably also recognise a Keith Haring. What most people don’t know however, is the story behind the artist and how the disease that he shared with us came to dominate his work.
Artists with HIV/AIDS were by reason of birth, upbringing and environment, given a unique subject matter to draw on and although there were few who ended up being recognised as ‘great’; they left a mark on the art world that should not be forgotten when looking in context at the times in which they worked. Many of these artists have already been forgotten by current generations but some have become household names and it’s worthwhile reminding ourselves of their lives and talent. Of course the virus took so many prematurely but unlike in literature, where the truly great AIDS novel has never really been written, there were and are artists with HIV, who could truly be termed ‘record keepers’ of the mayhem around them.
The first in this short series is Keith Haring.
Chances are that if you see a Keith Haring image, you’ll recognise it straight away. He was an advertiser’s dream and his work exploded across a world just at the moment in the 80’s when the power of graphic images was being recognized. Considering how recognisable his work is, it’s amazing to think he only lived for 31 years. Yet few people know the story behind the graffiti-inspired work produced by a skinny kid from Reading, Pennsylvania, whose self-image suggested he was destined to be a geek for the rest of his life. In fact the extraordinary twists and turns that Keith Haring took, should give self-proclaimed ‘nerds’ hope that there’s a future outside their bedroom walls.
His father was an engineer whose hobby was also cartoon drawing. That influence rubbed off on Keith, who loved Disney, Charles Schultz and the Dr Seuss illustrations but he always maintained there was a difference between cartooning and art.
He began by studying commercial art locally in Pittsburgh but quickly lost interest in the restrictions of commercial art school and at the age of 19, took that step that so many dream of and moved to New York City. It was the emerging street art scene in New York and the spontaneity of graffiti and graphic ‘tags’ that caught his imagination but it was also 1978, he was 19 and for a young gay man in the pre-Aids metropolis, there was inspiration on every corner.
In New York, he made friends with other guys who went on to make names for themselves, such as Jean-Michel Basquiat and Kenny Scharf and with them and other artists, organised exhibitions at nightclubs and other ‘alternative’ settings and became part of an art, music and fashion scene that accurately reflected the vibrancy of city life in those years. For him, it was a natural progression to move on to the streets with his art. He was clever enough to see the possibility of using empty advertising panels on the walls of the subway to make art. Using the black paper panels where no ads were hanging, he took to them with white chalk and created quick, visually attractive drawings, guaranteed to catch the attention of commuters passing by. It was here that his signature images of a ‘radiant baby’ (crawling baby emitting rays of light), dancing figures, a barking dog, large hearts and TV-headed people first emerged. However, they not only attracted people in the trains, they were also spotted by the authorities, who took a dim view and on several occasions, resulted in arrests for vandalism.
In the mid-eighties, Haring was making a name for himself throughout pop culture and across the world. He designed a set for MTV with his friend Nick Rhodes of Duran Duran and painted murals in various cities, including Amsterdam, Paris and Phoenix, Arizona but his best-known was a 350 footer on the Berlin Wall by the Brandenburg Gate.
"I decided on a subject, which is a continuous interlocking chain of human figures, who are connected at their hands and feet. The chain represents the unity of people against the idea of the wall. I painted in the colors of the German flag, black, red and yellow.”
You can be sniffy about the rampant commercialism surrounding Haring’s art but a great deal of it was created for charities, hospitals, orphanages and the social causes of the day. Because it was created in full public view, he could be sure that the message would reach far more people than if it was hung in exclusive galleries. Between 1982 and 1989, he created more than 50 public artworks; something that many of his contemporaries turned their noses up at because of the lack of instant earnings.
An ‘artist of the people’ may be stretching a bit far and sound a little pretentious but that was his stated aim and he was as good as his word. While doing the subway chalk drawings for instance, he was able to interact with commuters and explain his motivation. That sort of publicity can’t be bought and there was no doubt word of mouth spread the fame of this funny looking guy creating a sort of subversive and fleeting art for the people who passed by. It got to the point where, as fast as he was working, people were stealing it and selling it on, so he inevitable moved on to bigger and better things.
The more he worked, the more he was able to refine and develop his own particular brand of graphic expression. For him the manipulation of a single line became another signature; very close to the graffiti tagging that was going on around him. Friezes and murals were perfect vehicles for extending his line work and filling in the spaces with colour gave it an instant appeal for young and old alike.
Very often people would look at a Haring work and love it before looking more closely and seeing the subversive elements that could shock and in some cases offend. However, he was what he was and as a gay, street artist from New York, there would inevitably be controversy and he didn’t try to tone it down the more famous he became.
During the 80s, the decade in which his public art became so well-known, he achieved international recognition and had many successful solo and group exhibitions. Lucrative contracts with Swatch and Absolut vodka brought financial success too but also brought several dilemmas with it, including the fact that his work became out of reach of normal people with normal salaries.
In 1986 he opened the Pop Shop, which was a retail store in Soho selling T-shirts, toys, badges, magnets, posters etc. all of which his more elitist rivals wouldn’t touch with a barge pole. However much you can praise the philanthropic motives, this was also a brilliant marketing move, guaranteed for a few bucks to place his images in everybody’s homes for those looking for cool ‘stuff’. He sort of made the shop in his own image and painted an internal mural in garish black and white, giving it instant cult status.
“My work was starting to become more expensive and more popular within the art market. Those prices meant that only people who could afford big art prices could have access to the work. The Pop Shop makes it accessible.”
The art world hated it but people on the street loved it because it provided accessibility to a hip artist’s work at nominal prices. With support for the project from people like Warhol, he didn’t need critical approval from the gallery owners.
In the same year, he painted his landmark New York mural on the walls of a handball court on East 128th Street.
‘Crack is Wack’ was as powerful an anti-drug message as anything else produced at the time. The fact that he painted it without permission but it is now a protected art work says a lot for the success of the image and the status of the artist.
Keith Haring’s story would be interesting without its final chapter but there’s little doubt that in an era when people were dying from AIDS in their thousands, especially in the big cities, the impact of such a popular, public figure being diagnosed in 1988 and dying two years later can’t be underestimated. You get the feeling that he would have appreciated the irony that his disease and death were also public news and symbolic of the times.
Shortly after being diagnosed, he set up the Keith Haring Foundation to give a face and image to AIDS and encourage funding for many different AIDS projects, especially those involving children. He became a powerful spokesman by speaking out about his own illness and encouraging activism to replace apathy. He was able to attract a wide audience by showing images of universal problems such as birth and death, war, love and sex but also HIV and AIDS and he had enough friends within pop culture like Madonna, Grace Jones, William Burroughs, Timothy Leary, Jenny Holzer, Yoko Ono and Andy Warhol to help spread the message even further.
More important than the celebs however, was the support of so many ordinary people who felt in some way that through his use of imagery, Haring had tapped into their own cultural instincts at that moment in time. His interview with Rolling Stone in 1989, was a candid appeal for understanding and progress with the virus and once again, by telling his own story, he reached an audience that many of his contemporaries couldn’t.
“No matter how long you work, it’s always going to end sometime. And there’s always going to be things left undone. And it wouldn’t matter if you lived until you were seventy-five. There would still be new ideas. There would still be things that you wished you would have accomplished. You could work for several lifetimes….Part of the reason that I’m not having trouble facing the reality of death is that it’s not a limitation, in a way. It could have happened any time, and it is going to happen sometime. If you live your life according to that, death is irrelevant. Everything I’m doing right now is exactly what I want to do.”
He died in February, 1990 at the age of 31 and over a thousand people attended his memorial service but that represented just the tip of the iceberg of people who really valued his life and work . Because of his art, we have a lasting memorial that the vast majority of AIDS victims don’t. His work is not just a memorial though, it’s also visually symbolic of what happened during the worst years and of how some people were able to sum it all up with a few lines of paint, or a simple image.
World Aids Day Condoms 1990
“All of the things that you make are a kind of quest for immortality. Because you’re making these things that you know have a different kind of life. They don’t depend on breathing, so they’ll last longer than any of us will. Which is sort of an interesting idea, that it’s sort of extending your life to some degree.”
This is not an article that delves into Keith haring’s private life. We know he was gay; we know he was HIV-positive and died of AIDS- related causes; what we don’t need to know is any lurid details of how he got there. His work is enough to represent who the man was and what he stood for. He was the ‘funny looking kid’ who made good but most importantly had a positive effect on art history and culture and vitally, individual people and the developments and attitudes surrounding a disease. The world would be much duller if he hadn’t left his marks on as many walls as he could lay a paint brush on.
Finally; two interesting clips about Keith Haring and his work. The first is a Google tribute to the man and the second, is a rare early report including footage, of the up and coming artist.
More Information about Haring’s work.