Artwork by Keith Haring
Drawing by Keith Haring, 1983.

Keith Haring is a world-famous graffiti artist with an instantly recognizable style depicting little silhouettes of people, surrounded by radiating lines. He became a celebrity during the 1980s, straddling the line between "high" and "low" art. While his work could be seen in musea it was also mass-produced on posters, T-shirts, murals, album covers, TV animation and other merchandising. A socially conscious artist, Haring used his talent to spread awareness about various causes. Some of his artwork uses narrative sequences, making him comparable to a pantomime comic artist.

Early life
Keith Haring was born in 1958 in Reading, Pennsylvania, as the son of an engineer who was an amateur cartoonist in his spare time. Haring studied commercial art at Ivy School for Professional Art in Pittsburgh. While reading Robert Henri's 'The Art Spirit' (1923), he decided to follow his own path and dropped out of school. He found work at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts, which allowed him to see modern art on a daily basis. Among his influences were Walt Disney, Dr. Seuss, Charles M. Schulz, Chuck Jones, Hergé, Jean Dubuffet, Jackson Pollock, Mark Tobey, Christo, Pierre Alechinsky and novelist William S. Burroughs.

Developing a style
Near the end of the 1970s, Haring moved to New York City, where he studied painting at the School of Visual Artists. He was inspired by comics, animated cartoons and graffiti, generally considered low-brow forms of illustration. Especially graffiti was still seen as mere vandalism at the time. Haring liked the brutal, streetwise expression of these mural paintings. He also began painting and drawing on walls all throughout the city. The artist used simple faceless characters, close to stick figures, and added expression lines around them. He named them "radiant babies". Other recurring imagery in Haring's art were dogs, flying saucers and people having sex.

Through his friendship with colleagues like Kenny Scharf, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Andy Warhol, Haring became more famous. He struck a chord with critics and general audiences. Compared with most modern art movements, Haring's drawings used figurative art, easily understandable to the masses. His happy, vibrant, dancing characters were a delight to see and very suitable for mass reproduction and merchandising. Soon Haring exhibited all over the world. He was invited to design murals in many capitals and other huge cities, from Rio de Janeiro to Melbourne. He became the most recognizable painter of the 1980s, famous even to people otherwise unfamiliar with modern art. 

Apartheid by Keith HaringApartheid by Keith Haring
'Apartheid' (1985).

Social consciousness
Haring was a socially conscious artist with an interest in semiotics and urban codes. He sometimes cut out news headlines in newspapers and pasted them together in new, sensational non-existing headlines ("Reagan Slain By Hero Cop"), which were hung on walls all over the city. He also took a stance against racism, apartheid, free-market capitalism, religious fundamentalism, pollution, the nuclear industry, television, crack cocain and raised awareness of AIDS, an illness he suffered from himself. He established the Keith Haring Foundation, which provides funding and imagery to awareness programs about the disease. His artwork also decorates the covers of the benefit pop albums 'Red Hot + Blue' (1990) and 'Red Hot + Dance' (1992), released by the AIDS charity organization Red Hot, and 'A Very Special Christmas' (1987), a CD released to benefit the Special Olympics. In order to get his message across Haring spared no expense, even his own. He once attended an anti-nuclear rally in Central Park where he handed out 20.000 personally signed posters, the prints paid with his own money.

Fashion Moda by Keith Haring
'Fashion Moda' (1980).

Artwork in other media
Haring collaborated with many famous people, including fashion designers Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren, as well as pop stars Grace Jones and Madonna. He designed dresses for Madonna too. After his death, she dedicated the first concert of her new tour in New York City to him and donated the money to AIDS charities. During Madonna's 2008-2009 tour his art was used as background imagery during some of her performances. Animated TV shorts in his style were broadcast in the popular children's TV show 'Sesame Street', under the titles: 'Telephone', 'TV Dog', 'Dancing People', 'Counting to Ten', 'Babies and Dogs', 'Exit' and '40 Pigs'. In an interesting piece of trivia, the largest jigsaw puzzle ever made - according to the Guinness Book of Records - has imagery of Haring on its cover.

Andy Mouse by Keith Haring
'Andy Mouse', depicting Andy Warhol as Mickey Mouse (1985).

Since Haring drew inspiration from low-brow art, such as graffiti, comics and animated cartoons, it comes to no surprise that this imagery is reflected in his paintings. He held the belief that cartoon figures could be a component of fine art. Many of his drawings and paintings are constructed in the form of panels. Some can be read as a narrative sequence. In 'Fashion Moda' (1980), for instance, a white and black man fight. As the white one stabs the black one with a stick, he proudly admires his weapon. In the next panel he's crushed by a crumbling black wall. A similar 1983 drawing depicts two men running upon some stairs to grab a stick. One kills the other with the stick. In the next panel another man breaks the weapon over his knee, whereupon the two embrace each other in the final image. 

Haring also used comic strip imagery in his portraits. His work 'Andy Mouse' (1985) is both a homage to Andy Warhol and 'Mickey Mouse'. The famous painter and mouse are mutated into one character, while the other panels depict huge dollar signs. The same year Haring also portrayed himself. He drew a self-portrait with little lines next to his head, to indicate shaking, and the words "hee hee hee" to suggest a laugh. 

Blueprint Drawing by Keith Haring
One of Haring's "Blueprint Drawings".

Nous, Tintin
 In 1987 Haring illustrated the cover of 'Nous, Tintin' (Éditions du Lion, 1987), a book paying homage to Hergé by having several graphic artists create imaginary 'Tintin' albums. He also made a fictional book cover: 'Tintin in Haringland'. 'Nous Tintin' also featured contributions by Glues Bachelet, François Berthoud, Enki Bilal, Annick Blavier, Bode Bodart, Alberto Breccia, Max Cabanes, Silvio Cadelo, Nicole Claveloux, Didier Eberoni, Ever Meulen, F'murrr, André Geerts, Daniel Goossens, Steven Guarnaccia, George Hardie, Vincent Hardy, Jan Colombe Lange, Frank Le Gall, Silver Lemon (and Bode Bodart), Jacques de Loustal, Marc Lumer, Francis Masse, Lorenzo Mattotti, José Munoz, Pascal Nottet, Albert Pepermans, Marie-Françoise Plissart, Ian Pollock, Pierre Pourbaix, Stéphane Rosse, Alec Severin, Bill Sienkiewicz, Alex Varenne and Thierry Wégria. The foreword was provided by film director Wim Wenders. Haring's 'Tintin' drawing was originally painted amongst many other images on a container near a surf club in Knokke, Belgium. When the club was disbanded the container disappeared from view for many years and was stocked away in a warehouse, forgotten by everybody. Decades later an employee was ordered to burn the container and throw the remains away. He happened to recognize Haring's style, whereupon the thing was saved from destruction. On 17 May 2017 it was auctioned for 1 million euros to an unknown bidder. 

Sequential art
Haring also used sequential art for socially conscious messages. A 1982 poster for nuclear disarmament uses two images. The first one shows an atomic explosion, while the one below depicts people living in peace. One of his anti-apartheid posters shows a huge black figure being held on a leash by a tiny white oppressor, representing the black majority in the country held under white racist rule. In the next panel the black giant manages to free himself. Even at death's door, Haring made several untitled comic book-style drawings, nicknamed 'The Blueprint Drawings' by fans.

Death and legacy
Keith Haring passed away in 1990 from AIDS, at the tender age of 31. In 2013 Willi Bloess published 'Milestones of Art: Keith Haring. Next Stop: Art' (Rakuten Kobo, 2013), a graphic novel about Keith Haring. Haring was also an influence on Belgian cartoonist Gal (Gerard Alsteens).

Poster by Keith Haring
Poster for nuclear disarmament (1982).

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