Artwork by Keith Haring

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 made use of narrative sequences, making Haring a kind of pantomime comic artist too. 

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. Inspired by graffiti he began painting and drawing on walls all throughout the city. Through his friendship with colleagues like Kenny Scharf, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Andy Warhol he gained more fame. Soon he exhibited and decorated buildings and public murals all across the world, from Paris over Rio de Janeiro to Melbourne, Australia. His imagery, filled with dancing characters he called "radiant babies", made him the most famous visual artist of the 1980s, even to people otherwise not familiar with modern art. Other trademarks of him are dogs, people having sex and flying saucers.

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 was the founder of 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
The man 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 the latter two. After his death, Madonna dedicated the first concert of her new tour in New York City to him and donated the money to AIDS charities. During her 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' (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, as his own "radiant babies" characters definitely showed. Many of his drawings and paintings are constructed in the form of panels. Some of the imagery in these panels seems to exist on itself. Other panels can be read as a narrative sequence. Haring did this as early as 1980, in the work 'Fashion Moda', where a white and black man are seen fighting. As the white man stabs the black man with a stick, he proudly admires his weapon, without realizing a huge falling wall is about to crush him. A similar 1983 drawing depicts yet again two men running upon some stairs to grab a stick. Three panels put next to one another show how one of them kills the other with the stick, then another breaks the weapon over his knee and in the fourth image two men embrace each other. Haring used comics imagery for portraits too. His work 'Andy Mouse' (1985) is both a homage to Andy Warhol as to 'Mickey Mouse' and depicts them as one mutation. The rest of this four-panel drawing also depicts huge dollar signs, representing both characters' global fame and wealth. The same year Haring also made a self-portrait, with the words "hee hee hee" and little lines next to his head to indicate shaking, much like a comic artist woul depict somebody having fun. 

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

Nous, Tintin
 In 1987 Haring illustrated the cover of 'Nous, Tintin', a book paying homage to Hergé by having several graphic artists create imaginary 'Tintin' albums. He too made a fictional book cover named 'Tintin in Haringland'. Apart from Haring the book 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 surfclub 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 to make his personal messages more clear. A 1982 poster for nuclear disarmament uses two images on top of each other. The first shows an atomic explosion, while the one below shows people living in peace with one another. 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.

Keith Haring passed away in 1990 at the tender age of 31 from AIDS. Other comic writers/ artists who've died from AIDS have been: Allen ShapiroCopi, HenfilDom Orejudos, Neal Pozner and Ted Stearn. In 2013 Willi Bloess published 'Milestones of Art: Keith Haring. Next Stop: Art' (Rakuten Kobo, 2013), a graphic novel about Keith Haring. 

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

Series and books by Keith Haring in stock in the Lambiek Webshop:


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