The subject of a new traveling retrospective opening May 27 at The Broad in Los Angeles, Keith Haring (1958–1990) rose to fame in the art world at an unusually young age. He was in his early twenties when he gained notoriety as a graffiti artist who became a defining figure in the downtown New York scene in the 1980s – a decade when artists of the baby generation boomers have made their disproportionate demographics felt as they decay. the last barriers between high and low culture.
Haring’s rapidly disjointed combinations of hieroglyphs and coloring book outlines embodied these developments, as his work moved from the streets to the gallery and eventually to the auction house, where it eventually fetched millions of dollars. Dejected by AIDS in 1990 at the age of 31, he left behind him a legend that rivals that of Warhol and that of his contemporary, Jean-Michel Basquiat.
Capturing lightning in a bottle, Haring reflected a cultural moment in New York that matched the sleazy glamor of Paris in the 1920s. Both mediums witnessed an influx of creatives brought on by larger historical forces: the consequences of the First World War for the French capital and the municipal bankruptcy of New York in the 1970s, when the flight of whites to the suburbs caused the city’s tax base to collapse. NYC became almost as empty as its coffers, freeing up space for a tsunami of aspiring artists – many of whom, ironically, were fleeing the suburbs, where they had grown up amid the fruits of post-war prosperity and a flood of television programs.
Thanks to television, baby boomers grew up immersed in sitcoms, variety shows, dramas, commercials and B-movies that introduced their impressionable audiences to genres such as horror and science- fiction. Equally important, television brought life-altering events—the JFK assassination, civil rights protests, the Vietnam War—to suburban living rooms. The result transformed the images into a shorthand shared from generation to generation.
It’s no surprise, then, that artists shaped by mid-century mass media—which also included rock-and-roll music and comic books—saw that the lofty abstractions of 20th-century modernism had been exhausted. after conceptual art and minimalism, leading to a return to representation. For Haring, this meant reviving a kind of Pop Art even more energetic and democratized than the original.
“Keith Haring: Art is for everyone” will be on view at the Broad Museum in Los Angeles from May 27 to October 27. 28 2023; THE Art Gallery of OntarioToronto, starting November 11, 2023–March 17, 2024; and the Walker Arts CenterMinneapolis, April 27–September 8, 2024.
Youth and career
Haring, who showed an early talent for drawing, was born in Reading, Pennsylvania, and grew up in Kutztown, 130 miles west of New York. Founded in 1815, the city had been settled by German immigrants and was home to a Mennonite community; it also boasted of a university. With a population over 95% white, Kutztown was a postcard version of Central America.
Haring’s parents were members of the United Church of Christ, and as a teenager Haring was caught up in the Jesus Movement, a hippy branch of evangelism that began on the West Coast in the 1960s. His father encouraged his gifts by teaching him comics. While still in high school, Haring hitchhiked across the country, selling Grateful Dead and anti-Nixon T-shirts he had designed.
In 1976, Haring enrolled at the Ivy School of Professional Art in Pittsburgh to study commercial design, but remained there for only two semesters. After reading Robert Henri’s 1923 treatise, The artistic spirit, Haring moved to New York in 1978 and entered the School of Visual Arts as a scholar. (According to various sources, he was expelled or abandoned.)
Haring’s New York was experiencing a rebirth amid the chaos and crumbling infrastructure of a city left for dead. This was particularly evident downtown – bounded by 14th Street but more like a mood than a neighborhood – where a cross-fertilization between the art world and a booming club scene created a dynamic cultural synergy. Basquiat, for example, designed a VIP lounge for then-mega venue Palladium, while Danceteria, where Haring briefly worked as a busboy, featured performance artists like the controversial Karen Finley. The clubs became a complement to nonprofit alternative spaces in Lower Manhattan that programmed such fares.
More important to Haring was the influence of graffiti, which began in the early ’70s in communities of color in the Bronx and Brooklyn. Although considered vandals by City Hall, figures such as Lee Quinones and Dondi White were undeniably ambitious, covering entire subway trains with murals that included futuristic baroque beacons interwoven with cartoonish imagery. Along with the rise of hip-hop, this work, under the rubric of Wild Style, became a ubiquitous presence in the cityscape, inspiring both Basquiat and Haring.
Like Quinones and White, Haring used the Underground for his art, although 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 the Transit Authority temporarily set up in frames while they waited for advertising posters. He developed accessible symbology immediately recognized as his own: flying saucers, human bodies with the heads of barking dogs, and most emblematic, his “radiant baby” – a baby on all fours, surrounded by lines emanating towards outside to suggest a radioactive glow. . These images and others like them would define his work in the future.
Haring’s approach, however, was hardly detached from the sources of art history. The public staging of Christo’s installations and the pictographic compositions of the Belgian abstract artist Pierre Alechinsky were major influences.
As Haring moved from subway walls to canvas, his practice expanded to include sculpture and performance. He was a regular at the art/nightlife club Club 57, in St. Mark’s Square, where he recited neo-Dada poetry while carrying an empty television chassis on his head.
He also collaborated a lot with the famous choreographer Bill T. Jones. In a collaboration at The Kitchen, Jones danced while Haring worked behind him, furiously performing a painting that spanned the width of The Kitchen’s expansive loft. Later, Haring designed the sets for a production at the Brooklyn Academy of Music with Jones. Their best-known project together was perhaps a performance staged for the camera and captured by photographer Tseng Kwong Chi, in which Haring completely covered Jones’ naked body with designs resembling white-painted tribal marks.
Haring also executed several exterior and interior murals, including Crack is crazy, an anti-drug message on the wall of a handball court at the intersection of Harlem River Drive and FDR Drive, and an immersive Gay Men’s Health Crisis bathroom piece that spoke about Haring’s activism against AIDS. He used an equally comprehensive set for his Pop Shop, a shop following Warhol’s Business Art model that sold Haring-brand accessories.
Given Haring’s prodigious output – he could sometimes create as many as 40 paintings in a day – and his consistency, it is easy to deride his art as the product of an artist playing on cheap seats, but that would ignore its sophistication and complexity. Haring lived fast and died young, yes, but he left an elegant body of work that remains compelling today.