Keith Haring’s vibrant line drawings made their first ‘public’ appearance in the early 80’s as graffiti in New York’s subway stations.
At a time when spray-paint graffiti ‘taggers’ were costing the then bankrupt city of New York $54million a year in cleaning costs, Haring took a different approach: drawing his images in chalk on the black paper overlaid by the transit authority on expired advertising hoardings.
It was a kind of ‘responsible radicalism’, which drew on the positive elements of graffiti whilst minimising the negatives.
The quick and spontaneous nature of the graffitist’s work influenced his own working style – he liked to complete his works within limited time frames. It’s prominence – beginning in the underground thoroughfares of one of the world’s major cities – also offered a new way to define and showcase original art. Up until that time the definition of ‘real art’ and access to the mainstream art world had been in the hands of an elite group of museums, galleries and wealthy collectors.
The ‘black paper approach’ may also have reflected a note of caution in his early days too: at that time New York authorities were arresting literally thousands of graffiti artists in their attempts to stop the practice.
But Haring certainly did go on to extend his practice into painting murals on urban walls (such as that above). Most of these were created illegally without official sanction.
Mixing with an emerging creative community that included the likes of Madonna, Grace Jones and Andy Warhol, it wasn’t long before Haring’s work appeared in more mainstream outlets. From 1980 onwards it began to appear in various group and solo art exhibitions and by 1981 he had achieved his first solo New York appearance at Westbeth Painters Space. By 1982 his career as a gallery artist was cemented with a break-out solo exhibition at the Tony Shafrazi Gallery in Soho.
His trademark style of bold lines, strong colours and basic outlines rapidly brought him universal acclaim and the wealth that goes with it. And his artwork appeared in various locations around the world, including the Berlin Wall and the exterior of a Parisian hospital.
Yet despite his growing success and commercial commissions for the likes of Absolut Vodka and Swatch Watch, he remained a social activist and applied his work to a variety of causes. These included anti-nuclear, anti-drug and anti-racist campaigns as well as those on gay rights and, subsequently, HIV/AIDS.
In 1988, at the age of 30, he himself was diagnosed with AIDS. The following year he founded the Keith Haring Foundation to provide funding and images to non-profit groups for charitable and educational activities.
Haring specified that the Foundation should focus its activities in two particular areas. One is AIDS education, prevention and care; the other, the provision of educational opportunities for underprivileged children.
Keith Haring died on February 16th, 1990 at the age of 31. It’s hard to believe that’s more than twenty years ago, given the ongoing popularity and influence of his art.
I am extremely grateful for the factual input of Julia Gruen, Executive Director of the Keith Haring Foundation, on this post.