Haring, Keith (1958-1990)

views updated

Haring, Keith (1958-1990)

Among the most popular and frequently reproduced graphic images to have emerged from the 1980s are the broad cartoonish outlines of a baby on all fours, a boxlike barking dog, and a series of identical funny little men striking a variety of energetic poses. These figures—featureless yet evocative through outline alone—had their genesis in the spontaneous ink drawings Keith Haring began making in 1980, drawings out of which, the artist told his biographer John Gruen, his "entire future vocabulary was born." Seeking the incompatible goals of immediate acceptance with the masses and critical recognition from the art establishment, Haring lived fast, painted furiously, and died tragically young.

Growing up in Kutztown, Pennsylvania, where as a young child he drew pictures with his father, Haring was obsessed with the art of Walt Disney, Dr. Seuss, and Charles Schulz's earliest Charlie Brown comics. Television cartoons and the cartoonish sitcoms of the 1960s fascinated him, and he started a local Monkees fan club. In junior high school he won an award for a drawing on adding-machine tape which pitted the hippies against the police—a sign, perhaps, of his budding rebelliousness. After high school, Haring briefly attended the Ivy School of Professional Art in Pittsburgh and worked at the Pittsburgh Arts and Crafts Center. During this period he was influenced profoundly by Robert Henri's book The Art Spirit, which echoed Haring's own artistic musings, and by a 1977 retrospective of Pierre Alechinsky, whose work, said Haring, "was the closest thing I had ever seen to what I was doing with these self-generative little shapes."

In 1978 Haring moved to New York City to attend the School for Visual Arts, where his introduction to semiotics, or the study of signs, made a deep impression. He was fascinated by the graffiti in the New York streets and subways and was by 1980 making graffiti himself, eventually collaborating with and promoting other graffiti artists. In the early 1980s he became well-known for a series of surreptitious drawings he made in the New York subway stations on the empty black panels placed there to cover up old advertisements; the barking dog, the "Radiant Baby," and the active little men which became fixtures in much of his later work were all present here. The opening of his big show at New York's Shafrazi Gallery in 1982 was a sensation, attended by famous painters and graffiti artists alike.

Haring often created the art for his gallery shows on-site a few days before their opening. Onlookers were amazed at his ability to complete huge projects quickly with nary a false brush stroke, whether on paper, tarpaulins, canvas, or building facades. Large-scale projects ranged from a section of the Berlin Wall to the walls of museums, hospitals, and churches, generally with the blessing of property owners and often for socially conscious causes. His collaborators included Andy Warhol and William S. Burroughs, both of whom he considered mentors, and armies of neighborhood children. Haring dabbled in body painting and designed sculpture. Commercial projects included painting a car for BMW, ads for Absolut Vodka, and watch faces for Swatch. In 1986 Haring, wanting as usual to communicate to a wide audience, opened the Pop Shop in New York City to sell inflatable babies, toy radios, buttons, embroidered patches, and T-shirts bearing his and others' designs; a similar venture in Tokyo failed. Haring's work was extremely popular in Europe and Japan and as early as 1983 the artist had noticed imitations of his work "springing up all over the world." Throughout much of the late 1970s and 1980s Haring was immersed in recreational drugs and sex, the New York club scene, and friendships with celebrities including Madonna, Brooke Shields, Andy Warhol, and Timothy Leary. Haring died from AIDS in 1990 at the age of 31.

At the close of the twentieth century, Keith Haring's artistic legacy is still being debated. Calvin Tomkins, writing in the New Yorker, described Haring's natural gift as "the ability to cover and animate a surface with strong, simple, cartoon-style images that had an iconic resonance." Kurt Andersen, writing in the same publication, found Haring's work unpretentious and unimportant and saw in Haring all the salient artistic features of the 1980s: "a return to figurative style, the disappearance of distinctions between high and low, and the rise of full-bore marketing and of the overnight sensation." A major retrospective at New York's Whitney Museum of American Art in 1997 revealed Haring to be a more versatile and, often, sexually provocative artist than his mass-produced images would suggest. Certainly he was a master of line drawing, a tireless worker, and an adept self-promoter. While antecedents from Fernand Léger to R. Crumb may be cited, Haring's immediately recognizable work bears his own unique imprint.

—Craig Bunch

Further Reading:

Andersen, Kurt. "The Culture Industry." The New Yorker. July 7, 1997, 23-24.

Gruen, John. Keith Haring: The Authorized Biography. New York, Prentice Hall Press, 1991.

Haring, Keith. Art in Transit: Subway Drawings by Keith Haring. New York, Harmony Books, 1984.

——. Keith Haring Journals. New York, Viking, 1996.

Sussman, Elisabeth. Keith Haring. New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, 1997.

Tomkins, Calvin. "The Time of His Life." The New Yorker. July 8, 1996, 66-67.