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#BornThisDay: Keith Haring


1986, photo via Wikimedia Commons

May 4, 1958– Keith Haring:

“My contribution to the world is my ability to draw. I will draw as much as I can for as many people as I can for as long as I can. Drawing is still basically the same as it has been since prehistoric times. It brings together man and the world. It lives through magic.”

Someone stole my much loved Keith Haring Swatch watch in the early 1990s. I think I know who it was, but when queried, they denied any possibility of having been responsible for it gone missing. This morning, I saw the same watch on eBay for $1600. The Husband stated: “You couldn’t get $1600 for that watch. You loved that Swatch into a state of ‘very used’. I wish I had $1600, I would buy you a new one.” I have never recovered from losing my Keith Haring Swatch. I loved having him near.

For most of the 1980s, I had prints of Haring’s drawings and paintings, torn from Interview Magazine, displayed on my fridge. Unbelievable, there is a Haring, held by an Andy Warhol magnet, on my stainless steel refrigerator this morning. Some things just don’t change. The display face on my iPhone is a Keith Haring barking dog.

Via YouTube

Keith Allen Haring grew up in Kutztown, a small Pennsylvania Dutch farm community. As a child, he drew cartoons and gradually progressed to more complex compositions. He attended a showing of Warhol’s work when he was in his teens, and was impressed by the artist’s flat lines, his use of pop icons and mundane everyday objects, and Warhol’s entire concept of mass-produced art. Warhol’s elevation of the commonplace into high art would become the focus of Haring’s own work.

Haring moved to NYC in 1980 to be at the center of both the art world and the gay community. At 22-years-old, he began to create his own graffiti: ambiguous looking animals and human figures on all-fours, painted in the NYC subways. Haring was a graffiti artist with a decidedly different approach. Instead of spray painting the subway cars, he drew with white chalk on the black paper pasted on unused advertising spaces, working in a distinctive style that became widely known before anyone knew his identity. Despite several arrests for criminal mischief, Haring dared to continue creating his subway graffiti during the early 1980s.

Haring found a job as an assistant to gallery owner Tony Shafrazi who gave him his first major exhibition in 1982. During the mid-1980s, Haring’s pieces brought him wealth and celebrity. His collectors included Yoko OnoDennis Hopper, and even Warhol himself. Madonna gave this explanation of why his art had such a vast appeal:

“There was a lot of innocence and a joy that was coupled with a brutal awareness of the world.”

He found much success during his own time on our planet, with his pieces going for as much as $350,000.  His friends: Warhol, Roy LichtensteinKenny Scharf, Madonna, Ono and Boy George championed his work. His art was featured in the era’s discos like The Palladium, and used as set decorations on MTV.  His murals were seen as a backdrop for a 1985 hunger-relief benefit concert in Philadelphia, on walls on the Lower East Side and scenery for various theatre works and dance concerts.

From Haring Foundation

Haring opened a pair of Pop Shops in NYC and Tokyo which sold merchandise based on his designs with every inch of the shops devoted to Haring’s work including floor-to-ceiling murals. Haring was devoted to creating cultural awareness about HIV and LGBTQ Rights issues. The Pop Shops are closed now, but the Keith Haring Foundation was established in 1989 to assist his HIV related and children’s charities. The foundation continues to maintain the Haring archives. Haring had generously contributed his talents to art workshops for kids, created logos and posters for public service agencies, and he produced murals, sculptures, and paintings to benefit health centers for disadvantaged communities. Sale of Haring merchandise continues to insure the work of his foundation continues. When faced with criticism from the art world’s elite, Haring stated:

“I could earn more money if I just painted a few things and jacked up the price. My shop is an extension of what I was doing in the subway stations, breaking down the barriers between high and low art.”

His paintings and sculptures are in the collections of many of the planet’s major museums like the Hirshhorn Museum, the San Francisco Museum Of Modern Art, the Stedelijk in Amsterdam, the Whitney in Manhattan and the Beaubourg in Paris.

Pisa, 1989, photo: public domain

Haring produced huge public murals, including a mural of the 10 Commandments for the Musee d’Art Contemporain de Bordeaux in 1985, and a 300 foot painting of a chain of red and black figures on the Berlin Wall in 1986. Haring did murals for DC’s Children’s Hospital and Necker Children’s Hospital in Paris. He created posters for the Anti-Apartheid movement and Gay Rights causes, increasingly using apocalyptic imagery.

Section of “Commandments” via YouTube

Haring was among that first generation of gay men lost in the initial wave of the epidemic. He was diagnosed with HIV in late 1988, but he continued to produce his art until the very end, when he could hardly hold a pencil or brush. Haring’s bold lines and primitive figures carry poignant messages of vitality and unity. His legacy has made a lasting impact on late 20th century art and beyond. During his brief career, Haring invented an entire cartoon universe inhabited with crawling children, barking dogs and dancing figures.

Haring was just 31-years-old when he left this wretched world in 1990. He would have been 60-years-old today. I cried this morning thinking about writing this post: for Keith being gone too soon, too young, for my own loss of innocence, and for that missing Keith Haring Original Swatch. But looking at his work to prepare for this #BornThisDay, I have to say that Haring leaves me with a more positive vision for the future.

I recommend Christina Clausen’s joyful film The Universe Of Keith Haring (2008). You can find it on that Netflix thingy.


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