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The Artist’s Early Life
Keith Haring was born and grew up in Reading, Pennsylvania with his parents and three younger sisters. His father, Allen Haring, was a cartoonist who may have been an inspiration for him to pursue his artistic talents and certainly influenced his son’s work. Haring entered the Ivy School of Professional Art in Pittsburg at age 17 and studied there for two years. He then tired of the commercial art genre and went on to study fine arts in New York City. Here at the School of Visual Arts he was inspired by graffiti art for the first time.
The Early Works
The artist’s first work that garnered attention was his public art painted in the New York City subways. These renderings were more akin to Pop art than Street Art. Perhaps they could best be described as Pop Art on the street.
It was at this time that his work “The Radiant Baby” became symbolic of the artist. This image, with its bold lines, vivid colors, and dynamic pose, expresses profound messages of life and unity. Keith Haring stated the idea behind his radiant baby is that there is nothing negative about a baby – a baby is pure and positive.
In 1980, Haring organized shows in New York City’s Club 57 and for the first time started drawing animals and human faces. He also pasted provocative collages around the city made from cut up and reassembled headlines from the New York Post.
In 1982, having become a well known activist-artist, he formed friendships with the likes of Madonna, Kenny Scharf and Jean-Michel Basquiat. Between 1982 and 1989 he had over 50 public works in many countries around the world. In 1986, he created his famous mural, “Crack is Wack,” on a handball court in East Harlem. In the same year, he met Andy Warhol who became the theme of many works including Andy Mouse. These relationships, particularly with Andy Warhol, proved to be a strong factor in his future success.
The Later Period: International Acceptance
In Melbourne and Sydney Australia in 1984 he painted murals based on his own drug addiction. He painted in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil, Paris and Minneapolis and Manhattan. Madonna sported a Haring-designed jacket for her performance of “Like a Virgin” on Television’s hot dance program, Solid Gold.
The artist began to paint on canvas, and in 1985 he painted the set on a “Guest VJ special” hosted by Nick Rhodes of Duran Duran, another famous friend. He went on painting murals in Amsterdam, Paris and Berlin. In Berlin, he painted on the Berlin Wall at the Brandenburg Gate. To further his association with pop icons of the mid-eighties, he painted the body of Grace Jones for her music video “I’m not Perfect.”
Keith Haring opened up a retail store in SOHO called Pop Shop and his themes became more socio-political including anti-apartheid, AIDS awareness and the crack cocaine epidemic. This work sometimes featured influences of commercial brands such as Absolut vodka, Lucky Strike cigarettes and Coca-Cola strengthening the activist theme of a particular work and decidedly moving him back into the genre of Pop Art.
Haring was diagnosed with AIDS in 1988 and established the Keith Haring Foundation one year later. Its primary mission was to provide funding and imagery to AIDS organizations and children’s programs such as Kinderstern. The foundation’s secondary purpose was to expand the audience for the artist’s work through art shows, publications and licensing of his works.
The same year, the Lesbian and Gay Services Center asked him to be a part of a showing at their building in New York City. He painted the mural “Once Upon a Time” in the second floor men’s room of the LBGT Community Center in New York City. The mural covers the walls of the entire room and is drawn with the figures outlined in black against the white walls.
Keith Haring has always done works where homosexuality is explicitly expressed. Here is Haring at his most uninhibited exuberance in the celebration of gay sex. There are many erotic individual scenes of sexual behavior with an enthusiastic group sex scene reminiscent of the sexual lyricism of the Kama Sutra.
Many serious Keith Haring fans and collectors consider “Once Upon a Time” the artist’s masterpiece.
He painted his last work, the mural “Tuttomondo (The Whole World),” on an exterior wall of Convent of the Church of Sant’Antonio in Pisa, Italy in 1989. This is a huge mural measuring 1,938 square feet and features Haring’s signature outlined figures of humans and animals. The work’s theme is peace and harmony in the world and features 30 human figures. Each of the figures represents a different aspect of peace.
In this work, the figure of a woman holding a baby represents maternity, while the iconic radiant baby is a depiction of purity and all that is positive. There are angels depicted throughout the mural accentuating the theme of peace and harmony.
Another representation in “Tuttomondo” is that of two humans forming a scissors to bisect a serpent about to eat the head off another figure. This may not seem to fit the peace and harmony theme of the work, but it is an imaginative way to convey the concept of good overcoming evil.
As with all Haring’s work, although the figures are drawn with deceptively simple outlines, the entire mural seems dynamically in motion.
Keith Haring died of complications from AIDS February 16, 1990. He lived a short, full life. His life as an activist and artist was very much a part of the time in which he lived. He will continue to live on through his prolific public art and drawings, as well as his generous Foundation.