Even if you don’t know his name, you know Keith Haring’s art.
Born in 1958 in Pennsylvania to a stay-at-home mother and an engineer-by-day-cartoonist-by-night father, Haring honed a natural talent for drawing during his childhood that he would take with him, aged 20, to New York. It was here that he began to carve out a career as one of the most important artists and social activists of his time.
Haring’s work is unmissable. Inspired as a child by Walt Disney, Dr. Suess, and Bugs Bunny – and undoubtedly his own dad – it’s distinguishable for its thick black outlines filled with orange, green, red, yellow, blue. Faceless figures ricochet around frames loaded with phrases such as “Ignorance = Feat, Silence = Death. Fight Aids Act Up” and “Crack is Wack” – image/text collaborations that were likely an influence from the artist’s time spent reading William S. Burroughs. First appearing in subways, at the height of his career (1982–1989) Haring created over 50 public artworks, displayed across the world.
Haring died in 1990 of Aids at just 31-years-old. But in just ten years, he tackled issues such as sex, birth, death, and war. And during the darkest times of the Aids crisis, Haring’s figures shone like a beacon: with protest, with hope, with questions, with unity, with declarations, with defiance.
The Museum Fur Kunst Und Gewerbe Hamburg have launched an exhibition entitled Posters dedicated to the works of Haring, with a specific focus on his collection of over 100 posters and will run until 5 November 2017. The works include those made to advertise art shows, as well as work done with brands or for social issues.
Below we review some of the lessons that we can learn from the life and work of Haring.
While his works have been known to sell for upwards of $2m a pop, Haring had a notoriously open-handed take when it came to distributing his art. At the height of his fame, he opened the Pop Shop in NYC where he sold things such as affordable downsized versions of his signature pieces, to the certified Haring merch that you can still shop today.
While the commercialisation of art isn’t news, 30 years down the line it’s important to remember that Haring shared an industry with the likes of Andy Warhol – a man who got his come up in the advertising industry. To release art in this way – not just to the highest bidder – was a direct affront to the elitist monetisation growing in the art community under Warhol’s watch. In fact, Haring’s drawings, titled Andy Mouse (1985), address this directly, depicting the emerging toxic relationship between art, commodification and economic capital with brand logos, floating dollars and Warhol starring as a Walt Disney animation.
CARE, AND ACT
Despite their playful appearances, so much of Haring’s work carried deeply political messages and by using the widespread appeal of his style to bring conversations into the mainstream, he enacted great social change, even in a short period that he was creating for. This was why Haring often put his murals in direct view of the disengaged and disenfranchised. His art spoke to younger generations and an outsider state of mind, without speaking above them.
The infamous “Crack is Wack” mural sat in an underprivileged playground in Harlem expressing an unmistakably anti-drug sentiment, in response to rapidly growing drug abuse in the city. From curating shows like Rain Dance for African famine relief, working to increase LGBT visibility through his art, holding workshops for kids and setting up the Aids awareness Keith Haring Foundation – Haring never held his tongue when something was unjust.
FIND STRENGTH IN NUMBERS
Having arrived in New York at age 20, Haring was quickly inspired by the graffiti culture taking over the city and his foray into it was by tagging up subway stations. He befriended other artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat, Warhol and Kenny Scharf – and together, and with others, Haring occupied and engaged with underground scenes, co-curating shows and co-creating art and posters for various causes that were close to him.
Of over 100 of Haring’s posters, only 19 were designed to advertise his own shows – the rest were collaborative, tackling social issues or other cultural events.
BE INSPIRED AND BE INSPIRING
Haring was a true original within the art world. An exhilarating combination of pop art and graffiti, the artist took inspiration from the underground cultures he immersed himself in but equally he gave back. He merged the worlds of politics and art to hone a distinct voice that spread like light in darker times – and, amazingly but unsurprisingly, his art continues to shine almost three decades since his tragic passing.
Keith Haring Posters is on show at Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg (MKG) until 5 November 2017