Celebrating the life of pop artist Keith Haring who promoted AIDS awareness

As STIR takes a look at the works of artists from modern history who thrived during the past pandemics, part 2 of 3 delves into the American artist's work that talked of social issues.

by Shraddha Nair Published on : Jul 22, 2020

They say resistance always precedes progress. Conflict is the mud from which flowers the sweetness of growth. This is evidenced in political, social, economic phenomenon and holds true even within the realm of art. In the history of the art industry, every now and again, we have witnessed the rise of revolutionaries who broke down the system and questioned the status quo. These pioneers hold a special place in museums and galleries worldwide, remembered for their fearlessness. American pop artist Keith Haring is one such ground-breaking artist. In this piece, we look back at the iconic artist who made his everlasting impact on art, defying all odds as he took on the world of high art head-first.

STIR examines the practice of an artist who lived through a global outbreak and thrived, leaving behind a remarkable legacy, but unfortunately, unlike Edvard Munch, Haring did not survive. The HIV-AIDS outbreak began during the 1980s but achieved the status of global pandemic in the 1990s when numbers hit two and a half million globally. Haring died of HIV related complications in 1990 at the young age of 31. In this story we focus not on his untimely death, but instead celebrate the life of the trailblazer artist.

'Tuttomondo’ by Keith Haring, a mural in Pisa, Italy | Keith Haring | STIRworld
Tuttomondo by Keith Haring, a mural in Pisa, Italy Image Credit: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Haring was an American artist born in the year 1958 in Pittsburgh where he later attended Ivy School of Professional Art, a commercial art school. He dropped out after two years and later resumed his formal study of art at School of Visual Art (SVA) in New York. As a student at SVA, Haring experimented with performance, video, installation and collage, while always maintaining a strong commitment to drawing. However, his interest in movement and sculpture never entirely separated from his practice.

Haring first caught the eye of the world when he was noticed creating drawings in the tunnels of New York Subways. Haring would often amass crowds of onlookers while creating these public works using white chalk on black unused advertisement space. His work was showcased in a solo exhibition, for the first time in New York, in 1981. He received widespread recognition internationally in the 80s, being selected for major exhibitions like documenta 7 and São Paulo Biennial as well as the Whitney Biennial. Haring’s work was instantly recognisable for its almost childlike aesthetic and line-drawing style often made with very few colours, making it a symbol of his brand as an artist. However, the themes of his work were anything but simple, depicting life, death, war, love and sex. Haring is known for playing with surfaces of various scales, from medium format canvases to massive scale buildings in the form of murals. Haring never planned his assignments or made initial sketches in preparation for his works. Unlike in automatism, a technique where the artist would suppress conscious thoughts and work through the subconscious, Haring worked in the moment fueled by his current mood, feelings and thoughts, adapting and improvising the image as he made it. Haring was known to work swiftly and would often make multiple drawings and painting within just a day’s time.

'Crack is Wack’, an earlier work by Haring | Keith Haring | STIRworld
Crack is Wack, an earlier work by Haring Image Credit: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

His practice, in many ways, was a direct challenge to the idea of white cube art and broke the notion that art had to always exist within a gallery or always be translated on the canvas. Haring was commissioned by a number of brands to create works for them, one of the most iconic being the art he created for Absolut Vodka. While many traditionalists criticised the commercial nature of this project, for Haring it was an extension of his practice. He wanted to reach the masses, create art which could be consumed by the public and was not restricted to the elite, gallery-going crowd. His overt objection to the status quo of the art industry at the time was lauded by his contemporaries and mentors, including Jean-Michel Basquiat and Andy Warhol. He pushed his stance further by launching the Pop Shop in Soho, New York, which sold T-shirts, posters, magnets and other merchandise with his artworks, making his creations more accessible than ever. He was known for being kind and enjoying interaction with children, and created multiple works with kids, one of the most renowned being a mural created for the 100th anniversary of the Statue of Liberty in 1986, on which Haring worked with 900 children.

'Boxers in Berlin’, Germany, by Haring is one of his many sculptural works | Keith Haring | STIRworld
Boxers in Berlin, Germany, by Haring is one of his many sculptural works Image Credit: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Haring was openly gay and much of his work advocated the freedom of sexuality and safe sex. When he was diagnosed with AIDS, he began to work towards establishing a foundation dedicated to provide funding and imagery to AIDS organisations and children’s programmes. He was an activist and an artist, and is remembered today for his significant contribution to the history of modern art.

'We the Youth’ in Philadelphia, USA, is an example of how Haring pushed his practice beyond canvas | Keith Haring | STIRworld
We the Youth in Philadelphia, USA, is an example of how Haring pushed his practice beyond canvas Image Credit: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Read more from the series here:

Exploring artist Edvard Munch’s iconic works developed during the Spanish flu

Remembering Austrian painter Egon Schiele’s revolutionary erotic art style

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About Author

Shraddha Nair

Shraddha Nair

Nair is a writer and curator based in Bengaluru, India. Her curatorial practice is a method by which she negotiates with and navigates the complexities of human behaviour, an interest which flows into her writing as well. She believes that art and collective experience hold immense capacity in the cultivation and development of action and emotion.

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