Keith Haring's exuberant, stylized idiom integrated street and club aesthetics and became an essential voice of the 1980s art world at a time when high art and popular culture were converging in downtown New York. His unique visual language drew from the aesthetic of graffiti, the serialized imagery of comics, the bravado of hip-hop street culture, and the performative art practices of many of New York's avant-garde, all of which he synthesized into an original iconography that rose above its humble beginnings, growing into a complete visual language that remained consistent regardless of medium or scale and rendered Haring’s work unmistakable.
Raised in Kutztown, Pennsylvania, Haring moved to New York in 1978 to attend the School of Visual Arts, where he studied with Keith Sonnier. He quickly immersed himself in the city's downtown club scene, where he met painter Jean-Michel Basquiat, worked as an assistant to gallerist Tony Shafrazi, and began creating art projects and interventions in the public sphere. Among these were drawings he made over empty advertising space on subway platforms, the 1980 genesis of which he recounted in his autobiography:
"It was also at this time that I saw my first empty black panels. These black paper panels were used to cover up old advertisements on the subway. . .The panels were covered with a soft matte black paper, which was dying to be drawn on. . . . I also immediately knew I had to go above ground and buy chalk. . . I knew that if I used that marker on the black paper, it would soak in, it wouldn't have that tactile, really sharp, crisp, white line that I wanted. So I ran up to the street and found the closest stationery store to buy chalk. I drew on one of the panels and . . . it felt incredible! . . . . Suddenly, everything fell into place. All that I had been watching and observing throughout the two years I was in New York made perfect sense. Now I found a way of participating with graffiti artists, without really emulating them because I didn't want to draw on the trains and sneak into the yards and cover the sides and insides of the subway trains." (1)
This breakthrough moment would inform Haring’s work for the rest of his career. The iconography he developed in his subway drawings also populated his work in other media, including works in paper and canvas, murals, public commissions, and even sculpture. This graffiti- and cartoon-inspired visual lexicon included barking dogs, running and dancing figures, stairs, pyramids, and many other forms. One of Haring’s most
integral and recognizable icons was the radiant baby, featured in this work on paper. Here, the crawling baby, which radiates lines of energy and light, is surrounded in a circular composition by adult figures with upraised arms. The graphic black line and sparse color palette are characteristic of Haring’s work, as is the playful tone that infuses even his most serious works.
Haring referred to the baby symbol as the “archetypal child,” one that he had adopted as a kind of signature by the mid-1980s, even printing it on button pins that he handed out to admirers and passers-by on the street and whose circular form mirrors this circular composition. He wrote of the symbol in his journal in 1986: “The reason that the ‘baby’ has become my logo or signature is that it is the purest and most positive experience of human existence. Children are the bearers of life in its simplest and most joyous form. Children are color-blind and still free of all the complications, greed, and hatred that will slowly by instilled in them through life.” (2)
In 1981, Haring organized an exhibition of graffiti artists at the Mudd Club and an invitational show at the Club 57, both in the East Village. His rise from these ad hoc shows was swift and sensational; within two years, by age twenty-five, Haring had exhibited in venues as established as the Whitney Museum, the Indianapolis Museum of Art, the Queens Museum, the Chrysler Museum of Art, and Gagosian and Marlborough Galleries. Through the rest of the decade he employed his personal iconography, by turns whimsical, menacing, and erotic, in a diverse array of projects. These included a mural on the Berlin Wall, projections in Times Square, designs for Swatch watches, and t-shirts, mugs, and other consumer goods in his retail store, the Pop Shop. Haring died in 1989 of complications from AIDS, at age thirty-one.
1. Keith Haring quoted in John Gruen, Keith Haring: The Authorized Biography (New York: Prentice Hall, 1991), 68.
2. Keith Haring, quoted in M. Rachael Arauz, “Universal Child: The Transformation of the Radiant Baby,” Keith Haring: Journey of the Radiant Baby. (New Hampshire: Bunker Hill, 2006),13.
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