Keith Haring is an American pop artist whose work became well known around the 1980s. He turned the average, bleak surroundings of his life into a platform that he could express his artwork and the many controversial ideas within through. Most of his work focuses on deep personal and human values, e.g.
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love, sex, war, death, and societal expectations, but he’s most well known for dismantling the stigma of aids, advocating for the LGBT+ & PoC communities, and detesting drugs (namely crack cocaine.) Haring’s art style is unique in a way that it was most often done with simple lines and shapes. He uses these elements in a way that allows him to express his feelings about the world and people around him, most often throughout intricate symbolism.
Haring began his life on May 4th, 1958 being born in Reading, Pennsylvania. He was soon later raised in a nearby city by the name of Kutztown, Pennsylvania. Haring became enamoured with art starting at an incredibly young age. His earliest inspirations for work were well-known artist Dr. Seuss, the world renowned Walt Disney, and his father. In 1976 he graduated high school and proceeded to waste no time in chasing his passion for art. Enrolling in the Ivy School of Professional Art, an institution for commercial art in Pittsburgh, he quickly realized the specifics of his passion. While the school may have been art focused and fulfilled the creative need for some, Haring lost interest in commercial art quickly. He only spent 2 years there before dropping out of the program. Staying in Pittsburgh a while longer, he did independent work. His artwork gained a bit of traction, and he hosted his first solo exhibition in 1978, hosted at the Pittsburgh Arts and Crafts Center.
Soon after this, Haring made the decision to move to New York City, and it would be here that he would find new inspiration for his work. He attended another art institution in this area, the School of Visual Arts. At the same time, he would discover the exhilarating and thriving scene of art that strayed away from galleries and museums.This community prospered in a way that was unlike much Haring hadencountered before in the art world. This group didn’t feel the need to conform to practical expectations of art at the time, and it was something Haring grew to admire and love. In this new environment, he used inspiration from artists like Pierre Alechinsky, William Burroughs, and Robert Henri. Although the primary focus was and would always be drawing, Haring experimented with a couple of other art forms. He would develop his signature art style here, with the simple lines, shapes, and the different expressions they can outwardly portray. Most of the time, Haring would make his masterpieces on blank, covered, subway walls. These spaces were populated with an audience to view his work as well, excessively creating artworks to display. Though his passion and reputation prospered, Keith Haring’s story came to an early end. He was diagnosed with AIDS in 1988. He would later pass away on February 16, 1990, at the age of 31 from health complications due to AIDS in Manhattan, New York. He was cremated, and his ashes were spread near the town of Bowers, Pennsylvania in a farm field.
Throughout his time as an artist, Haring managed to accomplish and develop a plethora of things. There are many primary motifs that are included in Haring’s artwork. He often used symbols such as radiating babies, barking dogs, and three eyed demon monsters. These symbols represented things like purity & innocence, authority & oppression, and greed & evil respectively. Symbolism was absolutely massive in Haring’s artwork, and it is a major part of what gave it such life. Along with his symbolism, the overall designs were often incredibly simple, but they’re accentuated through bright, saturated colors and lines that simulate kinetic energy in the work. His artwork started off with simple representations of homosexual love. One of his earliest works were two men kneeling around a heart. Though something like this may seem quite tame and simple, it was a major statement in the 1980s. As Haring made more and more artworks, creating controversy and conversation on his pieces, his representation of homosexual love became more explicit. There was a goal in mind with these seemingly bizarre visuals, and that was to help defeat the stigma of such things.
The topics such as alternate forms of love and the such were viewed in an incredibly negative light. Haring, being a gay man himself, saw it important to break down such barriers in life. In the same vein, along with dismantling the views around the LGBT+ community, he advocated for those who were ill with AIDS, and the marginalized PoC communities. He recognized the unfair stereotypes placed on these people and fought for more widespread acceptance. Haring would, of course, later become a victim of AIDS himself and this would only increase his outspokenness, provoking him to begin the Keith Haring Foundation. Haring’s artwork gained a large amount of popularity, having a handful of solo exhibitions with the pieces. On top of simple exhibitions though, his artwork was displayed in areas all across the US. He would become a decently well known artist, and would later open up a shop himself related around his work. Named the “Pop Shop,” it sold merchandise with his designs. Even after Haring’s passing, his artwork continues to be shown and recognized, carrying his intentions and feelings into the future to inspire others.
Although Haring had a lot going on in his life, there were also a large amount of events on the outside that served as influences for the general population and Haring himself. A major oppressive force, though thankfully near its end around the 1980s, would be the Cold War. This period of tension between the United States and Soviet Union occurred from 1947-1990. It was a constant overhead mentality for most Americans, representing capitalistic roots and democratic governments when contrasted to Soviet values. While the Cold War may have renewed feelings of patriotism in America, it also made many people wary of communists in America, and the effects it may have. Haring shared the feelings of most other americans, and wanted to do what he could to detest the communist movement. Probably his most daring statement of resistance, Haring painted an artwork on a piece of the Berlin Wall in 1986. The artwork upon structure embodying communist ideas was commissioned by the Checkpoint Charlie Museum. It spanned over 300 meters, depicting colors of the German flag in an effort to reunite the sides of Germany split by political differences. Another set of events, having its spearpoint of prevalence take place from the 1950s – 1970s, would be LGBT+ and Feminist movements.
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