Keith Haring is an American Pop Artist
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. love, sex, war, death, and societal expectations, but he’s most well known for dismantling the stigma of aids, advocating for the LGBT+ & African-American 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.
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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 had encountered 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. 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.
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. With this organization, he hoped to spread awareness for the cause and put funds towards a cure. With actual recognition as an artist, 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 an incredibly well known artist, having his face in the media with major stars and growing connections of his own in celebrity light. Haring 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 busy personal life and many self-aspirations, 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 created 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 sets of minority movements: LGBT+, Feminism, and African-Americans. In the 1950s~, it was near almost a crime to identify as a homosexual. If you came out or were exposed as such, there was a legitimate risk of psychiatric imprisonment. It would be about 1965 that things would really begin to kick off for gay rights movements; the community garnering more support and willingness to rebel. June 28th, 1969 would be a monumental day for LGBT+ persons, taking place in the form of the Stonewall Riots. This watershed opportunity was members of the gay community rioting against a police raid. Ever since, in June, there have been pride parades to celebrate this moment. Even though there was a lot of fighting for inclusivity here, women and deeper skin tones were still underrepresented in many aspects of life. It would be this time that saw a rise in Feminist movements and the continuation of PoC community efforts. Feminism primarily hoped to garner traction in terms of respect and independency. African-Americans wished for similar things on grounds of respect and rights, forefronted by leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr.. Gay Pride as a whole is something Haring wholeheartedly took place in. Many of his artworks were dedicated to such things, and his efforts towards them played a role in progressing to where we are today. While Haring may not have been female or a PoC, he respected them as individuals and supported the activism. The 1980s would be the period that had a major effect on gay males.
Many men would contract AIDS, and the effects proved to be devastating. There were cries for a cure, and although many individuals and organizations put money into the efforts of finding a cure, it has yet to be proved fruitful. A large number died to the virus, and it was seen by right wing religious groups as punishment by god; an example of some groups views on these minorities still. As AIDS would later take Haring’s life, he was another face in many ravaged by this tragedy, though he did what was within his ability to help others like himself. Right beside the AIDS epidemic, there would be the incredibly widespread use of cocaine, or more so its condensed form, crack. There was an influx of cocaine being shipped into the U.S, and with the surplus of product, prices dropped drastically. Dealers condensed the cocaine into solid crack in efforts to boost sales and get rid of more product. Users of crack cocaine, or at least the ones who were open about their habits, rose from around 4.3 million to a stunning 5.8 million. As many sober Americans felt, Haring was entirely against this increase in drug use. Cutting down on the use and sales of crack cocaine became the focal point of a few of Haring’s most famous artworks, namely stating a slogan of Crack is Wack,’ along with visuals of skeletons and toxic fumes.
Keith Haring has done numerous things for the betterment and enjoyment of others. He has managed to turn the ordinary into the extraordinary from a young age. With the inspiration and help from others, he has been an activist and an icon of his time period. Haring made a style of art his own, cementing his name to his work, and through it expressing deep inner-morals and emotions. He is truly someone to be remembered.