When Keith Haring was at work in the 1980s, much was made of the double life of the artist and his art: garnering mural commissions, MTV specials, and $30,000 checks by day; by night prowling (and periodically arrested) in train stations, leaving figures free of charge on every available surface. New Yorkers loved the story of a graphic guerilla working his way up from the depths of the subway system to the heights of art market success. “Imagine an artist earning as much as an athlete,” one critic exclaimed, “Will the young pop hero eventually become an old master? Nobody knows.” Keith Haring died of AIDS-related illness, at thirty years old, thirty years ago. May 4, 2018 would have been his 60th birthday. A posthumous legend now for as many years as he lived, the local radical’s legacy has a global cultural reach. Haring himself collected contemporary forgeries: sneakers from Brazil, T-shirts from Japan. Sam Holleran collects photographs of Haring’s work, his echoes and his imitators, asking below: What happens when the work of the seminal street artist strays from the environment that made him?
The undulating imagery of Keith Haring is everywhere. Not just in the myriad pieces that the artist painted, printed, or licensed during his very short lifetime, but also in the numerous knock-offs that circulate internationally on T-shirts and street walls. Haring’s linework supports a certain claim to authenticity — it is smooth and descriptive, yet utterly unfussy, and earned him a well-deserved spot in the Pop art pantheon. The visual repertoire he created in a turbulent time to celebrate artistic lawlessness, gay love, and hip hop street culture now brands places and products across the globe. Lost in the mix is the unselfconscious, performative nature of Haring’s work and its relationship to overlooked urban spaces.
Haring moved to New York in 1978 from Kutztown, Pennsylvania to study at the School of Visual Arts. Sparked by the city’s sights and sounds, he sketched cartoonish figures on paper with sumi ink. His breakthrough came when he began to work in the subways, chalking his outlined forms directly onto the black-paneled advertisement spaces that lined station walls. These quick, illegal images helped him to develop his iconography: barking dogs, “radiant babies,” UFOs, and earthbound angels. These were the homespun emoji of their day, communicating feelings that couldn’t easily be put down in words. Like emoji, these colorful icons are not clear-cut in their meaning, and they are relentlessly peppy. But while Haring intended his work to be celebratory, he did not mask all that was wrong with the world. In many of his pieces, figures stumble across the pictorial space with gaping holes in their bodies, the perished float upward as angels, and televangelists jabber through their TV heads.
His creations operate on two levels: Bold individual images (electric babies, dancing dog men) work as discrete objects, and they often come together to form a dynamic composition (later in his life, Haring would use these fields of figures as an appliqué on other objects). In the world of illustration, the difference between these two graphic registers is sometimes described, as a “big red dot” (a bold focal point) versus “a thousand pretty pictures” (a compelling grouping that makes the viewer look in for more). The ability to operate on both planes makes Haring’s work distinctive, and adaptable to disparate venues. It is, in the words of New York Times critic Holland Cotter, rare to find “dynamic popular art that succeeded in bringing entertainment and edification together.”
Haring’s work foregrounds the gestural performance of its creation. In his early chalk images, this was out of necessity (least he get caught getting up), but it became part of his practice: he approached fine art with the spontaneity and grace of the graffiti artists he had seen at work in New York. His anonymous works in the subways built up a cult following and Haring felt a certain obligation to keep his audience amused and engaged by producing new work. In an interview, he noted that “at a certain point” his subway drawings “became less of a hobby and more of a responsibility because people were waiting to see them.” Fatigued commuters found them pleasant to look at, as have generations of viewers since.
One of the things that made his work so salient was that it operates as a visual distillation of graffiti, incorporating drips and comic-inspired action lines but losing the jagged-edged indecipherable wordforms that made Wild Style so intimidating. Unlike tags, which are only legible to an insider group, everyone can read and appreciate a Haring piece. His work looks just enough like graffiti to grab some of the renegade art form’s cultural capital, but not enough to be condemned with the same fervor. One wonders if, in today’s appropriation-weary environment, Haring — a white man raised in Amish country — could be successful with a body of work that draws so heavily from the outlawed art of low-income men of color (not to mention African and pre-Columbian visual traditions), but graffiti was the culture on which Haring’s art grew; at a certain point his work overflowed the petri dish and became something else entirely. In many ways, his career marks the turning point where graffiti morphed into street art and, later, a kind of advertising vernacular.
Subway graffiti, hip hop, gay clubs, and the sociocultural cross-pollination of the downtown scene gave Haring the inspiration and the fuel to create his work. He was not just a populist, but an activist who made work in the service of diverse political causes: advocating for nuclear disarmament, against apartheid, and to help slow the AIDS crisis. Haring also made ample use of the street, what he once called his “laboratory.” Following in the footsteps of Jenny Holzer and Barbara Kruger, he created pieces for public consideration and debate. Today, we know him for heart-filled tableaus, but his oeuvre was phallus-heavy. These unabashedly homoerotic pieces have largely disappeared from memory. Decades after his early death to AIDS in 1990, we are left with is a kind of Haring Lite.
It’s no longer surprising to encounter Haring’s art in far-flung places. His figures have become a stand-in for youth and exuberance and, as such, are painted on the side of daycare centers, clinics, and kindergartens from Texas to Tasmania. With their easily reproducible forms, Haring figures are frequently used in elementary and middle school class projects, often in modules discussing Pop art and the avant-garde. Sites like haringkids.com contain hundreds of open source lesson plans that show instructors how to create everything from Haring-inspired block-prints to lessons that use his radiant figures to diagram the human reproductive system. Recreating the precise calligraphic flair of the original is more difficult than it might seem, and many end up with slightly lumpy, yet charming, stick people. There is some irony in the wholesomeness of these curricula, given that their inspiration comes from an artist who also celebrated BDSM, but it also makes sense given that, as New York City has been tamed since Haring’s day, suburban communities have grown more heterogeneous and “New York-y.”
The commodification of Keith Haring was largely managed by the artist himself. Twenty years before Takashi Murakami opened a Louis Vuitton store inside his Brooklyn Museum retrospective, Haring established the Pop Shop in SoHo: a storefront selling his designs on posters, T-shirts, inflatable pool toys, and pencil cases (along with work by other downtown legends, including Jean-Michel Basquiat and Kenny Scharf). Haring was fed up with the phoniness and exclusivity of the museum and gallery scene, and saw a storefront as ultimately a more sociable — and egalitarian — way to distribute his work. “If commercialization is putting my art on a shirt so that a kid who can’t afford a $30,000 painting can buy one, then I’m all for it,” Haring said. “Art is nothing if you don’t reach every segment of the people.”
Haring continued to paint in everyday places. The famous “Crack is Wack” wall in East Harlem was painted illegally in a handball court girdled by highways (only later did the Parks Department come to celebrate the mural, even naming the park after it). Much of Haring’s work was created for shabby spaces as a way to make them seem more friendly and human-scale. The context of these works has changed significantly as the neighborhoods he painted in have gentrified, and because some pieces, like the block-long work he created for Barcelona’s hardscrabble Barrio Chino, have been brought back into the fold of the art world (the mural was transferred to the side of the city’s Museum of Contemporary Art).
In the last two years of his life, Haring begin producing sleek, painted aluminum and steel sculptures. None of these works stand over four feet tall, and all were shown in galleries, but, in the years since his death, the Keith Haring Foundation has licensed them as public sculpture. Scaled up to giraffe size, these polychrome works have been deposited in New York (at Astor Place), Berlin, and Los Angeles. Craft projects and DIY murals inspired by Haring extend the populist logic he pioneered, but in the giant “plop art” pieces bearing his name there is a dangerous hyper-attenuation of his style. At some point, will we tire of these figures, and cover them with new forms of the brilliant, subversive scrawling he pioneered?
Haring’s art was part of a radical, queer, and anti-racist vision for the city. The unique forms he distilled have slowly transformed into the off-the-shelf graphics: You can find them in subway ads for Casper mattresses, and even in the rounded figures of the MTA’s “Courtesy Counts” campaign. The clarity of line and stripped-down quality of Haring’s brush style anticipated the flood of vector graphics that would come with the explosion of Adobe Illustrator just a few years after his death. With so much of his work kicking around the world as purely commercial ephemera, we forget that Haring was a political artist who took New York City as his canvas. Sparked by the “aerosol bandits” of the ‘70s, Haring brought the full-court tactics of graffiti writing to public art projects, presaging street art and reanimating public spaces. Haring’s most enduring legacy is not the creation of an iconic visual language, but his knack for using the city as a place of experimentation, putting pictures into the public sphere without inhibition.
All images by Sam Holleran unless otherwise noted.
The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.