Fewer artists have catapulted to the publics attention yet still grasped hold of their artistic integrity. One of these artists is Keith Haring, who using New York as his canvas, rode on the success train until his eventual demise from AIDS in 1990. This, however, was before Keith Haring could put his voice along with others, as visual leaders of the 20th century.
Born on the 4th of May 1958, Keith began life in the small township of Kutztown, Pennsylvania and from an early age, began following his fathers artistic merit, and delved into his own. This led to an awakening of sorts whilst attending exhibitions, already enrolled at The Ivy School of Professional Art, he soon lost interest and began to think about an expression away from commercial arts.
This was personified when he eventually moved to New York in 1978 where, licking the pavement of Downtown, he felt inspired by the surrounding graffiti that engulfed the city. From this inspiration, he began, using chalk, leaving tags of his pieces over subway stations, attracting attention and the occasional arrest.
This exposure where viewers noted the bold, active colours and strong sense of life through his art, led him to showcase his work and lead exhibitions at Club 51, a creative hub for the likes of Cyndi Lauper, Futura 2000 and eventual close friend, Madonna. By 1983, Keith, already established amongst his contemporaries began travelling, and in the space of 1982 to 1989, had completed over 50 pieces of public work all over the world, attracting and creating a sense of unity and life in each of his visually kinetic pieces. He painted Grace Jones for the set of her music video, ‘I’m Not Perfect’ and began a close friendship with Andy Warhol, who people note was a key figure in his life afterwards. People often spoke of how when they got together, they spoke like two old ladies, a mutual care and respect for one another.
Notable pieces include his ‘Radiant Baby’, which became a symbol for his work, and his ‘Crack Is Wack” piece, created in New York during the crack-cocaine epidemic, became standouts in the ubiquitous graffiti all over New York.
During his time in New York, especially when President Reagan got elected, his increasing work began to take a political edge, on the home front and internationally. He contemplated about the horrors of the civil rights movements, exploring black exploitation in his work. He also began campaigns on clothing for the freedom of South Africa and dedicated murals to raising awareness for AIDS, where he said: “Ignorance = fear, silence = death”.
His commercial success came when he opened the Pop Shop in 1986 in Downtown Manhattan as an extension of his growing work became accessible to anyone who walked by. Within two years of opening the store, Keith’s travelling increased and he began exhibiting his work in Antwerp and Helsinki, taking Europe by storm. He began advertising for companies, covering the items in his mesmerising way that only he could.
Keith Haring contracted AIDS in 1988, and upon revealing his illness to close friends, told one in particular: “but I have so much more to do.” Despite his worsening health, he continued to work hard and tirelessly to the end, setting up the Keith Haring Foundation, which through his artwork and activism, lead to funding for AIDS campaigns, especially working with children charities. His final mural was painted in Pisa, Italy in June of 1989, and two weeks before his death, worked with a curator and friend on a piece outside of the US.
Keith Haring succumbed to his illness on the 16th February, 1990. He was 31 years old. Keith Haring was a role model for an entire generation of people, formally influencing the street art collective of the 80’s his work signified strength and fun. It was a poke at the conservative, imitating life and setting the foundation for New Wave.