Keith Haring was best known for his graffiti-like painting, initially on the black paper used to cover discontinued billboard advertisements in the New York subway. After after a feverish 1980’s style career of surging popular success and grudging critical attention, Haring died of AIDS in 1991 at the age of 31.
Haring communicated primary human events.
Making sense of Haring’s signs was easy; they quickly communicated essential human events; birth, love, sex and war. Special effects technology, recalling Star Wars movies of the late 1970s and early 80s, joined the mix. Hearts, babies, dancers, TV sets, computers and space ships symbolically radiant with the mantra “may the force be with you,” summed up the world according to Haring.
Nurtured on the street
During Harings lifetime, much of the art establishment snubbed Haring because he was known before the art world discovered him. Usually, it was the other way around, and the museums put down the stamp of approval. It was the people riding the subway who started talking about his drawings. He was the master of self-promotion.
Haring’s stomping grounds in New York inspired his signature blend of pop culture and visual expression. It was a blend of visual culture and visual presentation. His work brought in the world: On the evening of the Whitney opening a security guard was heard muttering, “I feel like a bouncer at a club,” referring to the cast of characters that were milling about.
Haring’s art was the perfect reflection of its time. Break dancing was central to his imagery. He made many figures that twirled on their heads. A young gay art artist that found his way in New York during the heady days before AIDS awareness, Haring made art that mirrored the era’s kind of free-floating sexuality and homosexuality. He grew up in the clubs. It was all music, dancing and sex.
Art exuding energy
Haring refined his collection of signs with adroitness and speed. Stilted dogs painted on paper in 1980 and clunky babies marked on a subway map soon evolved into more confident forms. His images, particularly his barking dog and the “radiant child” were internationally known.
Haring’s energy was phenomenal. Even as he painted, quickly and indeed, he seemed to “dance” his art. His calligraphic lines were as animated, as energetic, as his physical capacities for sex, for partying for fun with the European jet set. But always he had time for street kids. And still, he thought seriously about art.
Haring depicted demons as well as angels. He foresaw an apocalyptic catastrophe — his running monsters and whirling yet orderly lines, brilliantly composed belong in our technological age. He was not a sentimentalist. He wrote of evil and greed.
The Japanese understood his work.
In Japan, his work was understood. The Japanese responded to it; he felt because it was tied to their traditions of the ‘sign’ and the gesture and the concept of the ‘spirit of the line’ that is so evident in sumi painting and calligraphy.
High and Low Art
What American museum curators initially could not see was Haring’s employment of high and low art. Haring understood clearly that the information age and the camera had blurred the boundaries between high and low art.