NEW YORK – Keith Haring (American, 1958-1990) had a very short career but his legacy is one that most artists could only dream of. From his first solo exhibition in Pittsburgh, in 1978 – two years after graduating high school – to his death in 1990 at age 31, he created a brilliant body of work that is instantly recognizable the world over.
Almost as if he knew he was running out of time, Haring was always prolific and presciently experimental, first specializing in graffiti art and then fine art. He created hundreds of drawings in the early 1980s on blank subway panels and, concurrently, honed his skills at New York City’s School of Visual Arts. He befriended fellow street artists, like Jean-Michel Basquiat, and embraced the frenzied energy of the growing art community.
Creating public art was a particular passion, and he reportedly produced around 50 installations around the world, mostly for charitable organizations and espousing messages of social activism. Among his most renowned public artworks is the Crack is Whack mural off the FDR Drive in New York City.
He also painted a mural on the former Berlin Wall. Other sites with Haring art worth visiting in New York City, where he spent most of his career, include a sculpture of two dancing figures in Battery Park, and the New-York Historical Society, which displays a portion of his Pop Shop mural. In keeping with his mission of making art accessible to all, Haring opened the Pop Shop in 1986 in the city’s SoHo neighborhood, where he sold T-shirts, buttons and posters featuring his art.
Haring’s visual lexicon is rich in symbols that represented various aspects of his life, from TV to barking dogs to hearts, religion and the “radiant baby,” which he adopted as his signature in his early days of tagging subways with his graffiti art.
Scott A. Schweiger, a curator at the Reading (Pa.) Public Museum, organized the 2018 exhibition, “Keith Haring: Symbolic Gestures.” It is a compact show of some 37 works that traverse Haring’s career, highlighting each milestone. The show celebrated the 40th anniversary of Haring’s first solo exhibition as well as what would have been Haring’s 60th birthday.
“Keith was born in hospital across the street from the museum and lived in nearby Kutztown, so he is definitely a hometown hero,” Schweiger said. “We thought it was time to revisit Keith and his work. It’s a small show, relatively, but we wanted every area in his brief career represented,” he said, noting they even had on view two works from Haring’s high school days in the mid-1970s.
Asked what most people may not know about the artist’s creative journey, Schweiger said, “I would say some of the earlier works are things that are not that familiar. He showed a penchant for big bold graphic outlines, even during his high school days, and was influenced by psychedelic movements. He was listening to a lot of Grateful Dead.”
Schweiger spoke of Haring’s fondness for certain themes, pictographs and imagery that reappeared in his works over the years. In 1981 Haring took a piece of red plexiglass and experimented with a paint pen, creating human figures in gold ink tumbling and dancing across the space. “It was an early suggestion of what is to come deeper in his career,” he said.
Haring was part of the era that saw low art become high art, when museums would start collecting street art and pop art. His works on paper, as well as his sculptures, championed social activism. His voice was raised against oppression, war, prejudice, apartheid and AIDS discrimination. A year before he died of AIDS, the artist created the Keith Haring Foundation to work on behalf of AIDS organizations.
Like the Reading Public Museum, the Albertina in Vienna mounted a 2018 exhibition devoted exclusively to Haring’s body of work. “Haring’s art consisted of a language that should be easily understood by every human being … with his stick-figures,” the Albertina’s spokesperson remarked in an Auction Central News article.
Haring’s highly recognizable figures and symbols are inextricably associated with the artist, even now, 40 years after their creation. “His career is only 12 years long but what we are left with is pretty extraordinary,” Schweiger observed.
It can be difficult to calculate market values for Haring’s artworks as most of his pieces have been retained by their original owners, Schweiger said. Even small hand-drawn works are fetching strong prices at auction. However, high-edition multiples are relatively affordable.
According to the Keith Haring Foundation, Haring was highly sought after in his lifetime, collaborating with several well-known artists across multiple disciplines from Andy Warhol to neo-conceptual artist Jenny Holzer, Madonna, and Beat Generation writer William Burroughs. “During a brief but intense career that spanned the 1980s, Haring’s work was featured in over 100 solo and group exhibitions,” the foundation’s website noted.
Drawing was integral to Haring’s work. For many artists, a drawing serves as a precursor — a study — to a finished, painted work. For Haring, who possessed a rapid and fluid talent for drawing, the thousands of drawings he made during his lifetime stand alone on their own artistic merits.
“He is considered by many to be among the greatest artists to come out of this particular area,” Schweiger said. “ He is high on everybody’s radar.”
Click to visit the Reading Public Museum online.
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