The visual legacy of American artist Keith Haring mirrors the zeitgeist of a decade and that of a continent. His cartoon-like characters, vivid colours and barking dogs became world famous, but there is more than meets the eye. He satirised national and international politics, he enlivened the eighties party scene and he carried the national – and a personal – fight against AIDS, which he ultimately lost in 1990. BOZAR looks back on the eventful life and work of the American legend in a major retrospective. Here's a sneak peek in five facts.
1. Haring used the New York subway as his canvas
‘The public has a right to art… Art is for everybody.’ (Keith Haring)
When Keith Haring swapped the drizzle of Kutztown for the dazzle of New York, he recognised the potential of the graffiti-covered city immediately. The street became his studio and it soon shaped his visual vocabulary. In those days he left his mark on the city, or more specifically, on the subway. On the blank sheets of paper that were pasted over the old advertising posters there appeared, all of a sudden, barking dogs, babies and dancing men. With lightning speed, the fledgling artist applied his – now iconic – flowing and instinctive lines, a piece of anonymous art for the passers-by, but also an unlawful act which didn’t always go unnoticed.
2. Haring was an activist
‘A spokesman for society at any given point in history’ is how Haring described the artist. Through his simple and accessible visual language, he brought often serious issues – racism, nuclear war, HIV – within touching distance for everyone. Through posters handed out at demonstrations, he came out as an activist in the literal sense. And the young American artist was always alive to the latest developments in world politics. His rising fame earned him an invitation in 1986 to paint the western side of the Berlin Wall. He saw it as an ‘attempt to psychologically destroy the wall.’
3. Haring had a unique affinity with children
‘Children know something that most people have forgotten.’ (Keith Haring)
To Haring children were more than an audience, they were often participants in his creative process. In 1986, he and a thousand children in New York painted a banner that depicted the Statue of Liberty, measuring ten-storeys high. To Haring, the baby represented the purest and most positive experience of human existence. The figure – an allegory, as it were, of honesty and integrity – features frequently in his work. In keeping with this idea, BOZAR is putting on a variety of children’s activities during the exhibition, such as Family Day and discovery trails.
4. Haring hung out with media phenomena like Warhol and Madonna
Haring lived and worked in the East Village. The Manhattan neighbourhood was a magnet for upcoming artists from the underground scene. Haring was soon mixing with the likes of Madonna, Grace Jones and Jean-Michel Basquiat. Andy Warhol was for a long time a source of inspiration for him. They could often be found at places like Club 57, where visual artists and musicians used to meet. Well-known fashion designers like Vivienne Westwood also drew on Haring’s talent. Through her combination of art and fashion she brought innovation.
5. Haring left monumental tracks in Europe
The appreciation he received from his fellow artists and the growing popularity of his work allowed Haring to broaden his scope. In the late 1980s, he painted several large murals in Belgium and the Netherlands. In just four hours, he brought colour to the cafeteria in Antwerp’s Museum of Contemporary Art (M HKA). A few days later he did the same on a container in Knokke, which sold at auction for a cool two million in 2017. After his large solo exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum van Amsterdam he painted a huge sea monster on a wall nearby. In 1989, a few months before dying of AIDS-related illness, he completed his last mural in Pisa. He signed off in (typical) style: with lots of colour and visual movement.