Keith Haring was an artist who took to the streets. He handed out pamphlets, put up posters, drew in subways and painted on walls in an optimistic battle against those in power. He invested the same unbridled energy in his political and social activism as he did in his art. Quite the ride from paperboy in conservative Kutztown to celebrated artist-activist in NYC.
1. From newspaper cutting to pamphlet
It’s 9 August 1974 when Richard Nixon resigns from the presidency after the Watergate scandal. Keith Haring is a 16 year old paperboy and delivers the historic news to the doorsteps of houses all over tiny Kutztown, Pennsylvania. Newspapers and the arrival of television mean this generation is more informed about world events than any before it.
Haring is 19 when he arrives in New York. Soon after he starts cutting up newspaper headlines and turns them into political collages with messages like “Reagan slain by hero cop”, which he xeroxes and distributes around town. It’s a cheap and effective way to reach a wide audience.
2. From poster to oeuvre
Haring took an explicit stand with his work. He talked the talk but also walked the walk: not only did he design posters for different causes but he paid for printing out of his own pocket and distributed them at demonstrations in which he himself participated. Haring did not just comment from the safety of the artist’s studio but marched in the streets. His drawings and paintings testify to his deep mistrust of power. One of the most iconic examples is Free South Africa against Apartheid – first as a poster then as a painting.
The 1980s also saw the rise to power of several conservative governments with figures like Thatcher, Reagan or Helmut Kohl. Haring’s work reflects world events, notably the anxiety about a nuclear war. The atom became one of the recurring symbols in his work, and he became an activist against nuclear weapons.
3. From Jesus freak to gay rights
As an adolescent Haring briefly joins the Jesus Movement, devours the Bible and is fascinated by the Second Coming. His days as a Jesus freak do not last long though. As an adult he regards religion as an institutional abuse of power. And his views on the civil rights of the gay community are diametrically opposed to those of the Church.
As early as 1981 Keith Haring’s work openly criticizes the conservatism of the Church. A figure, fallen from the cross, is being castrated by two other figures: one is masturbating, the other has no genitals. The pink triangle becomes a symbol for the struggle for LGBTQ rights, “Silence = Death, Ignorance = Fear” becomes the slogan for the fight against HIV/aids.
4. From the eighties to today
Keith Haring’s art embodies the spirit of the 1980s and his activism tackles the burning issues of his time. But even today his work and protest remain topical. He predicted the power of the media as a means to control entire populations when he painted a pile of television sets. And unfortunately his fight against HIV and racism seem more relevant than ever.