The Joyful Pluralism of Keith Haring

Dubbed “a child of Pop art,” Keith Haring swiftly ascended to be among the genre’s royalty when his career soared in the 1980s. With iconic line-work and bold colors, Haring seamlessly embraced tropes of commercial culture while creating a wholly unique body of work that pushed against the status quo. As Haring wove together high and low, so too did his subject matter ricochet between tragedy (including the AIDS crisis and South African apartheid) and pure, infectious joy of being. The 1988 Growing Suite exemplifies the latter — consisting of the complete set of five color screenprints, the series bursts with vibrant color and bodies-in-motion, a style that is pure Haring.

“Because the hand is central to Keith’s process,” Jeffrey Deitch says, “his work comes right out of his body.” This notion of Haring’s prints as a mobile extension of the artist’s body emanates from the Growing Suite, both in its ecstatic, interconnected content and the chosen medium of screenprinting. In subject, the works bear similarity to the Pop Shop I and Pop Shop II series of that same era; all three series feature Haring’s iconic human figures in various stages of movement and convergence. As its title suggests, Growing’s forms are transitory, in-process, and, significantly, interdependent. Circles appear (often interchangeably) as heads and abdomens within the series, suggesting seeds and sources of origin. In one work, a single figure branches upward and outward into multiple figures like a tree growing towards the sun. That upward thrust appears again in the “people ladder,” where a smaller, child-like figure appears lifted into being by two supporting figures.

That Haring so readily adapted his inherently intimate medium — drawing — for purposes of reproduction is integral to his particular genius and legacy. “Whatever [Haring] carried out, he tended towards swift dissemination, duplication and ubiquitous application,” Werner Jehle wrote in his introduction to Keith Haring: Editions on Paper 1982-1990. While such “ubiquity” may for some preclude Haring from an academicized art historical canon, it is arguably his embrace of an inclusive, pluralistic vision of humanity that imbues his work with so much power. Deitch nods to Haring’s deliberate universality, offering “[Haring] is one of the primary links between hip hop from the South Bronx, gay dance club culture, the conceptual art culture of the Lower East Side, and street art culture. He put all these things together. In his lifestyle and his circle, and, obviously, in his art.” As a microcosm of Haring’s career and life, Growing Suite offers an exuberant and swiftly communicated message of human interconnectedness

Keith Haring 1958–1990

Keith Haring was born in 1958 in Reading, Pennsylvania. From a young age he enjoyed drawing, especially Disney characters and other cartoons. He initially wanted to become a commercial artist but after a year at the Ivy School of Professional Art in Pittsburgh, Haring dropped, moved to New York City and enrolled in the School of Visual Arts (SVA). Haring immediately felt connected to the thriving alternative arts scene happening downtown in the late 1970s and became friends with Jean-Michel Basquiat and Kenny Scharf.

Inspired by the ideals of “art as life” and moving the art experience out of galleries and into the streets, Haring’s first major works were his subway drawings. Haring produced over one hundred of these public works between 1980 and 1985, integrating his now-iconic exuberant, cartoonish outlined figures into everyday public space in a way that directly engaged its viewers. Haring recalled that the most important aspects of these works was the immediate engagement people had with them, asking him “what does it mean?” and giving him feedback that he’d then incorporate into future drawings. In this way, these works became reflections of the people who viewed them, responsive to and in dialogue with their environment. These works quickly garnered the attention of tastemakers in New York and his first solo exhibition was held at Westbeth Painters Space in 1981 and a celebrated show debuted at the high-profile Tony Shafrazi Gallery in New York the following year.

Throughout the 1980s, Haring was committed to democratizing the art experience and along with paintings, he also created theater sets, billboards, murals, advertising campaigns and even a line of Swatch watches. In 1986 he opened the Pop Shop in SoHo, selling apparel, posters and toys bearing his drawings. This was a controversial move, as many galleries criticized Haring for “de-valuing” the art object while others, such as Andy Warhol, championed Haring’s insistence on making art accessible and affordable. Pop Shop was highly influential to contemporary crossovers of art and merchandise that are now so dominant, as in the work of Jeff Koons, Yayoi Kusama, KAWS, Shepard Fairey and Takashi Murakami.

In addition to this ideology of accessibility, Haring was also very socially engaged and used his striking imagery to promote awareness of various political and social campaigns. His many notable public works included a mural on the western side of the Berlin Wall, the Crack is Wack mural in New York, and a mural for the 100th anniversary of the Statue of Liberty in 1986. Haring was diagnosed with AIDS in 1988 and used his presence in the arts community to raise awareness of the crisis. In 1989, a year before his death, he established the Keith Haring Foundation, whose mission is to raise funds for AIDS organizations and children’s literacy and arts programs.

Since his death in 1990, Haring has become one of the most widely-recognized and celebrated artists of the 20th century, priming the path for the rise of graffiti and street art in the 21st century and a socially-conscious approach to talking about sexuality, intimacy and visibility through public art. Famed New York gallerist Jeffery Deitch asserts that Haring made “works that can hang in museums alongside masterpieces…and hold their own as art-historically important pieces,” expressly because they embrace and engage popular culture with an immediate and dynamic visual language that celebrates the joy and chaos of our society.

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