Love and Purpose: The Art of Keith Haring

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An icon of 1980s art and culture, Keith Haring is recognized for his singular, cartoon-esque style. Blending abstract expressionism with pop art and graffiti, the artist devised a unique, lighthearted aesthetic that touched on broader themes and social issues. As tribute to his distinctive creativity, the Tate Liverpool will present Keith Haring, the UK’s first major exhibition of his work, from June 14 until November 10, 2019. With more than 85 pieces on display, the show explores the full development of Haring’s art—from initial chalk drawings through his evolution into colorful, shape- and figure-infused paintings.

Among the exhibit’s highlights are Haring’s earlier pieces, openly named “Untitled,” 1980 and „Untitled,” 1983, both of which reveal his hallmark symbols: barking dogs, crawling babies, and UFOs. Beneath the spontaneous nature of his imagery, Haring’s work often speaks to larger topics of sexuality, safe sex, and AIDS awareness, as in the work “Ignorance = Fear,” 1989. Haring’s modes of expression were timely, incorporating cultural references to space travel and video games, most notably shown in his 1982 “black light” installation. Here, UV fluorescent paintings are set against an audio background of hip-hop music, which wholly recalls ‘80s ambiance.

The artist aspired for his work to have broad, democratic reach. „Despite mostly being known for his deceptively simple visual language, Haring’s art reflected a profound commitment to social justice and activism,“ assistant curator Tamar Hemmes tells CR. „He understood the power of images and used his accessible symbols to start a dialogue with people from all different backgrounds.” Haring’s greatest goal was to create a wide impact through visual engagement and heightened consciousness, and his exceptional talents and activist ideals came together in a style that was solely his own.

Haring’s life story began in 1958 in Reading, Pennsylvania, where he was born and spent his young years. His earliest creative influences included Disney and Looney Tunes characters, Dr. Seuss, and drawings made alongside his father, an amateur cartoonist. He later studied art formally at the Ivy School of Professional Art in Pittsburgh and worked at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts. These exposures introduced him to visionary artists Jean Dubuffet, Jackson Pollock, and Pierre Alechinsky, who would contribute to his own multifaceted style.

In 1978, Haring moved to New York and continued to study painting at the School of Visual Arts. He embraced the spirit of the city’s downtown scene, befriending fellow artists, graffiti artists, performers, and writers, and frequenting famous alternative spaces like the Mudd Club and Club 57. These inspirations encouraged a dynamic vision, and he freely experimented with semiotics, video, installation, and performance as art forms.

New York’s subways and empty ad spaces offered the beginnings for Haring’s public art practice. He created as many as 40 “subway drawings” each day, initially working in graffiti-style chalk outlines that developed into his famous squiggly lines and dancing figures. The artist was known to always be drawing, and his lively works progressed with increasing color and scale. His notorious 1986 „Crack is Wack“ mural—an ode to drug awareness—is a celebrated public project, still visible in the city’s Harlem neighborhood today.

Never shy to engage in political topics, Haring’s playful pop imagery reframed these ideas as culturally approachable. His bold style was influenced by his peers and the ingenuity of the lower Manhattan art world. He regularly collaborated with Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Kenny Scharf, artists who also unified diverse themes in their work and applied a lighter veneer for deeper subjects. As Haring honed his signature style, the universality of his art found broad appeal and application. His bright, sunny images seemed to be everywhere, from exhibitions and public spaces to clothing worn by Madonna and Grace Jones, even painting the latter’s body with graffiti symbols for her live performances.

Between the years 1982 and 1989, Haring was featured in more than 100 exhibits and created over 50 public works for a range of nightclubs, museums, and children’s hospitals throughout the world. With the goal of making his art broadly accessible, he opened the Pop Shop boutique in Soho in 1986. Two years later, after being diagnosed with HIV, he established the Keith Haring Foundation to provide funding for AIDS organizations and children’s programs. Though he died in 1990 from AIDS-related complications, his creative, compassionate spirit endures. His artwork has since been featured in over 150 exhibitions and several international retrospectives.

The vibrancy of Haring’s art has had a great impact on fashion. Since the 1980s, major designers including Vivienne Westwood, Patricia Field, and Stephen Sprouse have patterned his designs onto their visions of style. In recent years, the Keith Haring Foundation has carried on his fashion legacy. Brands like Uniqlo, Joyrich, and Comme des Garçons have embossed the artist’s bright figures onto special edition pieces.

In 2011, Nicholas Kirkwood’s fashion-forward Radiant Baby heels and thigh-high roller skates displayed Haring’s iconic patterns. Then, two years later, Jeremy Scott teamed up with Adidas for the Adicolor sneaker collection that touted his black and white prints. The year 2018 saw a resurgence of the artist’s motifs in Alice + Olivia’s capsule of decorative jackets, denim, and even a ballgown skirt, as well as Stuart Vevers‘ bags and accessories for Coach. This year, his art has accented Lacoste polos, tees, and caps, in addition to Crayola-hued Terez athleisure looks.

Haring’s imagination has also greatly influenced the cultural landscape. His upbeat patterns and progressive activism have brightened visual horizons while also improving social frontiers. „Haring continuously used his platform to get his messages across to a wide and diverse audience,“ Hemmes explains. „While the world has changed since Haring’s time, many of his concerns and the debates that he was part of—around technology and media, but also around such issues as racism and equality—are still incredibly relevant today.“ Almost 30 years after his lifetime, Haring’s ideas and messaging speak to our present moment with significant impact and meaning.

Keith Haring will be on view at the Tate Liverpool in Liverpool, England from June 14, 2019 to November 10, 2019.

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