Keith Haring was an American artist who was born in the small town of Kutztown, Pennsylvania in 1958. He grew up with three younger sisters, Kay, Karen, and Kristen. At a very young age, Keith became interested in art and created drawings with his dad, an engineer and amateur cartoonist. Later in his life during the late 70s he studied commercial art, but eventually lost interest and decided to leave after he read Robert Henri’s The Art Spirit, which inspired Keith to concentrate on his own art.
After deciding not to study commercial art, Keith got a maintenance job at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts and was able to study art from Jean Dubuffet, Pollock, and Mark Tobey. His most important influence at the time was the work of Pierre Alechinsky. Alechinsky’s work gave Keith the confidence to create larger paintings of calligraphic images, and the possibility of including the public with his art. In 1978 he moved to New York and attended the School of Visual Arts. He studied painting, semiotics (the study of signs and symbols as a significant part of communications as well as linguistic and non-linguistic sign systems), and the possibilities of video and performance art.
Keith’s art first gained public attention in the subways where he created white chalk drawings on unused, black advertisement boards in the stations. His bold lines, vivid colors, and active figures carried strong messages of life and unity, and “The Radiant Baby” became his symbol. Between 1982 and 1989 he created more than 50 public works in countless cities around the world. One of his early works depicts two figures holding a heart above their heads, interpreted as a bold homosexual love and significant cultural statement. One of his murals created in 1986, “Crack is Wack,” can be seen from New York’s FDR Drive, and a piece called “Rebel with Many Causes” criticized the avoidance of social issues, such as AIDS. Keith also became well acquainted with Andy Warhol, and made Warhol the theme of several works.
Keith went to Australia in 1984 and painted wall murals in Melbourne and Sydney, and got commissioned to paint murals for the National Gallery of Victoria and the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art. He also visited and painted in Rio de Janeiro, the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, and Manhattan. In 1985, he became politically active and created a “Free South America” poster, and in 1986, he had his first solo museum exhibition in Amsterdam, where he painted a mural at that museum. Also in 1986, Keith was asked to paint a mural on the Berlin Wall. His mural stretched 300 meters long and showed red and black figures on a yellow background, representing the colors of the German flag and symbolizing the hope of unity for West and East Germany.
Keith’s Pop Shop opened in April 1986 in Soho, and made his work accessible to purchase at reasonable prices. When people asked him about the commercialism of his work, he said: “I could earn more money if I just painted a few things and jacked up the price. My shop is an extension of what I was doing in the subway stations, breaking down the barriers between high and low art.” Around this same time, Keith’s work started to reflect more socio-political themes, like AIDS awareness and the cocaine epidemic. He was openly gay, and was a strong advocate of safe sex, but diagnosed with AIDS in 1988. Between 1982 to 1989 he produced more than 50 public artworks in several charities, hospitals, day care centers, and orphanages. He used his art during the last years of his life to speak about his illness and generate activism and awareness about AIDS.
He established the Keith Haring Foundation in 1989 to provide funding and imagery to AIDS organizations and children’s programs, and to expand the audience of his work. The goal of the foundation is to keep Keith’s wishes and expand his heritage, art, and goals by providing grants and funding to nonprofit organizations that target educating disadvantaged youths and informing individuals about HIV and AIDS. The foundation also supports arts and educational institutions by funding exhibitions, educational programs, and publications. Keith passed away in February 1990 of AIDs related complications.