Image by Andrea Sartorati; licensed under CC BY 2.0

Keith Haring

“The public needs art — and it is the responsibility of a ‘self-proclaimed artist’ to realize that the public needs art, and not to make bourgeois art for a few and ignore the masses.”

American pop artist Keith Haring helped bring socially-charged street art into broad public consciousness with graffiti-inspired drawings in 1980s New York City.

Haring’s imagery broached controversial topics, including sexuality and gay rights, drug addiction, war, and apartheid through exuberant, now-iconic figures and symbols, such as hearts, flying saucers, babies, and barking dogs.

Despite a brief but prolific career, Haring’s clean lines and simple subjects contributed to the lasting legacy of his imagery and ushered in a new era of street-to-gallery artists and helped vault subversive art into the mainstream.

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In 1980s New York City, American pop artist Keith Haring helped bring socially-charged street art into mainstream view, with graffiti-inspired drawings that were both widely visible and commercially available to the public. Best known for his cartoony, exuberant figures and symbols, such as hearts, flying saucers, babies, and barking dogs, Haring’s imagery was both cute and disarming, which helped the artist broach controversial topics, including sexuality and gay rights, drug addiction, war, and apartheid.

Inspired by the imagery of abstract expressionist Pierre Alechinsky; the experimental, cut-up text of Beat writer William Burroughs; and site-specific installations by the sculptor Christo, Haring first attracted public attention by making white chalk drawings on black, unused advertisement panels in the New York City subway system, sometimes turning out as many as 40 illustrations a day. His first solo exhibition in New York was held in 1981; within the decade, Haring’s work would be featured in more than 100 solo and group exhibitions worldwide, including 1982’s documenta 7 in Kassel, Germany; the 1983 Whitney Biennial and São Paulo Biennial; and the 1985 Paris Biennial. In 1986, he was arrested for painting an anti-drug mural, “Crack is Wack,” which was initially considered an act of vandalism by the NYPD but has since become embraced as a landmark work of public art along the FDR Drive.

Haring’s longtime goal of making his art accessible led to numerous public murals and commercial ventures, including producing designs for Swatch, advertisements for Absolut Vodka, and opening “Pop Shops,” which sold shirts, posters, and other items with his imagery at reasonable prices. Proceeds from the Pop Shop later went to the Keith Haring Foundation, founded in 1989 to provide support to AIDS organizations and children’s programs, which continues to fund educational programs and exhibitions today. Haring’s clean lines and simple subjects, as well as universal messages of peace and love, contributed to the lasting legacy of his imagery and his brief but prolific career in the 1980s. Along with contemporaries such as Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Kenny Scharf, Haring ushered in a new era of street-to-gallery artists and helped pave the way for other forms of subversive art, from Banksy to The Simpsons.

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