In remembrance of the 48th anniversary of the 1969 Stonewall Riots that ignited the flame of the LGBT Civil Rights movement of the seventies and eighties, it seems appropriate to acknowledge an artist who dedicated so much of his life and career to LGBT activism and AIDS awareness, Keith Haring.
Haring began what would become one of the greatest legacies of his career on an opportunistic impulse— a white chalk drawing on an empty black advertising panel in a New York subway terminal, a space generally ignored and overlooked. Though delicate in material, the drawings Haring created in these spaces became some of the most widely recognized artistic motifs in the world. Such images included abstracted, cartoon renditions of men, dogs, and spaceships repeated in various simplified forms. Haring’s work demonstrates an interest in chaotic, yet balanced compositions that emphasize an interest in vibrant color combinations and line, while paying homage to basic expressions of human experience relating to life, death, love, etc.; arranged in playfully organized images.
Haring found inspiration in the underground graffiti art that permeated New York City in the 1970s and ’80s, admiring the technical precision of the lettering designs. His was an anti-elitist form of art that removed itself from the exclusivity of “high art” establishments and their equivalent price tags. Haring’s work appeared in a number of public spaces and murals throughout much of the eighties, and he gained worldwide recognition for his widely recognized character motifs. When his career became more established, and subsequently his work more coveted in the upscale art market, Haring responded to the growing prices of his original works with the creation of his highly criticized Pop Shop in 1986.
“I don’t know how to exactly explain it. Taking it off the pedestal. I’m giving it back to the people, I guess.” –Keith Haring
The Pop Shop kept Haring’s work easily accessible to the public and maintained its overall status as public art. His images could be bought cheaply as stickers, t-shirts, magnets, and the like, allowing his work to continue to serve as an anti-elitist and unpretentious art form that stayed true to its underground roots.
When, in the mid-80s, the AIDS epidemic ravaged much of the New York art community and Haring’s peers, he used his work to bring awareness to this devastating reality. After himself being diagnosed with AIDS in 1988, Haring created the Keith Haring Foundation to raise money for AIDS awareness and treatment research as a way to continue his charitable pursuits and activism after his death. In addition, the Foundation provided a voice for those fallen victim to the virus, who had been largely ignored by the public. Haring himself succumbed to AIDS-related complications in 1990 at the age of 31.
You can find Haring’s colorful, large-scale work, Moses and the Burning Bush (1985), in the 1940s to Now Gallery at Crystal Bridges, or view his Two-Headed Figure (1986) sculpture outdoors on Walker Landing.