Keith Haring (1958-1990) was born and raised in Pennsylvania. His father taught him cartooning from an early age, and inspired by popular animations, like Looney Tunes and the work of Walt Disney, Haring developed a deep interest in drawing and briefly trained to be a commercial graphic artist at the Ivy School of Professional Art in Pittsburgh. Abandoning his commercial art aspirations, Haring moved to New York City to study at The School of Visual Arts in 1978. There he found an art community thriving outside the galleries and museums—in the city’s downtown streets and night clubs. He quickly became friends with fellow artists Kenny Scharf and Jean-Michel Basquiat and other artists and musicians of the growing downtown art scene.
In 1980 Haring began his Subway project, completing hundreds of public chalk drawings on the blank advertising screens throughout the city’s subway system. It was during this project that Haring fully realized his unique style and solidified his commitment to the accessibility of his art. Haring was quickly developing his signature style, which, drawing from the immediacy of graffiti and street art, emphasized line and two-dimensionality. He worked with a vocabulary of small, interconnected shapes that gesture to his childhood cartooning through distinct characters, rhythmic lines, and repeated symbols. These figures, often pictured dancing or in motion, radiate with energy. He continued making his subway drawings until 1985.
Moving from the streets to making drawings and paintings in the studio, Haring made his New York exhibition debut in 1981. After achieving early commercial success with his immensely popular show with the Tony Shafrazi gallery in Soho in 1982, he maintained his ideal that art should be accessible to all. Championing that “art is life and life is art,” this commitment led to his opening his Pop Shop in downtown Manhattan. At Pop Shop, which opened in 1986, he sold art merchandise, such as t-shirts decorated with his cartoon figures, making him one of the first artists to sell his designs directly to consumers. He opened up new modes of viewing and collecting to broad audiences, a legacy that continues to influence artists today.
Throughout the 1980s, Haring was commissioned to make dozens of large-scale murals in public spaces across the world, producing more than fifty public artworks between 1982 and 1989. Using signature and identifiable forms, such as dancing figures and barking dogs, Haring’s larger works espouse his values of accessibility and social activism. He used his works to raise awareness for the causes most important to him, including the AIDS epidemic, anti-Apartheid, and the Crack Epidemic of the 1980s. Haring’s work typically employed paradoxical themes: life and death, religion and sexuality, good and evil, and so on. Employing symbols as social commentary, such as dollar signs to illustrate the greed of the military-industrial complex, Haring mobilized his art for social justice.
The Keith Haring Foundation, started after the artist’s own AIDS diagnosis in 1988, still uses the artist’s work to promote HIV/AIDS research and awareness. Following his diagnosis, Haring’s work became more macabre, using his iconic cartoon figures to explore his own life and mortality. In 1990, Haring died of AIDS-related complications at only 31 years old. Many of Haring’s monumental murals are still visible throughout New York City and the world, marking the indelible effects of the artist’s brief but prolific career.