Keith Haring was born in Reading, Pennsylvania, on May 4, 1958. He was raised in Kutztown, Pennsylvania, by his mother Joanne Haring, and father Allen Haring, an engineer and amateur cartoonist. He had three younger sisters, Kay, Karen and Kristen. Haring became interested in art at a very early age spending time with his father producing creative drawings. His early influences included: Walt Disney cartoons, Dr. Seuss, Charles Schulz, and the Looney Tunes characters in The Bugs Bunny Show. He studied commercial art from 1976 to 1978 at Pittsburgh’s Ivy School of Professional Art but lost interest in it. He made this decision having read Robert Henri’s The Art Spirit (1923) which inspired him to concentrate on his own art. Haring had a maintenance job at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts (then the Pittsburgh Arts and Crafts Center) and was able to explore the art of Jean Dubuffet, Jackson Pollock, and Mark Tobey. His most critical influences at this time were a 1977 retrospective of the work of Pierre Alechinsky, and a lecture by the sculptor, Christo, in 1978. Alechinsky’s work, connected to the international Expressionist group CoBrA, gave Haring confidence to create larger paintings of calligraphic images. Christo introduced him to the possibilities of involving the public with his art. Haring’s first important oneman exhibition was in Pittsburgh at the Center for the Arts in 1978. He moved to New York to study painting at the School of Visual Arts. He studied semiotics with Bill Beckley as well as exploring the possibilities of video and performance art. Profoundly influenced at this time by the writings of William Burroughs, he was inspired to experiment with the cross-referencing and interconnection of images. In his junior/senior year, he was behind on credits, because his professors could not give him credit for the very loose artwork he was doing with themes of social activism.
He first received public attention with his public art in subways. Starting in 1980, he organized exhibitions at Club 57. These exhibitions were filmed by the photographer Tseng Kwong Chi. Around this time, “The Radiant Baby” became his symbol. His bold lines, vivid colors, and active figures carry strong messages of life and unity. He participated in the Times Square Exhibition and drew animals and human faces for the first time. That same year, he photocopied and pasted provocative collages made from cut-up and recombined New York Post headlines around the city. In 1981, he sketched his first chalk drawings on black paper and painted plastic, metal, and found objects. By 1982, Haring had established friendships with fellow emerging artists Futura 2000, Kenny Scharf, Madonna and Jean-Michel Basquiat. He created more than 50 public works between 1982 and 1989 in dozens of cities around the world. His “Crack is Wack” mural, created in 1986, is visible from New York’s FDR Drive. He got to know Andy Warhol, who was the theme of several of Haring’s pieces, including “Andy Mouse.” His friendship with Warhol would prove to be a decisive element in his eventual success. In December 2007, an area of the American Textile Building in the TriBeCa neighborhood of New York City was discovered to contain a painting of Haring’s from 1979.
In 1984, Haring visited Australia and painted wall murals in Melbourne (such as the 1984 ‘Detail-Mural at Collingwood College, Victoria’) and Sydney and received a commission from the National Gallery of Victoria and the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art to create a mural which temporarily replaced the water curtain at the National Gallery. He also visited and painted in Rio de Janeiro, the Paris Museum of Modern Art, Minneapolis and Manhattan. He even designed a jacket worn by a pink-wigged Madonna for a performance of her song “Like a Virgin” for the TV dance program Solid Gold. He became politically active, designing a Free South Africa poster in 1985, and in 1986, painting a section of the Berlin Wall. He was interested in working with children and this inspired the project Citykids Speak on Liberty, which involved 1,000 children collaborating on a project for the centennial of the Statue of Liberty. When asked about the commercialism of his work, Haring 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.” By the arrival of Pop Shop, his work began reflecting more socio-political themes, such as anti-Apartheid, AIDS awareness, and the crack cocaine epidemic. He even created several pop art pieces influenced by other products: Absolut Vodka, Lucky Strike cigarettes, and Coca-Cola. In 1987 he had his own exhibitions in Helsinki, Antwerp, and elsewhere. He also designed the cover for the benefit album A Very Special Christmas, on which Madonna was included. In 1988 he joined a select group of artists whose work has appeared on the label of Chateau Mouton Rothschild wine.
Haring also created public murals in the lobby and ambulatory care department of Woodhull Medical and Mental Health Center on Flushing Avenue, Brooklyn. A rare video of Haring at work shows his energetic style. Haring wrote: “I am becoming much more aware of movement. The importance of movement is intensified when a painting becomes a performance. The performance (the act of painting) becomes as important as the resulting painting.” Haring was openly gay and was a strong advocate of safe sex; however, in 1988, he was diagnosed with AIDS. In 1989, he established the Keith Haring Foundation to provide funding and imagery to AIDS organizations and children’s programs, and to expand the audience for his work through exhibitions, publications and the licensing of his images. Haring used his imagery during the last years of his life to speak about his illness and to generate activism and awareness about AIDS. In 1989, he was invited by the Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center to join a show of site-specific artwork for the building at 208 West 13th Street. Haring chose the second-floor men’s room for his mural Once Upon a Time. In June, on the rear wall of the convent of the Church of Sant’Antonio (in Italian: Chiesa di Sant’Antonio abate) in Pisa (Italy), he painted the last public work of his life, the mural “Tuttomondo” (translation: “All world”).
Haring died on February 16, 1990 of AIDS-related complications. As a celebration of his life, Madonna declared the first New York date of her Blond Ambition World Tour a benefit concert for Haring’s memory and donated all proceeds from her ticket sales to AIDS charities including AIDS Project Los Angeles and amfAR; the act was documented in her film Truth or Dare. Additionally, Haring’s work was featured in several of Red Hot Organization’s efforts to raise money for AIDS and AIDS awareness, specifically its first two albums, Red Hot + Blue and Red Hot + Dance, the latter of which used Haring’s work on its cover.
- May, 04, 1958
- Reading, Pennsylvania
- February, 16, 1990
- New York, New York
Cause of Death
- complications from AIDS