The work of the American muralist and graffiti artist Keith Haring burst onto New York’s walls and subways in the early 1980s with refreshing exuberance. With his call of ‘art for everyone,’ his work came to define the moment when urban culture left the fringes and entered the mainstream. ‘Art is life,’ he once wrote, ‘and life is art.’ Haring’s art brought the visual vernacular of the street into both the art gallery and the commercial sphere. It was a conscious merging of high and low culture that would encompass everything from acts of illegal graffiti to works of corporate design.
Born in Pennsylvania in 1958, Haring briefly studied commercial arts in Pittsburgh. He moved to New York in 1978 to train at the School of Visual Arts. In New York he joined the city’s graffiti and alternative art community, where artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat and Kenny Scharf were working outside of the restrictions and elitism of galleries and museums. His first works were white-chalk graffiti drawings made on the black panels of vacant billboards in New York’s subway system. The subway became his ‘laboratory’ and his Primitivist, cartoonish figures and graphic lines captured the imaginations of New Yorkers.
Although his career would last a little over ten years before he died of AIDS-related complications, Haring’s rise was dazzling. From cult street artist, his motifs of barking dogs, babies, hearts and dancing figures would come to define the decade. His work appeared on everything from the Berlin Wall to Swatch watch designs and Absolut vodka advertising campaigns. Haring was working in an informal artistic tradition that had begun with Duchamp, Picasso and Dubuffet’s idea of Art Brut and developed into Pop Art in the 1960s. It was an approach that took everyday or sub-cultural forms of visual representation and incorporated them into an art that could belong as much to the street as the gallery, museum or shop.
Encouraged by Andy Warhol, Haring opened his own retail outlet, the Pop Shop, in 1986, selling affordable clothing, toys, posters and other items with his images. He was diagnosed with AIDS in 1988. A year later he established the Keith Haring Foundation, which provides funding for AIDS-related organisations and programmes for underprivileged children. Haring died in 1990.