By Regina de Con Cossío
B. Reading, Pennsylvania, 1950
Most expensive Artwork Sold: Untitled , 1982
Sold price: 6,537,500
As I am contemplating a painting by Keith Haring hanging on my wall, I remember what the artist once said: “Art should be something that liberates your soul, provokes the imagination, and encourages people to go further.” The street artist who reached out to the world with his simple characters and illustrations, spread a strong and vital social message through his artwork. Looking at his work is like diving into a unique world. To illustrate that, let’s consider the pieces I have in front, on my wall. “The Game” and “Pop Art” are two works on paper and painted with pen markers. Both signed in 1985, they depict scenes full of Haring’s recognizable motifs like the little dancing figures, angels, barking dogs, radiant babies crawling, and angels. The naive impression one gets at first sight with his cartoons and illustrations vanishes easily when facing the vacuum, emptiness and social claims represented in his paintings.
Through his faceless illustrations dispatching social messages and political claims, Haring engages with the underground counterculture he was experiencing in New York in the seventies. Although he represents the world he is living, his artworks go beyond portraying and addressing the historical events of that time. With very simple resources, like lines, silhouettes, and Ancient Egyptian ornaments, he reaches deep existential human concerns.
The pop icon of his era represents and publicizes disputable topics such as war, sexuality, life, and death with his art.
He created a one-of-a-kind symbolic language that is present among his works, consisting of a visual alphabet made of illustrations, representing human and social concerns. Images replacing words is his hallmark; through the marriage of semiotics and painting in Haring’s oeuvre, a fusion of the sonorous and the visual outcomes, and observing becomes a listening experience for the viewer.
A unique presence in New York in the eighties and close to Andy Warhol, Madonna and Jean-Michel Basquiat, Haring played a key role in the culture back in those days. His disruptive character allowed him to explore the use of surfaces beyond the canvas and to spread his colors in unusual ways.
Here are 6 non conventional canvases to meet Keith Haring’s art.
One- The New Yorker Subway
During the eighties, Haring began painting and drawing with chalk in the subways of New York. People used to gather around him while he was painting, creating a sort of performative environment. His paintings were as famous as, as his arrest for vandalism usually streamed on tv.
Two- Madonna’s Like a Virgin jacket
Haring had an outrageous group of famous friends with whom he collaborated. Among them was super pop-star Madonna, who on December 13th, 1984 performed her iconic Like A Virgin single on BBC1-TV’s Top Of The Pops in London, while wearing a Keith Haring jacket.
Three – Grace Jones body
In his short life, Haring had the most diverse collaborations with Grace Jones. The first time was on July 28th, 1984 at Robert Mapplethorpe’s studio, located at 24 Bond Street. Haring used the 36 year old’s stunning body as canvas and decorated it with tribal patterns. She had just launched “Slave to the Rhythms” with great Billboard rankings and Andy Warhol thought she had the ultimate body for Haring to paint on.
Four – The Chateau Mouton Rothschild
Inspired by the Dancing Rams, Haring designed In 1988 the Mouton Rothschild wines label.
Five- The Berlin Wall
Obliterated in 1991, when the Berlin Wall was demolished, there are nevertheless documents to back up Keith Haring’s intervention in 1986 of the 300 meters mural in black, red and yellow created in Berlin at the request of the Checkpoint Charlie Museum.
Six – United Nations Stamps
Haring died of AIDS in 1991 at the age of 31. Sexuality and an imaginary referring to the disease were present in his work. Before his death, he collaborated with the United Nations to create a limited edition lithograph series to help raise awareness of the disease.
American artist and social activist, Haring is a child of his generation. His creative imaginary oscillating between music, art and fashion has become a visual Zeitgeist of New York City in the late 20th Century. His work is currently on viewing at the collections of:
- The Museum of Modern Art, New York
- The Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago Illinois
- The Smithsonian American Art Museum Washington, D. C
- The Broad Art Foundation, Los Angeles, California, USA
- The Denver Art Museum, Colorado, USA
- Los Angeles County Museum of Art, California, USA
- The Whitney Museum of American Art, New York City, USA.
In (1990) at the age of 31, Haring joined the black (infamous) list of artists dying young, due to AIDS related complications. By then, he had already created an energetic universe that I enjoy observing, for it includes a vital sense of luddism, openness, inclusiveness and likewise highlights elementary drives related to sexuality and infancy.
Haring’s game is one that I like to play. I think again of the same initial words: “Art should be something that liberates your soul, provokes the imagination, and encourages people to go further.” Shall we not?