Keith Haring


Tseng Kwong Chi

Keith Haring in subway car, (New York), circa 1983.

Photo © Muna Tseng Dance Projects,

Inc. Art © Keith Haring Foundation




Tate Liverpool


14 June – 10 November 2019






A Feature by Mary Couzens for EXTRA! EXTRA!

‘I think the role of an artist in any society is to be a kind of antagonist, especially in a conservative society or in a politically oppressive society, which is increasingly more what we’re living in all the time.’ Keith Haring


On a chilly, drizzly June morning in Tate Liverpool, artist/activist Keith Haring’s alternatingly colourful, atonal, ever bold, oft amusing, distinctive, artistic hieroglyphics hit me like a fresh spring day in New York in the ‘80’s. As I struggled to come to terms once again with the loss of an artist whose outpourings had literally, surrounded me on youthful visits to the Big Apple in those days, I celebrated his work with relish anew. Haring, whose radiant babies, barking dogs, dancing figures, spacey saucers and politically motivated symbols in keeping with the time’s most pressing issues, adorned walls, doors, lampposts and you name it, cross town in their multitudes then, initially, on handmade flyers and drawn artwork, later, on t-shirts, stickers, pins and advertisements. And here they were, in their original glory, as Haring himself created them, winking and/or scolding onlookers, muttering silent asides to those most likely to hear. I’d always felt Haring had a running dialogue between himself and his viewers and, as pointed out in the course of curator’s talks, that, and art for the masses were his intentions.


Drawing from age four, with his Dad, who created cartoon characters just for him, Keith Haring (1958-90) was advised to create his own figures, rather than mimic existing ones from Disney, Dr Seuss and Charles Shultz, the three cartoonists he most admired.  Born in late ‘50’s America, Haring would have been exposed to a wealth of popular culture references that still rebound today, among them, Sci Fi movies, comic books and kitsch. In a small town like Kutztown, PA, nearest city, my hometown of Philadelphia, kids would have needed to be inventive to keep themselves going, and he and friend, Kermit Oswald,  (President of the Keith Haring Foundation 1991 – 2010), became avid drawers, even drawing at Sunday church, to the chagrin of their mothers. Haring’s Dad also encouraged him to try drawing with his eyes closed, a technique which no doubt added to Keith’s speed and feel for his rendered shapes.


Although his parents felt he wouldn’t be able to make a living as an artist, it only took six months of study at Ivy School of Professional Art in Pittsburgh, hometown of his idol, Andy Warhol, in 1976, for Haring to know he didn’t want to be a professional illustrator. So, in 1978, he relocated to NYC to enrol at the School of Visual Art (SVA). There, he was able to expand on his interest in signs and symbols through semiotics study. ‘Performance painting’ as he dubbed his ever-evolving creative style, often found him accompanied, not just by the music thumping from his boombox, but writers, dancers, actors and musicians. Downtown, Club 57, an impromptu collective of similarly inclined creative misfits, located in the basement ‘club’ of a Polish church on St. Mark’s place, so much a part of his life, was also prominent, not just as influence, but being, as in creating there, before an audience, something Haring often did. The idea of working before an audience was also realized through his famed chalk art on NY subway platforms, much of which was hastily drawn to avoid arrest. Using the black paper covering defunct ads as a chalkboard, 1980-85, through a series of drawn imagery, varying in tone from light-hearted to damning, doing as many as forty drawings a day, Haring soon became synonymous with New York City itself. Such were his initial forays into the expressive art of graffiti, his own way, which was, in a broader sense, then very much in evidence across the City, including the Boroughs of Brooklyn and the Bronx. As commuters spread the word on his underground work, news-papers and cameras sought to catch the buzz on the streets.


One of the most evocative rooms near the start of the exhibition features a slide show of photos of Haring, working on his subway drawings, and commuter’s reactions, or, indifference to them as well as a screen with videos. There are actually three of his subway chalk ‘graffiti’ pictures here, and given the fact that then, famous Haring had stopped making them in 1985, once he realized they were being removed shortly after he’d finished them, you can’t help but wonder about their journey from New York subway to UK art gallery, despite the fact that they’re all pre-‘85. Haring likened the creation of these works and their accompanying, on the spot feedback as working in a laboratory, as he and his commentators were learning together.


Keith Haring, 1958-1990

Untitled 1985

Chalk on paper

BvB Collection, Geneva



Black ink drawings, rendered with the Sumi ink of Japanese and Chinese calligraphers which Haring became known for in clubs, influenced by, among other things, the art of American artist, Mark Tobey, (1890 – 1976) morphed into paintings done on brightly coloured, grommeted tarps and, murals of all sizes.


Keith Haring, 1958-1990

Untitled 1980

Ink on Bristol board

510 x 660 mm

Collection of the Keith Haring Foundation



As his fame spread, Haring was in demand to create artworks around the world and create he did, though, as the PBS documentary of him, creating his largest ever murals, with 500 High School students in Chicago in May 1989 Off the Wall with Keith and the Kids, shows, he did them for free. But Haring was extremely generous when it came to public works and, working with the public, many of whom he even drew small artworks for when asked for an autograph. For Haring, it was always more about the spirit in his art, rather than money. Another important example of Haring, working with youths, something he felt was very valuable, took place in ‘86, when he enlisted the help of 1,000 New York young people, aged 13 – 22, to create a six story high banner honouring the 100th birthday of one of his favourite NYC landmarks, with an outline of The Statue of Liberty, one of his favourite NYC icons, by Haring, and inscribed by the youths with what liberty meant to them. The 90’ x 30’ foot nylon banner, titled, CityKids Speak on Liberty, was unfurled over Liberty Tower at Battery Park, as part of the city’s 1986 4th of July celebrations.


William Burroughs, whom Haring met in New York in 1983, was a source of inspiration for many creatives at the time, and soon after their meeting, Haring, ever one to experiment, began to paste collages he’d created from cut-up reconfigured newspaper headlines around town. The work below brought a knowing grin to the face of this, then, proud anti-Regan badge wearer. The pair worked on two projects together, Apocalypse and The Valley, with text by Burroughs and accompanying art by Haring.



Keith Haring, 1958-1990

Reagan's Death Cops Hunt Pope 1980

Newspaper fragments and tape on paper

216 x 279 mm

Collection of the Keith Haring Foundation



Like many artists, Haring exhibited in several group shows in NYC, among them, 1980’s Times Square Show in a vacant building at that then down at heel locale, with works by more than 100 artists, among them, Jean-Michel Basquiat, whom he and friend Kenny Scharf had met the year before at SVA, when Basquiat was there, looking around, graffiti writer Lee Quinones and rapper Fab 5 Freddy. The main purpose of that mammoth show was to blur the lines between art and graffiti. What is generally seen as Basquiat’s tag, ‘SAMO’, originally created and furthered by him and fellow graffiti artist, Al Diaz, was often seen around Manhattan early 77- early 80, until Basquiat killed it off on his own in ‘80, painting, ‘SAMO is dead’, after he and Diaz fell out in the aftermath of an article on them in The Village Voice in Dec. ’79.



Keith Haring, 1958–1990

Untitled 1983

Acrylic on vinyl tarpaulin

1730 x 1700 mm

Courtesy Laurent Strouk



A slide show of stills, and clips of Haring and friends, increasingly featuring, as time went on, figures from celebrity culture, are on show in the exhibition, as are filmed interviews, with Haring and others related to pivotal moments in his trajectory, among them, Grace Jones, which can be listened to with headphones. Snippets of Devo songs, one of which, ‘Whip It’, Haring had blasted while famously, painting himself into a black and white corner, when SVA friend, and fellow artist Kenny Scharf first met him in ‘78, and instrumental portions of the Flying Lizard’s version of ‘Money’ form an audio timeline of sorts in the background. There is also an art school clip of young Haring at work here looking very much like a Jackson Pollack devotee as he squirts paint over what appeared to have already been a finished artwork.


Haring’s first solo NYC exhibition, at Tony Shafrazi Gallery showed his versatility via drawings, painted tarpaulins, sculptures and on-site work, and he transformed a portion of the gallery space into a club environment, so strong was the link between artist and nightlife. Global fame followed that exhibition, and in ’83, Europe beckoned, as well as friendship with Andy Warhol, who became an immediate mentor. In ’84, Grace Jones was his canvas, and the following year, between art gigs round the world, Haring opened a NYC ‘Pop Shop’ dedicated to keeping images of his works, on pins and t-shirts as well as prints and posters, affordable for all, further breaking down formerly elitist barriers.  If anyone could own and appreciate images of art, then there was always the potential for anyone to become an artist…





Andy Warhol, 1928–1987


6 photographs, gelatin silver print on paper and thread

695 x 805 mm

ARTIST ROOMS Acquired jointly with the National Galleries of Scotland through The d'Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Art Fund 2008

© 2018 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc.

/ Artists Right Society (ARS), New York and DACS, London



Once Haring had painted his first NYC mural, at Houston Street and the Bowery in ‘82, he would paint many murals the world over, including a 300 foot one on the Berlin Wall in ‘86, culminating with his final public work in Pisa, Italy, on the wall of the convent of the Church of Sant’Antonio, in June, 1989, just six months before his Aids related death, at the age of 31. Haring’s double-sided Crack is Whack mural, painted in NYC, in 1986, without legal permission on the wall of a, then abandoned handball court on 128th Street, near Harlem River Drive, is arguably, the most enduring of all. Despite the fact that it was initially, defaced, and turned into a pro-crack mural, then painted over in grey, by a ‘busy bee in the Parks Department, according to Haring, thanks to its very important, then very pertinent message, the initially huge fine the City had imposed was reduced, and the Parks Department requested a new mural, the creation of which they assisted him with and after his untimely death in 1990, the Park was renamed ‘Crack is Whack’ Park as a gesture of gratitude and remembrance.



© Keith Haring Foundation



Exhibition stagers have kept their ears to Haring’s former stomping grounds in this intriguing show, displaying over 85 pieces, from early drawings and painterly experiments, through more expansive and expressive works, the centre-point of which is, arguably, a phenomenally arresting, room length, black and white ink drawing entitled, The Matrix (1983). Radiating out from that, in either direction, are a variety of captivating conglomerations of signifiers, which, Haring and viewers alike saw as more and more significant. This was especially true in Haring’s politicized works on topics ranging from immigration justice and racism through police brutality and nuclear disarmament, to his enduring Aids ‘Silence = Death’ posters.



 Keith Haring, 1958–1990

Ignorance = Fear 1989 Poster

660 x 1141 mm

Collection Noirmontart production, Paris



But such was Haring’s dedication to social causes, that in 1982, he not only created the artwork for a No Nuke Poster for a Rally in Central Park which over a million people attended, but with the help of two friends, he distributed over 20,000 posters to his fellow protestors, free of charge.




Joseph Szkodzinski

Keith Haring

handing out No Nuke Posters at a No Nuke Rally,

Central Park NYC 12 June 1982©

Joseph Szkodzinski 2018



The exhibition also includes an enlivening room in homage to the black light club nights Haring so enjoyed exhibiting his work in, complete with infectious soundtrack and upbeat artworks. From his early NY days, Haring’s club life had been heady, in a fun way, with lots of music, dancing and clowning, making fun of, rather than being part of the trendier side of the art world, but it was also, hedonistic and later in his career, he would not only advocate safe sex, but also warn of the dangers of promiscuity, even demonising penises and sperm in his art.



Keith Haring, 1958-1990

Safe Sex! 1987


798 x 743 mm

Collection Noirmontartproduction, Paris


One of the main things artists most marvel at in regard to Haring is the fact that he never did any preliminary sketches for any of his projects prior to making them, no matter how large, rendering even the largest of murals he painted spontaneous. And there are no broken lines in his figures or shapes, such was the fluidity with which he created them. The resulting joy his drawings and paintings give off is contagious, as are sadly, the mixed emotions he cryptically captured near the end of his all too short life, following his AIDS diagnosis in 1988.


Strolling round NYC through the ‘80’s, with images by Haring dotting the landscape, on flyers, magazine advertisements, and outdoors, in the form of subway graffiti and/or public murals, and seemingly everywhere, on his coveted then (and now) ‘Dance or Die’ t – shirts, even then, I couldn’t image the city without his work. Haring’s pictorial language was so much a part of life then and there, it almost seemed to form a comic-book journal of New York itself. I’m sure the public’s seemingly endless thirst for abstracted yet simplistic tribal prints on everything from pillow-covers to pencil cases to this day is an offshoot of Haring’s art legacy.


It is said that Haring furthered the reach of Pop Art through his work, though it is a certainty that his uniqueness in Art History will ever be preserved, whatever the genre comparisons.


For me, one of the lesser commented on, but even so, more important functions Haring’s art served, was to lessen the stigma on graffiti and the artists who decorated the metropolis with it. He was, in a sense, a translator for those artists working on the walls, subway cars and streets of his time and place, an invaluable bridge, as exhibition curator, Darren Pih reiterated, between high and ‘low’ art, showing that, in truth, graffiti artists were not all addicts or drifters, but artists, just like all of us.


If art is for everyone as Haring intended, then surely, everyone could, potentially be for art.






Keith Haring, 1958–1990

Untitled 1983


610 x 762 mm

Collection of the Keith Haring Foundation


Tate Liverpool

Royal Albert Dock Liverpool

Liverpool L3 4BB



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