30 years after his death, Keith Haring’s artistic legacy continues to live in the public artwork and sculptures he created all around the world. Through his simplistic looking drawings, Haring sought to raise awareness for the causes he believed in, and to give back to his community. CoBo Social Managing Editor Denise Tsui explores how Haring’s works stood the test of time.
TEXT: Denise Tsui
IMAGES: Courtesy of National Gallery of Victoria
My first memory of seeing a Keith Haring artwork was during a primary school field trip in Melbourne. The exact purpose of our excursion that day escapes me but the school semi-regularly took us on tours of the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) and I remember being in awe every time, falling in love with the museum. This particular Haring work wasn’t hanging on a pristine museum wall though; it was the iconic mural on the façade of what was then the Collingwood Technical School. Presently referred to as the Collingwood Mural, it is one of only 31 surviving Haring murals worldwide, and more remarkably, one of three that has not had substantial over painting. The mural was created during Haring’s trip to Australia in 1984 and has been heritage-listed since 2004, with a conservation project completed in 2013 to preserve it for years to come.
Among many other works Haring made during his month-long trip that year were a mural at the entrance of the Art Gallery of New South Wales depicting a kangaroo; contributions to a fashion parade organised by the Fashion Design Council of Australia for Melbourne’s Moomba Festival; and a mural on the famous Waterwall of the NGV. Naturally, I didn’t know any of this. As a child, all I remember was the squiggly lines that formed what looked like cartoon, gingerbread man-like figures to my young mind. None of it made sense to me, and yet the visual imagery of the dancing, jumping, and back bending figures became so distinctively scorched in my memory that I have never failed to recognise Haring’s lexicon since then. So what makes Haring such an influential and unforgettable artist in the contemporary 21st century art discourse?
Haring performed art in public spaces; in his studio he made paintings, sculptures, drawings, prints and more. He designed theatre stage sets, painted the human body, and created murals around the world. Haring also did gigs as a DJ. For him, it seemed art was life itself. Possessing an organic affinity for oscillating between artistic disciplines, he once famously said, “My drawings do not try to imitate life, they try to create life.”
Earlier this year, I visited “Keith Haring | Jean-Michel Basquiat: Crossing Lines” at the NGV. Curated by art historian Dr. Dieter Buchhart, the exhibition presented a narrative of the two artists and their intertwined friendship. The exhibition allowed me to see for the first time, the breadth of Haring’s oeuvre, and explore the artist’s life and art with a new perception. No longer the child simply fond of these funny, dancing figures, I came to see that Haring’s linework and outwardly naïve-looking figures were anything but simple.
For Haring, a line is a complete drawing in and of itself. In the essay to the exhibition, Buchhart references a sketchbook from 1978 in which Haring wrote: “The drawing is ‘finished’ from the time you start with the first line. There are places you can ‘stop’ the drawing and call it ‘finished’ until time and space itself are ‘finished.’ There are always infinitely more things you can do to the composition, trouble is knowing when to stop. I choose when to stop, but my work is never ‘finished’ and always ‘finished’.”
Buchhart explores this as a type of image-language in which, “Haring’s line is only interrupted to be taken up again at the very next moment, meaning that it continues endlessly. Beginning with an apparently random line, he was able to achieve a balanced composition in just one step, without any hesitation or interruption and without corrections.”
The exhibition was a major survey with more than 200 artworks across various mediums that the artists each utilized, showcased alongside pieces from the artists’ theatre stage designs, and Haring’s 1985 collaboration with pop singer Grace Jones. For her concert, “Her Grace at Paradise” performed at the Paradise Garage, Haring not only painted Jones’ body, but one of the singer’s costumes that night was a headdress and skirt made of black and white tubing, both sporting Haring’s figures. The costume pieces were created a year earlier, when Warhol asked Haring to paint Jones’ body for a photo shoot by Robert Mapplethorpe.
Born in 1958 in Reading, Pennsylvania, Haring grew up in neighbouring Kutztown and was the eldest of four children in his family. After dropping out of the Ivy School of Professional Arts in Pittsburgh, Haring moved to Manhattan, New York, in 1978, studying at the School of Visual Arts under many renowned artists of the era including conceptual artist Joseph Kosuth and sculptor Keith Sonnier, both who radicalised their respective artistic disciplines.
Upon graduation, Haring devoted himself to making art—starting on the streets with his first New York subway drawings in 1980, where he used white chalk to draw on large rolls of black paper, subsequently wheat-pasting these atop expired ad hoardings. Haring drew constantly, in the studio, at home, at his friends’ homes, while travelling—anywhere and everywhere. He drew on police barriers, construction trucks, large containers and more; the public space was his artistic domain. His social circle comprised of a group of artists, including Jean-Michel Basquiat, Andy Warhol, Jenny Holzer, Yoko Ono and countless more, who were the heartbeat of New York’s thriving ’80s art scene.
In an interview with Buchhart for “Crossing Lines,” American figurative artist George Condo says of Haring: “Keith wanted to reach out to the general population and express his political ideas in reaction to the societal opposition to being gay and being free to be however he wanted.” To which he adds, “So much of his work had that element to it and it worked. It brought awareness and enlightened those out there who were stuck in some judgmental abyss that needed to be changed. Keith opened doors for that through his art.”
In the course of his prime decade in the ’80s until his tragic death from AIDS-related complications in 1990 at the age of 31, Haring collaborated and created joint works with countless artists and performers from graffiti artist Angel Ortiz (aka LA II), Basquiat, Warhol, Holzer, and Ono to Jones, Madonna, Bill T. Jones, Timothy Leary, William Burroughs and more. In 1987, Haring designed two walls and a carousel for André Heller’s contemporary art amusement park, Luna Luna, in Hamburg, alongside other artists including Basquiat, Beuys, Dalí, Hockney and Lichtenstein, among others.
After receiving a HIV-positive diagnosis in 1988, Haring continued his momentum of creating stage sets and murals. The following year, he established The Keith Haring Foundation to ensure his philanthropic work would be continued after his death. The Foundation is also charged with continuing and protecting Haring’s artistic legacy. His final work, unveiled post-mortem, is in fact, an envelope design commissioned by the World Federation of United Nations Associations honouring the organisation’s efforts to fight AIDS.
The legacy of Haring is not just one of art deemed worthy of a collection or a list of grand exhibitions and festivals packing his artistic resume; rather, through his simplistic looking drawings, Haring created his world and his voice, one which sought to raise awareness for the causes he believed in, and to give back to his community. Haring mastered the use of images to convey his political ideas; he conquered the use of a line in the act of drawing to create the utmost impact which could be felt universally, across the world and through generations. From the time I stood in awe of his mural, to this day more than 20 years on, I am still learning from him, the transformative power of a simple line.
4 thoughts on “When Drawing Creates Life: What we can learn from Keith Haring”
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