Emerging from the vibrant New York art scene of the early 1980s, Keith Haring combined influences from fine art, street graffiti and hip hop culture to create his own instantly recognisable pop art style. Over a ten-year career, he collaborated with figures including Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Grace Jones, Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood, creating printed posters, record sleeves and fashion items in tandem with his own art. Haring died of AIDS-related complications in 1990.
He’s been the subject of a major exhibition at Tate Liverpool that runs until 10 November 2019, showcasing 85 works as well as examples of his social activism.
We spoke to the exhibition’s curator Darren Pih about Haring’s ongoing influence on culture and Kate Moross, who has long been a fan of the artist’s work.
Darren Pih, curator
When did you first become aware of Keith Haring’s work?
Haring is an artist whose work and ideas have permeated the popular imagination. He was a very public artist. Between 1980 and 1985, he became infamous for making chalk drawings on the New York subway, so they would be seen by the widest possible audience. This continued with things like his Pop Shop boutique. His imagery has a clear legibility that makes it seem almost archetypal. It carries a social message and, to me, seems symptomatic of the diverse energies that converged in 1980s New York, embracing political activism, street art and dance music. Even if you don’t know his name, you’ll be aware of Haring’s visual language and legacy.
Was your attraction immediate?
I’m interested in moments when art ideas surface in popular culture. I knew Haring’s work was more complex than people perhaps realised. He was interested in abstract painting and, for example, related the expressive energy and spontaneity of Jackson Pollock’s painting to the street graffiti he saw in downtown New York. He was interested in semiotics which led him to create his own visual language, which is his famous pop hieroglyph style of radiant babies and flying saucers. Haring also made work that responded to the urgent issues of his day, including racism, homophobia and fear of dictatorships. It remains visually active and still communicates to audiences today.
Do you think he was very much a New York artist?
Very much so. In a way, it’s impossible to conceive of Haring without New York. His earliest shows were in Pittsburgh where he developed his signature style. However, his work became more active by being connected to the street culture once he relocated to the East Village in late 1978. Works like The Matrix from 1983, which is included in the show, has an energy that reflects the bustle of New York street culture.
Was he a genuine part of the New York street art scene, or were walls just a convenient canvas for a while?
I think there was a mutual respect between Haring and the graffiti artists of the time. Haring didn’t see himself as a graffiti artist. He certainly admired street art and collaborated with people like LAII (Angel Ortiz) but his work also draws from many different sources, including Egyptian Hieroglyphs and Japanese calligraphy. He also used his profile to help draw attention to the street art scene. For example, in 1981 he organised an important graffiti exhibition at the Mudd Club, curated, at Haring’s request, by Fab 5 Freddy and Futura 2000.
Do you think he has now become accepted by the art establishment?
I think his importance is only now being realised. He was perhaps overlooked by the art establishment for a long time because of his perceived commercialism. To me, his populist reach does not undermine his position as one of the late twentieth century’s most significant artistic figures. He was sensitive to fine art both past and present, yet also immersed himself in public culture of his time. His was a truly public art that contributed to defining our culture of the past forty years.
How did his activism shape his art?
It was central. He was an artist and an activist. His work is a conduit through which we can better understand the 1980s’ most vital social and political priorities – from homophobia to environmental degradation to the excesses of capitalism – many of which remain relevant today. Of course, his work as an AIDS/HIV activist and educator remain his most essential legacy. Haring understood the power of images to change society. In a way, his art is a form of visual activism.
Was it difficult gathering all the pieces for the exhibition?
We had the support of the Keith Haring Foundation, but it was difficult in the sense that a lot of his work is in private collections, requiring a lot of travel and loan research across North America and Europe.
What do you think he might have gone on to do if he hadn’t died so young?
He would surely have continued working in the same vein by responding with immediacy to the most urgent issues today. It’s been said that Haring was a modern artist in the age of video. He harnessed the technologies and possibilities of his age. He surely would have made great use of the world wide web as a powerful means of connecting and expressing ideas.
Is the exhibition going to travel once its run is finished at Tate Liverpool?
Yes, Tate Liverpool is delighted to extend the audience for this exhibition. It’ll tour to the Centre for Fine Arts (BOZAR) in Brussels and the Museum Folkwang in Essen.
How did you first discover Keith Haring’s work?
I’m not sure I can remember the first time because I was very young. There is no doubt it had a profound influence on my life and all I know is that since then, my love for his work and appreciation for him as an artist has only grown in strength.
What did you like about it?
Though it seems simple at first, there is so much to enjoy about his work. I have always liked the playful mark making, the mix of colour and line work, pattern making, repetition, typography, iconography, character design, and limitless approach. He drew and painted on anything, anywhere, any scale, any medium. His work went beyond, he was a graphic designer, typographer, art director, illustrator, fashion designer, muralist… so much of his life went into his art, the social aspect, the connection to music and fashion, all of these things are boundless, and they create inclusive channels for people to access and appreciate art.
Has it influenced your own work?
Keith was incredibly prolific, his work can be intricate and detailed but it can also be simple and impulsive. This duality really resonates with me. It shows that there isn’t just one way or one style to making work, you can approach things however you feel with whatever medium you wish. He doodled on things, made posters and flyers, there were no limits to what he made or where he made them. The freedom of his work and strength and presence of his identity was hugely influential for me when I was starting out as a designer.
Do you think his social activism was an important part of his work?
Absolutely, you cannot separate Keith’s work from his activism. Everything he did had a power, and people listened because it was genuine, he lived his truth, there was no pretence in his work or his identity. Alongside his advocacy for bigger causes, he believed art was for everyone, and it should be in the hands of all people without prejudice. He wrote in his diary at the age of 20, ‘the public have a right to art… Art is for everybody’. It’s an aspect of his work I respect hugely.
Have you been to the Tate Liverpool exhibition? If so, what did you think?
I haven’t yet, but I won’t miss it, I’ll be sure to be there soon. I travelled to Japan a few years ago to visit The Nakamura Keith Haring Collection (est 2007) which is the only museum in the world to exhibit his work exclusively. It was one of the most emotional experiences I have ever had in an art gallery. The space was in a beautiful place in the mountains, and you could tell that the people who worked at the gallery had a huge affinity to Keith and his work. The collection was quite small, but it was a very personal and beautiful space.
Are there any Haring pieces you’d like to have in our own home?
I actually have quite a few prints and reproductions of Keith’s work. My most treasured is an original Montreux 1983 Jazz Festival poster. I also have a reproduction of a painted fan that I bought in the Nakamura Museum. I would love to own an original painting, that is for sure on my bucket list, somewhere far away in my dreams!
Images and photos provided by Tate Liverpool.