Unless you happen to live in a bustling metropolitan area or near art centers, it would be a safe bet that your biggest exposure to art may be through graffiti scrawled on train cars, if not the internet. Art has become an incredibly public medium, and it is commonplace now for promotional art foundations to install public works to be viewed and enjoyed by all. This is a huge leap from art’s origins as a luxury whose consumption was reserved exclusively for the wealthy and elite. This, of course, has reversed over the years, and art is now more public than ever—but elitism continues to underscore art today.
It was the reversal of this idea that fascinated Keith Haring so much, who was interested in art from a young age. Upon graduating high school according to his foundation’s website haring.com, he enrolled in a post-secondary institution which focused specifically on the education of art for commercial purposes. Haring, however, became disillusioned with the idea of becoming a professional graphic designer—the most legitimate job around for an aspiring artist—and dropped out after completing just one full academic year. He later re-enrolled in a different visual arts school in New York City and became involved in an art bubble similar to that of Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald in Paris in the 1920s, befriending Kenny Scharf and even the now-legend Jean-Michel Basquiat.
During his time in New York City, Keith Haring saw art booming in a way he had never seen before: art being presented as intertwined with life and in participatory circumstances, proclamations that artists were everywhere and that it was a unique language inherently shared by all humans. Haring set out to create art that was uniquely public.
Pop art was a movement in the art world that started in around the 1950s and peaked in the 1960s in the United States. It began with a realization that the majority of people could not relate to then-modern art. Pop art emerged to meet the need of those who felt that art was only for a sphere of people within a certain wealth class or certain stories of civilization, but not for the people living in a lifestyle born from the industrial age, who saw art in advertisements and propaganda. Pop art became the bridge between pop culture and traditional art, and no longer were museums stuffy preservations of historical relics irrelevant to everyday life.
It also served as the first artistic representation of the facts of life enforced by late-stage capitalism, which imposed new definitions of classes and social systems compared to the pervasive systems at play previously. Pop art is characterized by bright colors and simple designs, so that it is both eye-catching and simple.
Pop art tended to draw inspiration from the art of advertisements and propaganda, even if it wasn’t always promoting the consumption of a product or a government-backed ideology. For example, Andy Warhol’s famous Campbell’s Tomato Juice Box which can be found herepictures a box of Campbell’s tomato soup cans, but it is not an advertisement for the product. Pop art also embraced more mediums than art did previously, with a number of famous pop artists utilizing new printing technologies—the aforementioned work Campbell’s Tomato Juice Box, for example, was made using silkscreen printing.
Haring’s art reflects well his experiences as an artist in New York City. He was swept up into the pop and contemporary art scene, eventually reaching a level of success where he was able to open up his own store focused on making his art more available to the public outside of museums and art shows. He called it the Pop Shop—a play on his pop art style–where he sold T-Shirts, posters, and other goods that displayed his art. His shop was so successful that he was able to open up another sister store in Tokyo. He hand-painted the inside of both stores himself to make the experience of shopping in them more immersive for customers. These shops unfortunately do not exist in a physical form today, as each location was eventually closed, but the shop still exists today as an online store.
Throughout Haring’s career, he completed works that could be viewed and enjoyed by anyone who happened to pass by through making murals, including the Mural of Milwaukee, Andy Mouse, and his most iconic, the Crack is Wack mural located in Harlem, New York. The latter was actually inspired by the heartbreaking story of Keith Haring’s assistant, Benny, who sadly became addicted to crack. Haring even completed a mural on the Berlin wall, fascinated with using his contemporary, bright, and simple art to convey complex ideas about worldwide institutions and prevalent social problems.
Haring’s commitment to the accessibility of his art extends beyond his murals and independent shop. Haring noticed during his commutes in New York City that advertisements would sometimes be covered up with black paper. He quickly saw an opportunity and started drawing on them with chalk. The practice quickly became part of his daily routine, eventually creating about 2,000 total drawings in the span of his career. These drawings quickly became the inspiration for later Keith Haring artworks, as they allowed him to quickly experiment with new shapes and messages. Even better, they were another way for Haring to extend the reach and accessibility of his art by making them so public.
Haring’s dedication in showcasing social problems on a mass scale, however, unfortunately foreshadowed his succumbing to one of the biggest social problems of the 1980s: the AIDS epidemic. Haring was diagnosed with AIDS in 1988, a diagnosis which at the time was a death sentence. A year later, he established a foundation with the purpose of extending his reach as an artist past his death, which still exists today and runs his pop shop online and helps others through financial grants to needy children and those diagnosed with or affected by AIDS or its precursor HIV.