Danni Glover shares her thoughts on one of the 20th century’s most influential visual artists.
Few visual artists have ever had such an immediately evocative effect as the 20th century American painter and sculptor, Keith Haring. The colourful, blocky figures for which he is most immediately recognisable are blank-faced but emotive, casting body language like a static ballet dancers. In their soft and tangled lines, it’s easy to see ourselves, our relationships, our community. Haring was one of the greatest artists ever to visualise the complexity and the universality of the queer experience internationally. I have always admired his anger, the fire he had in his belly to speak out against injustice.
Haring was born in Pennsylvania in 1958. In 1978 he moved to New York City and enrolled in the School of Visual Arts. While there he began experimenting with alternative art forms such as performance, installation, video, and collage, and became friends with East Village neo-expressionists Jean-Michel Basquiat and Kenny Scharf. Haring was an advocate of public art, and his earliest work was exhibited, albeit illicitly, on posters on the New York City subway. His murals are internationally displayed and celebrated, with major works in Australia, Brazil, and central Europe, as well as across the continental USA. Perhaps his most famous mural still exists in New York. Inspired by the city’s failure to respond to the crack cocaine epidemic in 1986, Haring painted his Crack is Wack mural in a single day without asking for permission (“When you have a van, ladders, and paint, policemen don’t even consider asking whether you have any permission, they just assume you do,” he later said, though he was eventually arrested and fined $100 for the delinquency of publically acknowledging a major health crisis.) The legacy of his work is still in the public eye today; his friend Madonna used an animated version of his images as a backdrop during her Sticky and Sweet tour in 2008.
Haring was diagnosed with AIDS in 1988, though he was aware of his symptoms for some time before his diagnosis, and tragically died two years later at the young age of 31, but in the time between diagnosis and death, he was a prolific AIDS activist, working closely with organisations such as ACT UP and starting the Keith Haring Foundation to provide funding for AIDS organisations and to licence his own work for use after his death. The paintings he produced at the height of the AIDS crisis are among the most enduring images of the era; perhaps most notably Ignorance=Fear, a poster with three of his typical figures in a “hear no evil, speak no evil, do no evil” pose along with the slogan “Act Up. Fight Aids” and Silence=Death, an image of intertwined figures in the same poses on a black background with the pink triangle of gay oppression.
Haring was one of the greatest artists ever to visualise the complexity and the universality of the queer experience internationally. I have always admired his anger, the fire he had in his belly to speak out against injustice.
Haring was also an activist for other causes, producing poster work for the anti-Apartheid movement, which were distributed for free to attendees of a rally to free South Africa, and anti-nuclear posters which he distributed in the same way. His portrait of Ronald Reagan, whose policies included not only a purposeful ignorance of the AIDS crisis and an explicitly homophobic message, but also cutting arts and environment budgets and increasing spending on nuclear devices, presented the President as the devil.
As an openly gay man working during the AIDS crisis, Haring’s work often has themes of secrecy and intimacy. The threat of homosexuality in the 1980s is presented through the lens of homophobia, but it’s never self-loathing. Instead it’s a delicately therapeutic interrogation of the pain that homophobia causes, and an accusation that homophobia fosters an environment whereby gay men have to put themselves in danger just to live their lives.
The threat of homosexuality in the 1980s is presented through the lens of homophobia, but it’s never self-loathing. Instead it’s a delicately therapeutic interrogation of the pain that homophobia causes, and an accusation that homophobia fosters an environment whereby gay men have to put themselves in danger just to live their lives.
Haring’s work has always been open to commercialisation. He sold keyrings, mugs, and other ephemera bearing his art from a store in Soho. You can still buy prints of his work, and his journals. But to my great excitement (and shame) I bought a Keith Haring t-shirt from, of all places, Primark in Belfast last year. It’s one of my favourite shirts (though I have been asked where I got my Ikea t-shirt in the past). I wear it and I remember his passion and determination in the face of tremendous threat. I am immensely proud to have Keith Haring as one of my queer heroes, and I’m grateful for the legacy of art and protest he left behind.
Follow Danni on Twitter (@danvestite)