While Keith Haring’s visual accomplishments would become synonymous with an entire movement in the 1980s, his work’s most profound connection would be between him and the city that made him a star. Born and raised in Pennsylvania Dutch country, Haring brought his childhood passion for drawing with him to New York when he enrolled as a student at the School of Visual Arts in 1978. Like many transplants seeking new experiences during that time, he was quickly swept up in the tumultuous energy of a city in the midst of radical social transformation. There he connected with a thriving community of fellow artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat and Kenny Scharf, along with like-minded thinkers, local musicians, and graffiti writers. He also began exploring his own personal identity and sexuality, all while immersed in the uninhibited culture of Manhattan’s East Village neighborhood.
“His work’s most profound connection would be between him and the city”
It was also here that he discovered street art as the ideal platform for his creative process. Drawn to the chaotic beauty and improvisational nature of graffiti tags he saw scrawled across subway trains, Haring began obsessively practicing his technique of simple line drawings that led to the development of his trademark style. By adopting easily identifiable symbols from everyday life — a barking dog, a glowing baby, a dancing man — he envisioned a complete graphical language of urban hieroglyphics; one with its own complex and consistent internal structure. Using white chalk to draw over the unused advertising panels that lined the walls of subway stations, he canvased the underground network producing hundreds of these rapid-fire murals. Between 1980 and 1985, daily commuters could spot and recognize Haring’s extensive work spanning across the city, and would regularly engage with the artist whenever they crossed his path. Haring’s work had found a receptive audience in New York City, and the rest of the world quickly took notice.
Not long after making his first impression, the increasing notoriety of Haring’s bold and distinctive street illustrations began opening new worlds of opportunity for the young artist.
In 1982, he made his solo exhibition debut at the Tony Shafrazi Gallery in Lower Manhattan’s famed SoHo neighborhood. That same year his work appeared on the Spectacolor animated billboard in Times Square, and less than two years later, on the cover of Vanity Fair. In a short amount of time, Haring had accomplished something few artists since Andy Warhol had ever done as thoroughly — he had become a celebrity. While fame, wealth and social prestige might have removed him from some aspects of regular society, Haring was determined to continue using his work to engage with the public. In response to the rising market value of his own art, he opened Pop Shop in 1986 — a downtown Manhattan retail space dedicated to selling affordable pieces of his work so they could be accessible to everyone.
“He dedicated much of his time creating public art for numerous charities”
Throughout his career, Haring had always held to his belief that an artist’s work ought to have an impact on the world. He dedicated much of his time creating public art for numerous charities, often using his visual language to communicate overtly political statements. Having maintained a sense of social consciousness throughout his career, many of his most notable murals openly confront issues of race, class, gender, sexuality and HIV/AIDS. New York City’s famous Crack is Wack mural was created during the peak of the 1980s crack epidemic and remains an important landmark to this day. Even more remarkable is the way Haring’s passion for activism and awareness only grew stronger after learning he had AIDS in 1988. By the time he had been diagnosed, the disease had already done immeasurable destruction to the art world, the city he called home, and his generation as a whole. Rather than be discouraged, he founded the Keith Haring Foundation to continue his charitable legacy.
Determined to live for the moment, Haring candidly shared his thoughts on the final chapter of his life in an interview with Rolling Stone in August 1989: “Everything I’m doing right now is exactly what I want to do… All of the things that you make are a kind of quest for immortality. Because you’re making these things that you know have a different kind of life. They don’t depend on breathing, so they’ll last longer than any of us will. Which is sort of an interesting idea, that it’s sort of extending your life.”
Following his death in February 1990, there have been many retrospectives about his extraordinary life. But his lasting influence on the world of pop culture cannot easily be summarized. Of course, one can visit many of his famous works hanging on the walls of museums and private collections around the world. Yet as an icon, he embodied much more — a moment when fine art and pop culture merged, and all distinctions between the two were erased. Today you can witness his impact on the streets, or on the Internet, where new forms of communication and creative expression are challenging the boundaries of what art is and who it belongs to. Most significant was his commitment to changing the world through his work — an effort that remains alive and well. The Keith Haring Foundation provides grants for hundreds of charitable organizations; supporting education programs for underprivileged children, along with research and care for people living with HIV and AIDS.
It was his personal belief that art be a part of everyday life — something that is shared with the world and available to anyone that felt a personal connection to it. Celebrating this legacy, Herschel Supply proudly presents the Keith Haring Collection for Fall 2017. Featuring a selection of signature backpack, duffle, accessory and headwear silhouettes, this offering extends to the debut apparel line of wind and rainwear. Each piece is adorned with Haring’s quintessential iconography developed in the New York subway system. The significance of these nameless and vibrant characters is Haring’s message distilled — youthful, energetic and spontaneous, with an unwavering optimism that is essential to his nature. It’s the human spirit, free and uninhibited, dancing with joy.
*As seen in the complimentary print edition of The Journal by Herschel Supply. Issue 09 (Fall/Winter 2017) is now available at select global stockists.