Tag Archives: Keith Harring

“Silence = Death”: The Political Art of Keith Haring

Keith Haring was a street artist at the heart of the urban art movement in 1980s New York. He was also a gay man diagnosed with AIDS. Partly as a result of living with these stigmas, his work often bears a strong element of political and social critique.

He was one third of a trio of New York street artists at the helm of the growing movement. He, Richard Hambleton and Jean-Michel Basquiat regularly met to discuss each other’s work, and sometimes collaborated.

He first began using public spaces as his canvas whilst studying at New York’s School of Visual Arts, when he started drawing on blank advertising panels in subway stations.

Whimsical human figures drawn in bold and clear outlines became his trademark. They contrast with the heavy subject matter of much of his work. In his art he called attention to the AIDS epidemic afflicting gay men in the 1980s.

Silence = Death by Keith Harring | Art-Pie

He made his targets state and society. The Reagan and Bush administrations neglected to fund research into treatments and a cure for the disease. This negligence left AIDS sufferers in the dark, without support, whilst religious leaders and the media continued to blame gay men for the problem.

One of his most famous works is a commentary on the epidemic called Silence=Death, which depicts a crowd of figures covering their ears as if to avoid the horrible truth of AIDS. Overlaying the crowd is a pink triangle. The Nazis gave this symbol in the form of a badge to concentration camp inmates imprisoned for their sexuality. The symbol was reclaimed by the gay community in the 1980s.

Click to enlarge
Click to enlarge

In the mid-80s Haring set up ‘pop shops’ which sold his imagery on t-shirts, buttons, bags and stickers. The shops made his work accessible at low cost to everyday people and were an innovative way of disseminating pop art.

After he was diagnosed with AIDS in 1987, Haring felt a renewed determination, sensing the urgency of his work.

Some critics described his art as freer after his diagnosis. Robert Farris Thompson wrote that “in his art he found the key to transform desire, the force that killed him, into a flowering elegance that will live beyond his time.”

He died in 1990 as a result of AIDS-related complications. But his work lives on, his figures still a recognised visual language in the 21st century.

Keith Harring would have been 54 today

Keith Harring
Keith Harring

On February 16, 1990, at age 31, Keith Haring’s life was cut short due to an AIDS-related illness. He would have been 54 today and as a homage, here are a few words and a tribute to his most iconic pieces of art.

I wonder what Keith Haring (May 4, 1958 – February 16, 1990) would make of the global phenomenon that street art is now, art form very much confined to the street of New York City at the time when he decided to move there in 1978, aged 19.

Having studied commercial art and then Fine Arts, he took a keen interest in graffiti art, Haring would go out there and paste collages of fake New York Post headlines on lamposts or news stands. He explored the likes of SAMO (Jean-Michel Basquiat) or Fab Five Fred (Fred Brathwaite) graffiti art to quickly put in practice his own interpretation of this form of art and would develop his future vocabulary of primitive cartoon-like forms. The Haring’s chalk-drawn “radiant babies” and “barking dogs” were born (see pictures) and woud become familiar sights on the matt black surfaces used to cover the old advertisements in the subways.

Keith Harring Radiant babyKeith Harring Barking Dog

These chalk drawings in the subways of New York got Haring in the public eye and he would go on from there to have his first exclusive exhibition in the Tony Shafrazi Gallery which put together a retrospective a few years ago about it – see picture. Willing to reach a larger public, he immersed himself in popular American culture and befriended individials such as Andy Warhol, Madonna or Grace Jones (whom he would body-paint).

Haring was also a keen social activist and as a result of his ever increasing political involvement; he designed a Free South Africa poster in 1985 (see picture) and painting a section of the Berlin Wall in 1986 (see picture). Other works include design for Swatch watches or the Absolut Vodka advertisement (see picture)

Keith Harring work on the Berlin WallKeith Harring Free South Africa poster

Keith Harring’s work are just simply one of the best examples of how consumerism, popular culture and fine art merged in the 1980s.

Recommended readings
Keith Haring: The Authorized Biography by John Gruen (1991) includes interviews with the artist and those closest to him and is an invaluable source for understanding the art and life of Haring.

The early work is illustrated in Art in Transit: The Subway Drawings (1984) and Keith Haring (Shafrazi Gallery, 1982). An enlightening interview by David Sheff appeared in Rolling Stone (August 10, 1989).

Elizabeth Aubert directed an insightful video entitled Drawing the Line: A Portrait of Keith Haring (Biografilm, 1989).

Later an attempt was made to place Haring within a broader art historical context in Keith Haring, edited by Germano Celant (1992). □