Keith Haring, the artist associated with jelly bean-like doodles, was far more serious than people realise
Hanging on the wall of an artist’s studio in New York is a black and white photograph of a geeky 12-year-old boy sitting next to an image of the cartoon character Snoopy. It’s the young Keith Haring, surveying the domain of the man he became. And it serves as a counterpoint to the colourful explosion of self-expression that the artist unleashed in the space.
Haring’s former studio is located on the top floor of an office block on the edge of the East Village. As I enter, I see drawings he did on the ceiling of the lift and the wall of the corridor. Once inside the studio itself, I walk over splatters of paint he left on the floor.
Anna, a young archivist from the Keith Haring Foundation, shows me the artist’s to-do lists, paintbrushes and the mixtapes he listened to while he worked. These give the sense of a man with boundless energy and drive, but one who was also very disciplined and organised. Haring was an artist who wasn’t just committed to his work but one who took it very seriously.
“Serious” isn’t the first adjective that springs to mind when most people think of Keith Haring. He’s best known for his jelly bean-like doodles that often include playful motifs such as crawling babies, dancing acrobats and barking dogs. As his most famous work is also painted in bright, bold colours, it’s easy to think of it as lightweight, joyous fun.
The fact that it’s been reproduced on millions of posters that hang on the bedroom walls of students has only added to this interpretation. (Keith Haring is a highly commercial industry and the Foundation has a turnover of around $10 million a year.)
But a new exhibition at Tate Liverpool aims to show that there’s much more to Haring. Some of his well-known work will be there, but the exhibition will also feature darker paintings, drawings and sculptures inspired by the urgent issues of his day, including racism, homophobia, Aids, drug addiction and inequality.
The exhibition will also show how Haring was influenced by a diverse range of artistic movements, from abstract expressionism, to pop art and Chinese calligraphy.
Tamar Hemmes, the assistant curator, says: “He really believed in the social responsibility of art and was really determined to create an art that was for the public.”
And Julia Gruen, the artist’s former assistant and now executive director of the Foundation, says people have the wrong impression of Haring the man, as well. “You see Keith described in a million articles as nerdy and geeky,” she says. “But he was also very magnetic. He had this extraordinary energy and was extremely funny. It’s as if those action lines you see in so many of his works, those surrounded him at all times.”
The man who was to become such a central figure in New York’s underground street scene in the Eighties was born in 1958 and brought up by churchgoing disciplinarians in Reading, Pennsylvania. His father, an amateur cartoonist, taught him how to draw and the importance of creating his own characters, rather than just copying other people’s work. But, as soon as Haring realised he was gay he knew he had to move away.
In 1978 he enrolled at the School of Visual Arts in New York and threw himself into the city’s nightlife, hanging out with people like Madonna and Jean-Michel Basquiat in nightclubs that functioned as their creative cauldrons. Haring’s favourite was Paradise Garage. “It really was a kind of paradise for him,” says Gruen. “He really felt comfortable and at home in this wonderfully mixed crowd of all ethnicities and all sexual orientations.”
In 1980, Haring took inspiration from the booming graffiti movement and began doing chalk drawings on unused advertising panels on the subway, a practice that was against the law and led to his arrest. But it helped him find his voice as an artist and build his profile.
As fame grew, he lapped up the attention. He threw a series of legendary parties, including one at which he was serenaded by Boy George, and another at which Madonna premiered her new single, Like a Virgin, writhing around on a bed strewn with white roses.
But throughout this, Haring always maintained his focus on his art. He was extraordinarily productive, Andy Warhol became his mentor, and his work featured on posters, T-shirts and even mugs and fridge magnets.
This sort of commercial behaviour did not endear him to the art establishment in New York and he had no solo museum show in the US during his lifetime. Michael Kimmelman wrote in The New York Times that for many people he was the “embodiment of all that was wrong with glitzy, shallow, MTV-style Eighties consumer culture”.
But, in fact, much of Haring’s art was infused with a great passion for social justice. He created murals around the world protesting apartheid, drug abuse, nuclear warfare and homophobia. One example of this, which will be on show at Tate Liverpool, was Ignorance = Fear, which incorporated the pink triangle of the Nazi death camps to protest the Reagan administration’s inaction over Aids.
Even his most famous work, although unquestionably joyous, was an expression of the joy of a gay man being set free from repression.
When Haring himself was diagnosed with HIV in 1988, the work got even darker. Radiant babies gave way to skeletons, pierced hearts and penises shooting out deadly sperm. Around the same time, he stepped up his Aids activism, came out as HIV+ in an interview in Rolling Stone, and established his foundation to raise awareness of the disease.
I ask Julia Gruen how Haring felt about his diagnosis. “He was angry, he was devastated, he was terrified,” she says. “And of course by then, he’d already been to so many memorial services and seen so many people withering away. But, after the initial devastation and shock, what he did was, he worked, harder and harder.”
Keith Haring died of Aids-related complications in February 1990. He left behind an incredible body of work that has much more to it than just a bit of fun.
So, when you head to the exhibition, allow yourself to smile at the leapfrogging boys and radiant babies – and maybe even treat yourself to a T-shirt in the gift shop. But keep in mind Haring’s more serious side and his passionate political activism. Or at least don’t be surprised when these jump out and hit you over the head.
Keith Haring opens at Tate Liverpool June 14