Keith Haring’s art is immediately recognizable. Keith was inspired by cartoons, and by the graffiti and murals on the streets and in the subways of New York City, where he moved in the late 1970s. His work is known for the thick lines that define his crawling, dancing or barking figures and by clear messages about universal topics such as love, birth and death, sex, drugs, and war.
Keith’s career took off in the early 1980s and became known worldwide, visible in major museums, in over 100 solo and group shows, and in public art in dozens of cities across the globe. There’s the “Crack is Whack” mural on FDR Drive in Manhattan, the mural for the Statue of Liberty’s 100th anniversary, a mural on the western side of the Berlin Wall just a few years before the wall came down, and even the interior of the Palladium nightclub.
Keith made his art more accessible and available to the public by opening the Pop Shop, a retail shop in SoHo that sold merchandise displaying Keith’s art. The whole inside of the shop was a giant mural he painted.
He loved to create art in public, like a public performance, often with hip-hop playing as he painted. He could watch his audience and their reactions. He created art for regular people, not for the critics, and so when prices for his art sky-rocketed, Keith wanted regular people to be able to own his art, even if it was just on a t-shirt.
Keith found out he had AIDS in 1988 when he was only 29. I’m Irwin Rappaport, chair of the Board of Directors for the Foundation for The AIDS Monument.
The following is taken from an interview with artist Kenny Scharf, who met Keith in art school and quickly became one of Keith’s best friends:
I met Keith in 1978. I had just arrived from LA to New York, and I was at the School of Visual Arts.
I remember feeling a little let down that my idea of what New York City art school students would be like. Oh, they look the same, kind of suburban kids just like back here … and then I heard some Devo music blasting, and I’m following it. And I come to this room, and there’s Keith, alone, painting himself in — literally — into a corner.
And I just sat there and looked at him, and I thought, “Oh, well, that’s what I was looking for when I wanted to meet artists in New York City.”
Well, you know, we didn’t have him for very long, so luckily, at that moment, we became instant friends. And we hung out quite a bit, and we ended up actually being roommates for some time, which was also a quite amazing moment in his career, when he started doing his drawings — his chalk drawings — in the street.
We shared a loft near Times Square, so he used to go down in the subway on 42nd Street. You would instantly be hit by his magic. And he had this amazing drive and ability to get himself out there. And I remember he irked a lot of the other students, because they would say, “Oh, he’s so self-promoting” — like it’s a bad thing. And we were like, “Yeah, he’s self-promoting. That’s the idea!” There’s nothing shameful about it, when you have a message.
So, it was amazing how he did that, and how it caught on so quick when he found that niche — which was basically every single black paper in the subways of New York City before they got an ad on them. It’s pretty amazing and ingenious, you know?
His ability to draw and his language that he made up – basically, his symbols are language. So, he created his own language and a universal language … he crossed boundaries and barriers. Every stroke is there for a reason, and there’s no waste.
I used to call him the Mayor — he should be the Mayor of New York City – because everywhere he went, he’d have his chalk, of course, in his pocket. And it wasn’t only for drawing on the subways, he would draw all the time on the sidewalk. All of the sudden, he’d just get down and just start drawing, and instantly there would be a crowd around him. And then he would give out all his buttons to all the crowd. Everyone loved him.
And so when I heard about these symptoms of the swollen glands, I [long pause and exhale] I immediately thought of the time probably four years prior, his neck was like that and we had no idea what it was. And all of the sudden he got better and he was back, he was Keith.
It was around the time that Klaus Nomi died, before AIDS had a name, they were starting to talk about some of the things, the signs that meant, you know, you were carrying this. But we didn’t really talk about it, because it was so scary as a subject.
Believe it or not, way before AIDS existed, way before he had that swollen gland, he used to say to me that he was going to die young. He had that urgency way before any, any of that existed and that’s part of it. Like, there was something he knew. He was like a flaming star.
What really was hard was, well, around the time he came out – which was so brave — about his diagnosis in Rolling Stone magazine, and nobody was doing that — there was such a stigma of shame — and I just thought, “Wow.” He was so brave.
And then sadly, a lot of the invitations dried up, parties and things like that that he was so into, and what was left was, you know, people that, you know, really cared.
Everything he did had meaning behind it. He wasn’t just taking the rage and, you know, internalizing it and make a crazy Rashomon. He would spend his money and make a stack of posters and be giving them out with the buttons. Not dogmatic at all. He was full of life and art and generosity, you know, of giving to people.
He created this language now that everybody reads — that’s huge. All over the world, everyone knows those images, and it’s just kind of amazing. The way he went about himself as an artist in the public, in so many ways, he was way ahead of his time. He didn’t get to see the whole explosion of social media, but I can imagine he would’ve taken it to a level that we don’t understand and that we’ll never know.
He was a very important person in my life – still is, obviously. The generosity that he had of himself was pretty inspiring. So, I try to keep that up.
The last thing I said to him, I basically told him that I would do what I can to help him keep his legacy alive. And I do whatever I can, so I’m happy to do this.