Keith Haring was born on May 4, 1958 in Reading, Pennsylvania, and was raised in nearby Kutztown, Pennsylvania. He developed a love for drawing at a very early age, learning basic cartooning skills from his father.
From 1976 to 1978 he studied commercial art at The Ivy School of Professional Art, an art school in Pittsburgh. He soon lost interest of commercial art, and moved on to study Fine Arts. At age 19, in 1978, Haring moved to New York City, where he was inspired by graffiti art, and studied at the School of Visual Arts.
Haring achieved his first public attention with chalk drawings in the subways of New York (see public art). These were his first recognized pieces of pop art. The exhibitions were filmed by the photographer Tseng Kwong Chi. Around this time, “The Radiant Baby” became his symbol. His bold lines, vivid colors, and active figures carry strong messages of life and unity. Starting in 1980, he organized exhibitions in Club 57. He participated in the Times Square Exhibition and drew, for the first time, animals and human faces. In 1981 he sketched his first chalk drawings on black paper and painted plastic, metal and found objects.
Haring contributed to the New York New Wave display in 1981 and in 1982; he had his first exclusive exhibition in the Tony Shafrazi Gallery. That same year, Haring took part in Documenta 7 in Kassel, Germany. By 1982, he established friendships with fellow emerging artists Futura 2000, Kenny Scharf, Madonna and Jean-Michel Basquiat. That same year he took part in Public Art Fund’s “Messages to the Public” in which he created work for a Spectacolor Board in Times Square. He took part in the Whitney Biennial in 1983, as well as in the São Paulo Biennial. He got to know Andy Warhol, who was the theme of several of Haring’s pieces including “Andy Mouse.”
In 1985 Haring started to paint canvas. Simultaneously, the Museum of Modern Art in Bordeaux opened an exhibition of his works, and took part in the Paris Biennial. He made an appearance on MTV in November 1985, painting the set during a “guest VJ” special hosted by his friend, keyboardist Nick Rhodes of Duran Duran. In 1986 Haring painted murals in Amsterdam, Paris, and Phoenix and in Berlin on the Berlin Wall at Brandenburg Gate. As well, he painted the body of Grace Jones for her music video “I’m Not Perfect.” and opened a retail store in SoHo called Pop Shop, selling merchandise bearing his iconic images including t-shirts, toys, posters and other objects with reproductions of his art; the outlet closed in 2005. Haring also created advertising images for Absolut vodka and Swatch watches.
Throughout his career, Haring devoted much of his time to public works, which often carried social messages. He produced more than 50 public artworks between 1982 and 1989, in dozens of cities around the world, many of which were created for charities, hospitals, children’s day care centers and orphanages. The now famous “Crack is Wack mural” of 1986 has become a landmark along New York’s FDR Drive.
Haring was diagnosed with AIDS in 1988. In 1989, he established the Keith Haring Foundation, its mandate being to provide funding and imagery to AIDS organizations and children’s programs, and to expand the audience for Haring’s work through exhibitions, publications and the licensing of his images.
During a brief but intense career that spanned the 1980s, Haring’s work was featured in over 100 solo and group exhibitions. In 1986 alone, he was the subject of more than 40 newspaper and magazine articles.
Keith Haring died of AIDS related complications at the age of 31 on February 16, 1990. A memorial service was held on May 4, 1990 at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City, with over 1,000 people in attendance.
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