Is Keith Haring the most important gay artist of all time?
Keith Haring was an American artist whose pop art and graffiti-like work grew out of the New York City street culture of the 1980s.
Haring’s work became popular through his spontaneous drawings in New York City subways – chalk outlines of figures, dogs, and other stylised images – presented on blank black advertising-space backgrounds. Haring’s later work often addressed political and societal themes—especially queer identities and HIV.
Haring died in 1990, of AIDS-related illnesses. He was 31.
The legacy of Haring’s short but prolific career has been profound. His art created a distinct visual language that continues to influence the creative world.
A new exhibition in London will explore the work of Keith Haring and the artistic context of his career. American Icons will be showing at the Opera Gallery in London.
I caught up with Federica Beretta – the curator of the American Icons exhibition to talk about Keith Haring and his artistic legacy.
When did you first encounter the work of Keith Haring?
Opera Gallery has a long-standing relationship with the work of Keith Haring. As an icon of the 1980s, he has always been at the forefront of the contemporary art market and his art has had a profound influence on contemporary art as we know it.
You’re presenting works by Keith Haring in the context of other major American artists of that period. How does the context of those artists inform our understanding of Haring’s work?
It’s fascinating to see Haring’s works displayed amongst the other American greats during what was a very chaotic yet artistically exciting time in 1980’s America. Many of the artists that Haring was surrounded by when he was producing his art became his very close friends, as they immersed themselves in the booming New York club and street art scene.
Keith Haring met fellow artist Jean-Michel Basquiat in 1979. Though they were both graffiti artists, their styles differed – Haring was very much a pop artist with a primitive influence, but Basquiat’s work drew on a neo-expressionist style. The legendary Andy Warhol was one of Keith Haring’s mentors – this especially makes for an interesting comparison of their works in further understanding why they are the greatest icons of the Pop Art movement.
Haring was a prolific artist – how many pieces of his work are you presenting in this exhibition?
American Icons displays eleven works by Keith Haring. These are some of his best pieces that aren’t prints but original artworks. These works represent the very essence of Haring’s oeuvre, with colourful animated cartoon-like motifs that make his work instantly recognisable.
His art was a result of what was happening in 1980’s America, which became a source of artistic creativity after the Cold War. Through his art we’re able to understand the history and politics. Haring represented some of these important issues of this time – such as the drugs epidemic and AIDS crisis. As an activist, Haring was driven by his sense of difference as he injected positive symbols and political messages into creating evocative art for the masses.
One of Haring’s missions was to make his art available to all – is his work still accessible and affordable?
Haring’s work continues to appeal to the masses, with his art serving both as an art historical reconsideration of his popular productivity, as well as a celebration of art with activist inclinations. At the time, Haring remained committed to sharing his work affordably with a diverse audience. Today, his work is very much still accessible, perhaps more than it is affordable.
What do you hope that people feel when they come to see the exhibition American Icons?
I hope people will gain a better understanding of this remarkable generation of artists and how their works draw on this influential moment in history, while seeing just how relevant their art is today. This post-war period saw artists from Europe and Asia migrate to the United States as they searched for cultural emancipation while seeking to challenge the world through their art, in an optimistic way – it was a breath of fresh air.
By placing the work of Haring amongst world-renowned artists such as Tom Wesselmann, Andy Warhol, and Frank Stella, visitors are able to see how these artists have impacted the contemporary art world.