So said Keith Haring, who died 32 years ago this year.
Taking nascent hip hop culture (where graffitiing was just as important as MCing) as a starting point and incorporating influence from hieroglyphics, William Burroughs and cartoons, Haring created an iconic style that is visually appealing, intricate and often with a positive vibe, due to the poses of the figures signifying energy and vibrancy.
Unlike his contemporary Jean-Michel Basquiat, Haring’s work was much more accessible and much more colourful. However, what he did share with Basquiat was a social conscience and a desire to merge the worlds of graffiti and fine art together. In many ways, he was the Andy Warhol of the 1980’s, creating mass produced (yet slyly subversive) pop art, leading Timothy Leary described him as the archetypal artist of the 21st century.
This book, produced by the Tate Gallery in Liverpool to coincide with a retrospective of his work, does an immense job reproducing a broad selection of his paintings, cut up collages and photos of the man himself. For someone looking for an introduction to Haring, this will do the job nicely.
Also included are essays on how art should be for public consumption (something Haring embraced wholeheartedly) and the importance of activism in Haring’s art. Aimed at the newbie/casual fan, they neatly place his work in context and help us read it as much more than mass produced pop art.
However, in a lengthy essay about the importance of New York to Haring as an artist, Hans-Jurgen Lechtreck discusses one aspect of Haring’s modus operandi that enabled him to move beyond the New York elite and conquer the world:
Haring continued the shift away from the gallery as a conventional space for exhibiting art…and created links between urban spaces not usually associated with art…He conceived his second solo exhibition at Tony Shafrazi’s gallery in 1983…as an ‘active floor to ceiling totality’; he turned the gallery basement into a disco space with hip hop music and as a result, it was visited by break dancers…By contrast…Haring transformed the rooms of the Paradise Garage into a ‘big exhibition’, with large format paintings on lengths of fabric and tarpaulins…
The combination of “high” and “low” culture (also important to Basquiat) was not only important to his success, but undoubtedly also helped pave the way for the deeply cynical Young British Artists movement (who took his brashness but left out his sincerity). Still, nobody’s perfect!
As previously mentioned, socio-political activism was another part of his work, with various works on South Africa, gay culture, the crack epidemic and AIDS soon began to adorn various walls and pamphlets. Take the following as an example.
The exuberant colours are, of course, a Haring trait, as well as suggestion of rhythm and an expressive pose. But, when considered in the context of the campaign it is promoting, the previously discussed elements combine to demonstrate a boisterous confidence in the face of homophobia. Truly a manifestation of “we’re here, we’re queer, get used to it.”
Another, more famous example:
Referencing the old “hear nothing, see nothing, say nothing” adage, the rhythm of the figures (in this case) doesn’t suggest positivity, but violence (with the x acting as a kind of target). Combined with the stark (yet direct) sloganeering and the bright colours, the contrast is striking, and a great unease sets within the viewer.
Do yourself a favour and check this book out.
Keith Haring, lest we forget
Darren Pih (editor), 2019, Keith Haring. Tate Publishers. ISBN-13: 978-1849766272
⏩ Christopher Owens was a reviewer for Metal Ireland and finds time to study the history and inherent contradictions of Ireland. He is currently the TPQ Friday columnist.