It’s hard to put a finger on Keith Haring’s genius. His specialty, to an untrained eye, is simple and seemingly uncomplicated shapes, forms, colors and lines. Part of what’s so remarkable about Haring is how organically his art went from simple graffiti scribbles in New York City’s underground—stuff that was meant to be temporary, low-brow and of the people—to works on canvas being an integral part of permanent collections in the finest museums in the world. For a Reading, PA boy with three sisters and a cartoonist father who briefly attended The Ivy School of Professional Art in Pittsburgh, it’s a miracle that Haring’s legacy is still enriching generations of humans across the globe.
There’s a vitality that glows from his Radiant Baby, a trademark image he started spreading around subway stations before the ‘80s had arrived. Soon after, he started a long-term successful collaboration with a space called Club 57, a nightclub (at the time) at 57 St. Mark’s Place, where he started regularly associating with Kenny Scharf, Madonna, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Andy Warhol. Certainly, Haring was inspired in this environment and in New York City, then a wildly different city than it is today. Because shortly after these first few years in New York, his art started taking off in terms of notoriety and acclaim, and he started getting commissioned internationally.
Obviously, the real tragedy is that he’s gone, and that he left us at the tender age of 31, just as he was hitting his stride as an artist. Haring was a homo who liked to have fun, and he was dangerously positioned at the dawn of the age of HIV and AIDS. His work often portrayed sex, but he was always a safe sex advocate; he wasn’t a vulgar artist, and his visuals very often conveyed messages of hope, unity and love. Plus, he coined and popularized succinct phrases that became inspiring and iconic statements you can find on Urban Outfitter t-shirts, which continue to serve as a tool of empowerment and self-respect: “Crack is Whack” and “Silence = Death.” Haring often strived to put his art in places that needed a boost, under-served and struggling communities that could use a reminder that to be alive is a gift and to participate in the human experience requires compassion and empathy. Which is why it’s no surprise that we have, right here in Philadelphia, one of the most treasured works in the Haring oeuvre.
His “We The Youth” mural, located on the side of a house at the corner of 22nd and Ellsworth, is one-of-a-kind. It is the only surviving collaborative public mural to remain in its original site, the wonderful product of a team-up with Brandywine Workshop and the CityKids Foundation of New York. And at the beginning of November, the Mural Arts Project is poised to grandly reveal an ongoing and meticulous restoration of the legendary mural. Haring’s work, be it a mural, collage, sketch, painting or installation, appears in esteemed museums beyond our borders (the MOMA and Whitney, the Art Institute of Chicago, the LA County Museum of Art, Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris and the Ludwig Museum in Cologne, to name a few), and by some small miracle, we’ve got a big, beautiful vestige of his legacy out in the open for consumption, without an admission fee or a dress code, right in Graduate Hospital.
Established by the artist himself in 1989, the Keith Haring Foundation “perpetuates Haring’s artistic and philanthropic legacy through the preservation and circulation of his artwork and archives, and by providing grants to children in need and those affected by HIV/AIDS.” It’s clear that Haring thought critically and seriously about how to let his artwork continue to serve humanity in his absence. He wasn’t a stranger to commodification and didn’t resist it because he saw the potential in letting affordable miniatures of his work allow broader access to art – not just rich people could collect him. His Pop Shops were a revelation, and his success at the time allowed him to commodify his work on his own terms. “Here’s the philosophy behind the Pop Shop,” Haring declared. “I wanted to continue the same sort of communication as with the subway drawings. I wanted to attract the same wide range of people, and I wanted it to be a place where, yes, not only collectors could come, but also kids from the Bronx … this was still an art statement.”
So, do yourself a favor: Check out the excellent 2008 documentary (on Netflix) called The Universe of Keith Haring by filmmaker Christina Clause, and get yourself to the grand reveal of the touched-up “We The Youth” mural next Sat., Nov. 2, at 1pm.