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Haring, Keith (Allen)free

(b Reading, PA, May 4, 1958; d New York, Feb 16, 1990).
  • Natalie E. Phillips

American painter. Haring studied at the School of Visual Arts, New York, and was deeply involved in the vibrant East Village Arts scene. His fame quickly skyrocketed and he obtained gallery representation with the art dealer, Tony Shafrazi, in 1982. Haring’s style was highly recognizable; he used simple human and animal forms with stark black outlines, bright pop-inspired colors, and radiating, energetic lines emitting from the figures to suggest movement and energy. One of his most popular characters, The Radiant Baby (1990; Keith Haring col.), is an excellent example of his signature style; this figure made regular appearances in his work. His artistic influences ranged from Jean Dubuffet’s art brut style, the writings of the semiotician Umberto Eco (who looked to how signs and symbols create meaning), graffiti art, Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s interest in public art, and the energy and unique stylistic forms inherent in much of the arts of Africa and Aboriginal Australia. While primarily a painter, Haring worked in a wide range of different media: chalk and sumi ink drawing, installation, performance, video art, sculpture, collage, among many others.

1. Early life and move to New York.

Haring grew up in Kutztown, PA, graduating from Kutztown Area Senior High School in 1976. His early interest in art stemmed from his time creating drawings with his father (an engineer who drew cartoons in his spare time), and copying characters from cartoonists such as Walt Disney. The close proximity of his home in Kutztown to the near-meltdown of the Three Mile Island Nuclear Power Plant in 1979 sparked an early interest in anti-nuclear protests and other activist causes, as well as Haring’s anxiety regarding nuclear warfare. In 1982, he attended the largest anti-nuclear rally to date in New York’s Central Park, for which he designed the Poster for Nuclear Disarmament (1982; Keith Haring col.).

It was during his teenage years that he encountered the Jesus People and became fervently devoted to their apocalyptic, evangelical Christian movement. While this religious phase lasted only a few short years, he retained an interest in spirituality throughout his life. After graduating high school, he left behind his strict religious beliefs and traveled the United States, experimenting with drugs and sexuality. He eventually returned to Pennsylvania to study design at the Ivy School of Professional Art in Pittsburgh, but quickly realized that commercial art was not for him and dropped out after only one year. He remained in Pittsburgh and had his first solo show at the Pittsburgh Center for Arts and Crafts at the young age of 19.

In 1979, Haring moved to New York to study at the School of Visual Arts. It was here that he discovered his own unique artistic style and became an integral part of the burgeoning East Village Arts Scene. He frequented hotspots such as the Mudd Club and Club 57, where he arranged performance pieces, installations, and murals with many other artist and musician friends. It was at this time that he befriended Kenny Scharf, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Andy Warhol, all of whom had major influences on his own work. He was also energized by the beauty of urban life, particularly the graffiti art on the streets and subway systems of New York.

Inspired by graffiti, Haring began his own experiments on the walls of the New York subway system. He traveled the subways searching for expired advertisements; these ads were covered over with black paper and made the perfect canvas for Haring’s marks. With simple white chalk, Haring drew quick but dynamic images, often attracting a crowd around him as he drew (1983, photograph by Chantal Regnault). For Haring, the subway drawings were a way to make art accessible. Haring’s drawings allowed the average New Yorker to integrate art into his or her daily commute. Haring considered these to be performative drawings in which the conversations he had with people about them were as integral to the work as the images themselves. As Haring’s fame grew and the prices for his paintings skyrocketed, people stole many of the subway pieces and Haring became disillusioned with creating these chalk drawings. Thankfully, many of the drawings were documented by Haring’s friend, the photographer Tseng Kwong Chi, before disappearing.

2. Commercial success and conflict.

Once Haring began working with Shafrazi and no longer had to manage his own career, he became a meteoric star, exhibiting at prestigious shows such as Documenta in Kassel, Germany, in 1983 and the Whitney Biennial, New York, in the same year, had numerous solo shows at the Tony Shafrazi Gallery almost yearly from 1982 to 1990, and worked on a myriad of largescale projects throughout the USA, Europe, and Asia. His celebrity was enhanced by collaborating with 1980s superstars such as Madonna, Grace Jones, and Brooke Shields, esteemed artists Yoko Ono and Jenny Holzer, dancer Bill T. Jones, writer and New Age guru Timothy Leary, and graffiti artist Futuro 2000. Commercially, he created advertisements for Absolut Vodka, Lucky Strike cigarettes, and Swatch, and continuously engaged in projects of an extraordinarily diverse nature, from paintings on hot air balloons, motor cars, and decorative accessories, to a giant “spectacolor” billboard which broadcast his famous Radiant Baby image in Times Square for one month in 1982.

While Haring enjoyed his celebrity status, he remained conflicted about the greed he saw running rampant in the contemporary art scene of the 1980s, the inaccessibility of museums and galleries to the average person, and the rising price of his paintings. From his earliest days as an artist, accessibility had always been a priority, so he began focusing on projects that countered the attitudes and high prices of the traditional art market. He especially turned to mural projects because of their public nature—and their value for social advocacy, which would soon become a major theme of his work and one of particularly personal importance. He also enjoyed creating projects with and for children, such as his mural on the exterior of the Necker Children’s Hospital in France (1987), and his collaboration with approximately 1000 New York City school children on a banner that commemorated the 100th anniversary of the Statue of Liberty. In 1986, he created a mural on the Berlin Wall, and in the same year, opened his own retail outlet, The Pop Shop, in New York. The Pop Shop featured a variety of Haring merchandise, such as T-shirts and buttons, all at affordable prices, and was his way of maintaining his artistic philosophy of accessibility, while still being able to sell his original work to collectors at much higher prices. Though some were critical of the commercialism of this particular enterprise, The Pop Shop enjoyed enormous success and solidified Haring’s place in the visual culture of 1980s America.

3. Activism.

Haring was a deeply committed activist and made work to raise awareness of a wide range of issues pertaining to social justice, including the Free South Africa poster against apartheid (1985; Estate of Keith Haring), Fill Your Head with Fun (1988) to encourage children to read, and his well-known Crack is Wack mural on a handball court in Spanish Harlem (1986; New York), which sought to combat the crack epidemic.

Most significantly, however, was the fact that Haring was an openly gay artist living in New York during the AIDS crisis (see also Gay and lesbian art). Diagnosed with AIDS in 1987, Haring sought from that point forward to devote much of his art to promoting AIDS awareness and supporting efforts to find a cure for the disease. Haring was a vocal advocate for safe sex and produced a variety of posters and other images to combat the AIDS crisis. Ignorance = Fear, Silence = Death (1989; Estate of Keith Haring) is a powerful retort to Ronald Reagan’s complete silence on the AIDS epidemic throughout the first half of the 1980s. Haring also continued to reference both nuclear power and nuclear warfare in dramatic images like his illustration for Apocalypse (1988), a collaboration with William S. Burroughs that conflates a nuclear mushroom cloud with references to the AIDS crisis.

4. Later years and legacy.

Though he was diagnosed with AIDS in 1987, it was not until 1989 that Haring publicly confirmed his diagnosis in an interview with David Sheff of Rolling Stone. In early 1990 he completed a poignant altarpiece, which he had cast twice. His intention was that one of the altarpieces would go to St. John the Divine in New York, and the other to Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, two cities hit very hard by the ever-growing AIDS crisis. Unlike earlier work, which often referenced religion in a disillusioned or critical way, the altarpieces marked a seemingly sincere return to religion under the specter of his own impending death. Haring succumbed to complications from AIDS on February 16, 1990 at the age of 31.

Keith Haring’s artistic legacy continued long after his untimely death. The Pop Shop remained a brick-and-mortar store until 2006, after which it operated as an online shop. His work is featured in major national and international shows on a yearly basis, and his recognizable style has become ingrained in popular culture; it is featured in myriad advertisements, television shows, and movies. In 2008, one of his dynamic drawings was transformed into a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade balloon, and he was featured in a Google Doodle on what would have been his 54th birthday in 2012. The Keith Haring Foundation, helmed by Julia Gruen, preserves the artist’s legacy, maintains Haring’s archive, and continues the political and philanthropic activism that was so important to Haring throughout his lifetime.


  • Art in Transit: Subway Drawings. Introduction by Henry Geldzahler. New York: Harmony Books, 1984.
  • with Burroughs, William S. Apocalypse. New York: George Mulder Fine Arts, 1988.
  • Keith Haring Journals. Introduction by Robert Farris Thompson, foreword by Shepard Fairey. New York: Penguin Classics, 2010.
  • Keith Haring’s Journals: [includes complete scans of Haring’s previously unpublished journal entries throughout his life] (accessed Oct 19, 2018).


  • Ricard, Rene. “The Radiant Child.” Artforum 20 (Dec 1981): 35–43.
  • Gablik, Susi. “Report from New York: The Graffiti Question.” A. America 70 (Oct 1982): 33–39.
  • Keith Haring. New York: Shafrazi Gallery, 1982.
  • Hager, Steven. Art After Midnight: The East Village Scene. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1986.
  • Sheff, David. “Just Say Know.” Rolling Stone (Aug 10, 1989): 58–64.
  • Blinderman, Barry. Future Primeval. Normal: Illinois State University, 1990.
  • Thompson, Robert Farris. “Requiem for the Degas of the B-Boys.” ArtForum International 28 (May 1990): 135–141.
  • Gruen, John. Keith Haring: The Authorized Biography. New York: Fireside, 1991.
  • Kurtz, Bruce, ed. Keith Haring, Andy Warhol, and Walt Disney. New York: Prestel, 1992.
  • Celant, Germano. Keith Haring: A Retrospective. Tokyo: Mitsukoshi Museum of Art, 1993.
  • Sussman, Elizabeth. Keith Haring. New York: Whitney Museum of American Art and Bulfinch Press, 1997.
  • Adams, Brooks. “Keith Haring: Radiant Picaresque.” A. America (Apr 1998): 94–130.
  • Melcher, Ralph, Schalhorn, Andreas, Galloway, David, and Adriani, Götz. Heaven and Hell. Ostfildern: Hatje Katz, 2001.
  • Taylor, Marvin, Gumpert, Lynn, and Gendron, Bernard. The Downtown Book: The New York Art Scene 1974–1984. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005.
  • Keith Haring: Journey of the Radiant Baby. New Hampshire: Bunker Hill Publishing, 2006.
  • Phillips, Natalie. “The Radiant (Christ) Child: Keith Haring and the Jesus Movement.” Amer. A. 21 (Fall 2007): 54–73.
  • Deitch, Jeffrey, Geiss, Suzanne, and Gruen, Julia. Keith Haring. New York: Rizzoli, 2008.
  • Kolossa, Alexandra. Haring. Los Angeles: Taschen, 2009.
  • Cooper, Shawna and Wurzelbacher, Karli. Times Square Show: Revisited. New York: Hunter College, CUNY, 2012.
  • Buchhart, Dieter, Cox, Julian, Thompson, Robert Ferris, Myers-Szupinska, Julian, and Gruen, Julia. Keith Haring: The Political Line. New York: Prestel, 2014.
  • The Keith Haring Foundation, New York: [official website of the Keith Haring Foundation which includes full biographical and bibliographical information, as well as information on current exhibitions and a regularly updated blog on Haring] (accessed Oct 18, 2018).