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    Keith Haring: Artist of Populism, Life and Love

    By Dr. Bill Lipsky–

    At the beginning of the complicated decade when Ronald Reagan was president of the United States, innocent looking, funny, childlike drawings began appearing on the streets and in the subways of New York City. These images of babies, space ships, televisions, dogs, and assorted unusual creatures—created in thick outline with a piece of chalk or a thick permanent marker often surrounded by rings of light or emitting rays of energy—looked like simplicity itself.

    They were not. A gift to passersby, the seemingly random graffiti were the thoughtful and sophisticated creations of Keith Haring, a young, gay artist who expressed universal concepts of birth, sex, love, and joy. Fusing elements from sources as diverse as comic book illustration, animated cartoons, hip-hop music, urban graffiti, and ancient Native American pictographs, he would create an entirely new, universally understandable, visual language to express his and our concerns and joys.

    There probably has been graffiti since the world’s first wall went up in the first city: “Sumerians Go Home;” “Jonathan Loves David;” “Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin.” Haring took this ancient, storied way to make public, anonymous social, sexual, and literary comments and turned it into a unique art form. “I at once felt at ease with this art-form,” he later said.“Graffiti was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen.”

    Born on May 4, 1958, in Reading, Pennsylvania, Haring discovered his love of art at a very early age. After graduating from high school in 1976, he attended a commercial arts school in Pittsburgh, but soon left. “I quickly realized that I didn’t want to be an illustrator or a graphic designer. The people I met who were doing it seemed really unhappy; they said that they were only doing it for a job while they did their own art on the side, but in reality that was never the case—their own art was lost. I quit the school.”

    Moving to New York City in 1978, Haring became involved in the city’s thriving alternative art community, especially the informal group of graffitists who were exploring new ideas on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. From the beginning, he wanted to create public art, work that “could reach all kinds of people, as opposed to the traditional view, which has art as this elitist thing.” His goal: to integrate art “into every part of life” by “taking it off the pedestal [and] giving it back to the people.” He succeeded.

    Haring put his work not in galleries and museums, but in subways, where people went about their daily lives. “One day, riding the subway,” he explained,” I saw this empty black panel where an advertisement was supposed to go. I immediately realized that this was the perfect place to draw. I went back above ground to a card shop and bought a box of white chalk, went back down and did a drawing on it. It was perfect—soft black paper; chalk drew on it really easily.”

    His newly found atelier became his medium. “I kept seeing more and more of these black spaces, and I drew on them whenever I saw one. Because they were so fragile, people left them alone and respected them; they didn’t rub them out or try to mess them up.” He also had found his audience. “People were completely enthralled,” he discovered, and “really, really concerned with what they meant. The first thing anyone asked me, no matter how old, no matter who they were, was, ‘What does it mean?’”

    Haring used his art to address deeply personal, intensely humanistic concerns: the impact of mass technology; the excesses of capitalism; poverty; sexuality; violence; racism; and more. From the beginning, he incorporated the universal language of sex into what he created. He never denied his intent or meaning, instead “affirming his pride in being gay through the very explicit homo-erotic character of his works” and showing other artists that they no longer needed to hold back from “positively expressing their homosexuality in their art.”

    Haring’s intent always was to create art for everyone, “not only collectors but kids from the Bronx.” Ever increasing recognition, however, meant, “My work was starting to become more expensive and…those prices meant that only people who could afford big art prices could have access to the work.” His solution: The Pop Shop, which sold his images on everything from t-shirts to posters to skateboards. When it opened in 1986, some accused him of “selling out” to commercialism, but it enabled anyone who wanted it to acquire his art at an affordable cost.

    By 1990, the year he died tragically of AIDS at only 31 years old, Haring’s unmistakable images were found everywhere, on everything. Almost overwhelmed by both their popularity and establishment acceptance, they seemed about to become banalities. Instead, with their simplicity of line and complexity of thought, they remain a vital, universally recognized visual language, expressing deeply human cares, a gift from his century to ours.

    Five years after his death, the Keith Haring “Altarpiece,” a triptych 81 x 60 x 2 inches, was installed in the AIDS Memorial Chapel of San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral. Cast in bronze and covered with gold leaf, the artist used his famed graffiti style to present an iconic portrait unlike any other, of the life of Christ and the unity of heaven and earth. It was his final work of art.

    Bill Lipsky, Ph.D., author of “Gay and Lesbian San Francisco” (2006), is a member of the Rainbow Honor Walk board of directors.