10 Things You Need To Know About Keith Haring, As Told By His Namesake Exhibition at Tate Liverpool

Tseng Kwong Chi, “Keith Haring in subway car (New York)” (circa 1983), © Muna Tseng Dance Projects, Inc. Art © Keith Haring Foundation

Deemed an artist of the people for his hugely reactive visual motifs, decision of display and charged responses to global political crises, Keith Haring is an artist whose work still seems as relevant today as it did when it first emerged in subway stations at the start of the 1980s in New York City. Bringing together a varied examination of the life of an artist whose visual dictionary has come to be lauded as an international language, Tate Liverpool has constructed a timeline of the life of the pop cultural icon from his beginnings at the School of Visual Arts to his portrayals of macabre devil sperm as his body became affected by AIDS.

As the first ever major UK exhibition documenting work and life of the artist, Keith Haring at Tate Liverpool is the ultimate social postcard of the time and place so often referenced in pop culture. Whether before you head over there or after the tour as a cheat sheet – we bring you a list of things you need to know about this exciting new show and the man behind it, currently opened until November 10th.

Keith Haring, “Untitled” (1983), Courtesy Laurent Strouk, 

1. Keith Haring was a “spokesman for a society at any given point in history.”

The socially conscious attitude of Haring was reflected in all his artworks, the stylistic form influenced by the accessibility of TV cartoons and the socially engaged presence of graffiti. From his early works featuring Mickey Mouse to the recurrent open-ended symbolic motifs of the luminous baby and barking dog, Tate Liverpool has curated a showcase of work that present Haring’s art as an accessible medium to communicate with a generation enveloped in a wildly changing socio-political landscape.

2. The exhibition shows the evolution of Haring’s art when he moved to New York in 1978 to study at the School of Visual Arts.

Throughout his time at SVA, Haring was able to conceive of his imagery as a distinctive visual language designed to communicate open ended meanings. Here Haring was exposed to performance, conceptual and video art, as we see from a video recording of him painting a white room, greatly informing his development of performance in his own practice.

3.  Haring was always interested in the semiotic study of signs.

Wanting to make work that was culturally resonant and communicative, some of his works Untitled 1986 and Untitled 1983 clearly show the influence of ancient symbolism such as Egyptian Hieroglyphs. Haring noted: “I saw beautiful Egyptian drawings today. There is a lot to be learnt from Egyptian design concepts and their use of symbols.” 

Keith Haring, “Ignorance = Fear” (1989), © Keith Haring Foundation Collection Noirmontartproduction, Paris

4. Haring was an avid subway artist. 

The Tate have featured images by the photographer Tseng Kwong Chi showing Haring in the subway amongst his drawings he created thousands of, dedicated to the people of New York. Utilising the black card put up over expired advertisements, Haring drew inspiration from graffiti’s usage of public space as a method to democratise showcasing his art. The photographer Tseng Kwong Chi captured these creations alongside Haring either mid-production or interacting with commuters – presenting the artist as a man communicating with the people, rather than removed from reality.

5. The pop culture influences included Walt Disney and Dr. Seuss.

Haring was fascinated by the harnessing of energy and spontaneity of children’s art, capturing this through his quick and free-flowing executions that filled his canvas, as seen in the first exhibition room.

6. Size mattered in his work, as seen in Untitled (Apartheid) 1984.

The inclusion of one of Haring’s humongous canvases whose subject matter is immediately identifiable as Apartheid engulfing South Africa shows a huge black figure enchained to a small white figure, pulling at his neck with the white noose as the mighty figure clutches at a cross. While done in simpler terms than some of his other paintings, the message is powerful in its elemental clarity.

© Keith Haring Foundation

7. In 1986, Haring was invited to paint the west side of the Berlin Wall.

Painted in the combined colours of the East & West German flags, Haring aimed to represent the potential of future unity. For Haring, his mural was an “attempt to psychologically destroy the wall.”

8. Tate Liverpool recreated a mini version of his club installation for the Tony Shafazi Gallery.

The club environment was often the setting for many of Haring’s exhibitions: Club 57 was one of Haring’s first exhibition supporters, carrying an atmosphere of stylistic anarchy, improvisation and hedonism, with Haring organising exhibitions of his own work and curating shows of his friends and peers. His show at the Mudd Club entitled Beyond Words was curated by the rapper Fab 5 Freddy and the graffiti artist Futura 2000, while his second show with his gallery representative, Tony Shafazi Gallery, was turned into a club environment. Emphasising the New York City club scene and representing his Day Glo works under UV light, the Tate have recreated this particular showcase. Painting the walls in bright, thick stripes and playing the same soundtrack that would have accompanied the show of these Day Glo works. By doing so, we get a feel of what Haring wanted to present – the living, moving, breathing, dancing quality of his art.

Keith Haring, “Untitled” (1983) Courtesy of Laurent Strouk © Keith Haring Foundation

9. The final section of the exhibition is dedicated to the exploration of Haring’s activism, as an ardent supporter of gay rights.

So many of Haring’s works surmise his dedication to gay rights and the fight against the HIV/ AIDS crisis. His artwork embodies the pride he felt in his homosexuality, a bold statement in the still homophobic climate of 1980s America. He actively and tirelessly promoted safe sex, campaigning against the government for its lack of action. Works featured include the Silence = Death square canvas that presents the See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil figural motif atop the pink triangle, the symbol of gay rights.

Sadly, Haring himself passed away of AIDS-related illness aged 31 in 1990, a reminder of the power of his work during his later period was spiked with deeply personal resonance, as seen in his ten canvas series Set Of Ten Drawings (1988), at the final stage of the exhibition that paints sperm as a dark, cruel, macabre presence.

10. Haring constantly aimed to develop a wider interaction between the artist and the audience.

The Matrix, a 15m long mural that was created live, showcases his desire to merge different mediums as an interactive display of his artistic practice. hIS dedication to communicating with the spectator through creating artworks that embraced music, performance, concept and craft. The influence of Robert Henri’s 1923 art text The Art Spirit urged artists to celebrate the full, diverse array of humanity of the modern city, something Haring succeeded in capturing profusely, through his re-interpretation of the gallery space, his familiar motif dictionary he encouraged his audience to draw their own meaning from, and his decidedly rooted influences in the New York that was changing around him.  

‘Keith Haring’ is on display at Tate Liverpool until November 10th.


© Joseph Szkodzinski, Keith Haring Drawing Series (1982)

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