Keith Haring was born on May 4, 1958, in Reading, Pennsylvania, and grew up in nearby Kutztown, Pennsylvania. At a very young age he developed a love of drawing and learned basic cartooning skills from his father and the popular culture surrounding him, such as Dr. Seuss and Walt Disney. With great energy and assertiveness, Haring knew how to attract attention.
After graduating high school in 1976, Haring enrolled at the Ivy School of Professional Art in Pittsburgh, a commercial art school. He soon realized that he had little interest in becoming a commercial artist and dropped out after two semesters. During his stay in Pittsburgh, Haring continued his studies and work on his own and had a solo exhibition of his work at the Pittsburgh Arts and Crafts Center in 1978.
Later that year Haring moved to New York City and enrolled at the School of Visual Arts (SVA). In New York, Haring found a thriving alternative art scene that developed outside the gallery and museum system, in the streets of downtown, on the subways, and in the spaces of clubs and former dance halls. Here he made friends with his artist colleagues Kenny Scharf and Jean-Michel Basquiat, as well as with the musicians, performance artists and graffiti writers who formed the burgeoning art community. Haring was carried away by the energy and spirit of this scene and began to organize and participate in exhibitions and performances at Club 57 and other alternative venues. As a student at the SVA, Haring experimented with performance, video, installation, and collage, always maintaining a strong commitment to drawing. In 1980, Haring found a highly effective medium that allowed him to communicate with the wider audience he desired when he noticed unused billboards covered with matte black paper in a subway station. He began to create drawings in white chalk on these blank paper boards throughout the entire subway system, which are now in great demand among collectors as subway drawings. Between 1980 and 1985 Haring made hundreds of these public drawings in fast, rhythmic lines, sometimes creating up to forty “subway drawings” in one day. This seamless flow of images became familiar to New York commuters, who often stopped to engage the artist when they encountered him at work. The subway became, as Haring said, a “laboratory” for working out his ideas and experimenting with his simple lines.
From 1985 onwards, Haring’s world view began to darken due to the growing danger of AIDS. Even affected by the disease, Keith Haring threw himself into his artistic work as if obsessed until the very end. In April 1986 Haring opened the Pop Shop, a retail store in Soho that sold T-shirts, toys, posters, buttons and magnets with his paintings. Haring saw the store as an extension of his work and painted the entire interior of the store in an abstract mural in black and white, creating an impressive and unique retail environment. The store was designed to give people better access to his work, which was now easily and inexpensively available on products. The store was criticized by many in the art world, but Haring remained true to his desire to make his artwork accessible to as wide an audience as possible and received strong support for his project from friends, fans and mentors, including Andy Warhol. Keith Haring occupies a unique position in recent art history. He was not only a pioneer of the new art of the 1980s, but undoubtedly one of the most confident, courageous and original artists of the last 50 years. By the time he arrived in New York in 1978-79, he had become an international art star with his first one-man show at the Tony Shafrazi Gallery at 163 Mercer Street in New York in 1982, and his travels and exhibitions in Holland, Germany and Japan were as exciting as the arrival of the Beatles. His originality and ingenuity, his most vivid and recognizable figures and iconography are among the most popular and valuable images in the art of our time. He has managed to become famous worldwide with his stick figures, Radiant Baby and Barking Dog.
In 1988 Haring was diagnosed with AIDS. In 1989, he founded the Keith Haring Foundation, whose mission is to provide financial support and images to AIDS organizations and children’s programs, and to expand the audience for Haring’s work through exhibitions, publications, and the licensing of his images. Haring has used his images in the last years of his life to talk about his own illness and to create activism and awareness of AIDS.
Keith Haring died on February 16, 1990, at the age of 31, from AIDS-related complications. On May 4, 1990, a memorial service was held at St. John the Divine Cathedral in New York City, attended by over 1,000 people.
Since his death, Haring has been the subject of several international retrospectives. Keith Haring’s work can be seen today in the exhibitions and collections of major museums around the world.