On the opening night of Keith Haring’s 1982 solo show, Tony Shafrazi’s gallery looked like a graffiti-covered subway car or a freshly-tagged wall in an East Village empty lot, which was exactly what the artist had intended. Like the kid who cannot color within the lines, Haring could not be restrained by orderly rows of minimalist frames set against pure white walls. Instead, he covered those walls with rhythmic patterns, densely-populated with outline figures engaged in frenetic activity. All of this was drawing, rapidly-executed with markers and felt tip pens (Haring didn’t start painting until the mid-1980s). Mounted and framed works were incorporated into this setting as well.
The overall effect was electrifying, and unsettling as it was truly unclear where the boundary between art object and display space had been redrawn. The artwork’s feral energy made the tidy commercial gallery and the patronage system it represented seem puny and dull. They were definitely chasing the tiger, whose disregard for their rituals and conventions made him all the more desirable. A popular and critical success, Haring’s show drew in 4,000 visitors in the month it was on view.*
After this success, Haring could have stepped into a new identity as critically-approved artist with SoHo gallery representation. Instead, he went underground again, and in 1982 he began drawing on the unrented, blank spaces on advertising billboards in subway stations all over Manhattan— each an authentic act of graffiti, motivated by genuine, populist impulses.
The subway drawings generated more interest in Haring and his personal, yet universally-legible, iconography quickly begat imitators. By 1984, the subway drawings were being removed from the wall and sold and their uncopyrighted imagery started appearing on cheap clothing, posters and other commercial junk. Haring could not exactly complain about unauthorized use and maintain his status as a street artist, but he did cease the subway drawing raids and began to consider ways to control the use of his imagery and market those aspects of his work which were rapidly becoming popular with the general public
In 1986, following the unclearly-motivated advice of Andy Warhol, Haring opened a chain of retail “Pop Shops,” where he sold mass-produced versions of his non-threatening work directly to the public.
Haring’s work is darker, more varied and provocative than the brightly-colored, dancing dogs and hugging stick people of the Pop Shops. Throughout the reactionary and atavistic 1980s, he consistently addressed religious bigotry, intolerance, war-mongering, and the accumulation of power over many possessed by the few. He produced work with gay sexual subject matter as explicit and unapologetic as anything Robert Mapplethorpe produced, and used his branded imagery to great effect in support of Act Up’s heroic battle to force governments to take action against the AIDS epidemic.
His death from AIDS-related complications in 1990 at the age of 31 coincided with the collapse of the 1980s art market. Haring’s work, already over-hyped and over-exposed, looked to many less like subversive subway graffiti and more like Hello Kitty or The Simpsons—great as graphic design, but vacuous and trivial.
Those abruptly-shifting perceptions of Haring’s work are now over 20 years ago and no longer exert any influence on his reputation as artist and never did on the quality of his work. The Pop Shops are closed and the radiant child and hugging stick people are no longer ubiquitous. The clearing away of the hype and side-shows has allowed a new generation of viewers and collectors to see the freshness and originality of Haring’s imagery and style. Two recent exhibitions of Haring’s early work, Keith Haring: 1978-82, mounted in 2012 at the Brooklyn Museum, and Keith Haring: The Political Line, a major retrospective organized by the Musée de l’Art Moderne in Paris in 2013, gave Haring’s work the comprehensive, scholarly and curatorial treatment it clearly merits. On 13-14 May 2014, two monumental Haring paintings from 1981 and 1986, sold at auction for $4.59 and $4.87 million respectively, establishing new sales benchmarks for the artist.
(*) Haring’s Tony Shafrazi show was not his first solo exhibition, nor was it the first time he had applied graffiti-like imagery to gallery walls. In February, 1981, artist Michael Keane, curator of the Des Réfusés gallery at the Westbeth Painters Space, gave Haring the run of the space, which he covered with graffiti-like drawings. The flyer for that show features the radiant child and barking dog outline figures that would become, for better of for worse, his trademarks.
ART OF THE 1980s
1980 – Cindy Sherman
1981 – Robert Longo
1982 – Keith Haring
1985 – Peter Halley
1987 – The Starn Twins