Happy Birthday Keith Haring: Remembering the Queer Artist & Social Activist
Today, May 4th, would have been Keith Haring's 54th birthday.
Haring was born on May 4, 1958 in Pennsylvania, and according to the Keith Haring Foundation website he "developed a love for drawing at a very early age, learning basic cartooning skills from his father and from the popular culture around him, such as Dr. Seuss and Walt Disney." He eventually made his way to New York where he enrolled in the School of Visual Arts (SVA) and became inspired by the city's thriving alternative art community; that is, works developing outside the gallery and museum system. He became friends with artists Kenny Scharf and Jean-Michel Basquiat, "as well as the musicians, performance artists and graffiti writers that comprised the burgeoning art community." With inspiration around him and an unending drive to create, Haring quickly made himself known among fellow members of the art world.
Between 1980 and 1989, Haring achieved international recognition, and he did so while being openly gay. He participated in numerous group and solo exhibitions, was hired to create public murals from New York to Sydney, Australia, designed sets and backdrops for theaters and clubs, and pop art pieces for companies like Absolut vodka. In 1986 he opened the Pop Shop in Soho, which sold t-shirts, toys and other products with his art. His work at this time began reflecting more sociopolitical themes, such as anti-Apartheid, AIDS awareness, and the crack cocaine epidemic. He also designed the cover for the benefit album A Very Special Christmas, on which Madonna was included.
While these achievements are amazing in themselves, consider that at this time HIV and AIDS were quickly overtaking the LGBT community, and no one in the government was talking about it. Gay rights were considered a joke, we were still labeled "deviants" by many in mainstream media, and yet here was a man who was creating artwork about all these topics—and more. Perhaps his work was accepted because he was an artist living in New York and therefore people wasn't surprised that he was gay, but it was still significant that this young man could create works that interested and engaged mainstream America and the world at large in such a massive way.
Haring was diagnosed with AIDS in 1988 and died of AIDS-related illnesses in 1990 at the age of 31. He left behind a
complicated legacy of collaborative work with street artists, graffiti-inspired murals, world-renowned homoerotic icons that straddle the line between art and commerce, and the multimillion-dollar Keith Haring Foundation. Its mandate is "to provide funding and imagery 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 enlisted his imagery during the last years of his life to speak about his own illness and generate activism and awareness about AIDS."
Happy birthday, Keith. We miss you, but your work lives on.