At a time when the New York art scene was caught up with Conceptualism, the work of the American muralist and graffiti artist Keith Haring, with his call of ‘art for everyone’, burst onto the city’s walls and subways with refreshing exuberance. Haring’s work came to define the moment when urban culture left the fringes and entered not only the avant garde, but also the market mainstream. ‘Art is life,’ he once wrote, ‘and life is art.’ Haring’s project brought the visual vernacular of the street into both the art gallery and the commercial sphere. It was a conscious merging of high and low culture that would encompass everything from acts of illegal graffiti to works of corporate design.
Born in Pennsylvania, Haring briefly studied commercial arts in Pittsburgh before moving to New York in 1978 to train at the School of Visual Arts. In New York he joined the city’s graffiti and alternative art community, where artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat and Kenny Scharf were working outside of the restrictions and elitism of galleries and museums. His first works were white-chalk graffiti drawings made on the black panels of vacant billboards in New York’s subway system. The subway became, as he himself stated, his ‘laboratory’, and his hallmark style of Primitivist, cartoonish figures and graphic line captured the imaginations of New Yorkers.
Although his career would last a little over ten years before he died of AIDS-related complications in 1990, Haring’s rise was dazzling. From cult street artist, his designs would come to define the decade, appearing on everything from the Berlin Wall to Swatch watch designs and Absolut vodka advertising campaigns. Haring was working in an informal artistic tradition that had begun with Duchamp, Picasso and Dubuffet’s idea of Art Brut and developed into Pop Art in the 1960s. It was an approach that took everyday or sub-cultural forms of visual representation and incorporated them into an art that could belong as much to the street as the gallery, museum or shop.
Encouraged by Andy Warhol, Haring opened his own retail outlet, Pop Shop, in 1986. He was diagnosed with AIDS in 1988, and died two years later.
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