Untitled (Subway Drawing), 1984
Keith Haring believed in and practiced public art. The Subway Drawings, like this one from 1985, are part of Haring’s most famous series of publicly installed drawings, which he drew in New York City’s underground subway stations during the early 1980s. The drawings were created on the black paper panels used by the Metropolitan Transit Authority to fill empty or transitioning advertising spaces on the subway platform walls. The black-and-white color scheme and consistent size of each Subway Drawing makes this series easily distinguishable from Haring's other colorful paintings and drawings on paper and canvas. He was prolific in the subway, making five to ten thousand drawings between 1980 and 1985. Tony Shafrazi, whose New York gallery represented Haring, remembers the burst of Haring’s underground productivity: “In a short time after he arrived in New York at age 20, he practically took over Manhattan with his Subway Drawings, which were an instant series of signs and pictograms that everybody became familiar with.”
The Subway Drawings highlight the importance of graffiti practice and style to Haring's work. Spray-painted words and pictures started to pop up on the subway cars and throughout the cityscape of New York in the 1970s, just as Haring arrived there from Philadelphia in 1978. Haring was inspired and heavily influenced by the graffiti he saw around the city: "I was immediately attracted to the subway graffiti on several levels: the obvious mastery of drawing and color, the scale, the pop imagery, the commitment to drawing worthy of risk, and the direct relationship between artist and audience." Haring ran in the circle of notable graffiti artists that included Jean-Michel Basquiat, Fab 5 Freddy, and LA II (Angel Ortiz), to name a few. Fab 5 Freddy was a member of an early Brooklyn-based graffiti crew that gained notoriety for painting in the subways. Basquiat's tag, "SAMO," was as famous as Haring's "radiant baby" tag of a crawling cartoon infant. LA II's style of writing and tagging was so admired by Haring that he actively sought him out, and although LA II was only a teenager at the time, they collaborated on several graffiti-style works, including Sarcophagus (1983). Although Haring did other graffiti-style work, his Subway Drawings were perhaps his most significant work in this mode, in that their placement on the subway walls put them in direct dialogue with advertisements, movie posters, other graffiti, and the general public passing through the tunnels during their commutes.
Although Haring believed in the political power of public art, making graffiti in public places was risky. He was fined and arrested for "criminal mischief" for drawing in the subway, despite already being a well-known artist. In the early 1980s, New York Mayor Ed Koch waged war on graffiti by putting razor-wire fences and guard dogs around the subway yards and literally whitewashing the train cars with white paint. The stakes were incredibly high for artists working in public spaces: graffiti artist Michael Stewart was brutalized by the New York City Transit Police, and later died in their custody. Haring represents the horrific death of his fellow artist in the painting Michael Stewart—USA for Africa (1985). While Haring's and Basquiat's graffiti work was lauded throughout the art world, many similar works by other (especially non-white) artists were excluded from museums and galleries. Haring eventually stopped creating his Subway Drawings because people, many affiliated with commercial galleries, started to remove the pictures from public installations and sell them, a practice that ran directly counter to Haring’s goal of creating “art for everybody.” The making and reception of Haring’s subway pictures are immortalized in his book Art in Transit (1984), a collaboration with photographer Tseng Kwong Chi.
Keith Haring, Untitled (Subway Drawing), 1984. Private collection. Keith Haring artwork © Keith Haring Foundation
Andy Mouse, 1985
Keith Haring’s Andy Mouse is a fusion of two figures who loom large in Haring’s art: Andy Warhol (1928–1987) and Walt Disney (1901–1966). Warhol, an American pop artist, was both a contemporary and friend to Haring. Haring never met the iconic American animator Walt Disney, but felt Disney’s constant presence in the television programs and books of his childhood. “I consider myself,” Haring wrote, “a perfect product of the space age not only because I was born in the year that the first man was launched into space, but also because I grew up with Walt Disney cartoons.”1 One of four children, Haring started drawing as a kid, at the same time he would have been watching Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse films, which had a lasting influence on his art.
Given Haring’s interest in mass media, America, childhood, cartoons, and popular culture, it is not surprising that he was drawn to both Disney and Warhol. The image of Mickey Mouse often appears in Haring’s drawings and paintings among Haring’s original, cartoonlike characters—crawling babies, barking dogs, spaceships, men, and women. Haring’s childlike style of drawing bold lines and bright colors invites comparison with Disney cartoons. However, Haring’s Mickey Mouse is not always the innocent Disney version: the Haring Mickey sometimes has a crazed look in his eyes, is dissolving into nervous squiggles and dots, or appears casually masturbating in the corner of a picture.2 Haring was also similar to Andy Warhol: they both loved film, media, and celebrity, and often reproduced photographs in bright colors and with cartoonish lines. Warhol, before Haring, created a “pop” style of art that used images of characters from popular culture, Hollywood, and cartoons—Marilyn Monroe, Superman, Santa Claus, Mickey Mouse, Dracula, Donald Duck—in screen prints.
This picture is one of twelve “Andy Mouse” pictures by Haring, in which the image of Mickey Mouse merges with that of Andy Warhol. The Andy Mouse figure retains identifiable features of both the cartoon mouse and the man: Mickey’s ears, tail, shorts, and shoes; and Andy’s iconic hair, glasses, and face. In this work from 1985, the image is repeated six times, imitating Warhol’s famous screenprint style. The dollar signs represent the mass marketing of both Disney and Warhol, representing capitalism in American pop culture.
1Elisabeth Sussman, "Songs of Innocence at the Nuclear Pyre," Keith Haring, ed. Elisabeth Sussman (New York: Skarstedt Gallery, 2008), p. 4.
2Jonathan Weinberg, "Making It Young," Keith Haring: Journey of the Radiant Baby (Piermont, N.H." Bunker Hill Publishing, 2006), p. 25.
Keith Haring, Andy Mouse, 1985. Private collection. Keith Haring artwork © Keith Haring Foundation
Untitled, February 3, 1981
This untitled drawing in sumi ink on parchment paper is an early work produced by Keith Haring in simple black and white. The drawing is divided into four boxes, like a newspaper comic strip. One expects this simple cartoonlike drawing to end in a punch line. Instead, in its place is mystifying content. Reading the images from left to right, top to bottom, a dark narrative unfolds: a flying saucer zaps a surface, a group of people are both running and ducking for cover (perhaps in fear of the saucer), three figures move forward in a game of leapfrog, and finally, the ground is sucked into the black abyss of a an unidentified hole (perhaps part of the saucer).
The flying saucer motif is a recurring image in Haring’s iconography. This picture, from 1981, would be an early instance of the flying saucer, which Haring drew for the first time in sumi ink in 1980. Haring describes the appearance of the saucer in the 1980 drawing: “The flying saucers looked like Mexican sombreros, but they were my archetypal vision of what I though a mythical flying saucer would look like. The saucers were zapping things with an energy ray, which would then endow whatever it zapped with its power. So these zapped things or people or animals would have these rays coming out all around them.”
Like all of Haring’s iconography, there is no singular meaning for the UFO. He said, “I had made these symbols that were nonverbal, but were signs that could have different meanings at different times.” Many of Haring’s symbols have to do with electricity or energy; the saucer represents a kind of cosmic energy that can take on many forms. In this picture, the UFO is sinister: the people flee from it, and it turns into a black hole. In other drawings, however, the cosmic energy of the UFO is positive, zapping electric energy into hip-hop dancers. Haring anticipated and engaged with outer space themes that emerged in early hip-hop hits like “Planet Rock” (1982) by the DJ Afrika Bambaataa, whom Haring heard play at various clubs: “Rock, rock to Planet Rock, don't stop / You're in a place where the nights are hot / Where nature's children dance and set a chance / On this Mother Earth, which is our rock.” In Haring’s drawings, his energized dancers performed the Egyptian-style movements of a popular hip-hop dance called the electric boogie. The flying saucer in Haring’s art is an early visual form of this aspect of the hip-hop aesthetic.
Reagan: Ready to Kill, 1988
This collage of newspaper clippings is an example of pieces Haring created to look like headlines from the New York Post. He snipped words and images from print media and rearranged them to create bizarre, ironic, or humorous imagined headlines. Other collages read “REAGAN SLAIN BY HERO COP,” “POPE KILLED FOR FREED HOSTAGE,” and “MOB FLEES AT POPE RALLY.” Haring photocopied these collages onto hundreds of flyers and pasted them on lampposts and newsstands. “Because they looked so real,” he writes, “people were forced to confront them. They were completely confused—and the posters really made a mark, because they got into people’s consciousness.”
The Reagan: Ready to Kill collage also manifests the importance of news and print media to Haring’s art practice. According to his friend Kermit Oswald, Haring “got his themes from the newspaper.” Although most of Haring’s art takes up issues of popular culture, current events, justice, health, and society, incorporated into Haring’s iconography of cartoonish figures, animals, UFOs, snakes, dancers, vibrating patterns, crowns, stairs and babies, these newspaper collages are not as mediated; they are transparent in the way they draw from politics and current events.
This collage’s statement, “REAGAN READY TO KILL,” is also a pointed political critique. Haring was a critic of the capitalistic greed and violence he saw as resulting from the “trickle-down” economic policies and the aggressive foreign policies of the Reagan administration. Poverty, homelessness, and growing prison populations were seen by many, including Haring, to be the early consequences of “Reaganomics.” By conflating the president with a killer, Haring sharply addressed the policies of an unmitigated pro-capitalistic and militarized society.
Keith Haring, Reagan Ready to Kill, 1980. Newspaper fragments and tape on paper. Collection of the Keith Haring Foundation. Keith Haring artwork © Keith Haring Foundation
Untitled, October 1982
The dog is one of Haring’s most recognizable icons, and recurs throughout this exhibition. Here, the dog wields power and presents a physical threat to the figures in his orbit. The artist was suspicious of state power, and this picture could serve as an allegory for any number of political sociopolitical concerns Haring cared about: racism in the United States and South Africa, capitalistic oppression of the poor, or global civil rights abuses of minorities. It is tempting, then, to say that the dog serves as a symbol of the abuse of power in Haring’s vocabulary. However, dogs also appear as benign or even happy figures in a variety of other paintings, seen in playful scenes in the company of babies and dancing people [or: dancer], or sometimes engaging in sexually explicit activity.
A large, red figure of a dog dominates this untitled painting from 1982. The dog stands upright, supported by a human-like lower body (unlike the horizontal, rectangular “family dog” of other paintings that walks on all fours). The massive red dog squashes one green human figure underfoot, and takes another flailing green person into the air with its paw. The painting uses a bright color scheme, and the figures are rendered in a cartoonish style, both typical aspects of Haring’s work. The viewer can “read” this painting like a comic: motion is represented by the curved lines emanating from the limbs of the figures, and the sound of a bark is indicated by the short, straight lines near the dog’s open mouth.
This painting exhibits the contradiction of style and content inherent in Haring’s work: the cheery colors and cartoonish flavor are not necessarily indicative of a cheerful theme. The dominion of the red dog-human figure over the two green figures—one upside-down in the air and one pinned to the ground—is a scene of authoritarianism and oppression of the weak by the powerful. Haring’s paintings often contain disturbing or sophisticated content rendered in an easy, readable, and enjoyable way. The curator Ralph Melcher describes this “heaven and hell” quality: “A brief overview of [Keith Haring’s] work immediately shows that cheerful, happy, optimistic themes by no means predominate, and that even many of the pictures of a basically or at least apparently positive mood possess an undercurrent of a darker nature.”
Like all of the recurring images in Haring’s lexicon, the symbol of the dog can have multiple valences and readings, depending on context. As the curator of this exhibition, Dieter Buchhart, writes, “It would be a mistake to believe that all these generic silhouettes of dogs and people in some way suggest the artist’s pursuit of standardization.” The complicated nature of Haring’s multifaceted symbolism enacts his mission to make political commentary while representing the diversity of individuals, meaning, and experience.
Keith Haring, Untitled, October 1982. Enamel and Day-Glo paint on metal. Collection of the Keith Haring Foundation. Keith Haring artwork © Keith Haring Foundation
Untitled (Apartheid), 1984
Keith Haring's art and politics were inextricable from one another. His political ideology scorned discrimination, organized religion, bigotry, racism, state-enforced violence, oppression, and abuses of power. In a journal entry from March 28, 1987, he wrote:
Control is evil. All stories of white men's "expansion" and "colonization" and "domination" are filled with horrific details of the abuse of power and the misuse of people. I'm sure inside I'm not white. There is no way to stop them, however. . . . I'm glad I'm different. I'm proud to be gay. I'm proud to have friends and lovers of every color. I am ashamed of my forefathers. I am not like them.
Haring’s political ideals were not vague concepts, but, rather, the deeply personal foundation for his political activism. Haring used art to engage in debates and express his political stance.
Haring lived and worked during a historical moment when non-white South Africans lived under the oppressive regime of apartheid, and he would have read about the unjust policies and violence of the white Afrikaner nationalist party there in the news media of the 1980s. Haring joined the international resistance to apartheid with this painting from 1984. A large, black figure is collared and leashed by a smaller white figure in the right corner. The black man clutches a radiant cross, glowing with red energy lines. While Haring’s pictures usually align the cross with oppressive figures, as a criticism of organized religion, here the cross appears in the rare position of being on the side of morality. The motion lines surrounding the black figure suggest movement or struggle, and despite the fact that the figure is kicking the white oppressor, there is no indication of impending release in Haring’s picture. The relative sizes of the two figures correlate to the white minority population’s ruling control over a black majority population in South Africa.
This painting would make a broader impact in 1985, when Haring adapted the image into an anti-apartheid poster: “I also created my Free South Africa poster,” Haring wrote, “which had first been a painting, but the image was strong enough to also make a good poster. It was conceived to make people aware of the problems of apartheid.” A photograph by Tseng Kwong Chi, in the catalogue for this exhibition, shows Haring distributing some of the twenty thousand anti-apartheid posters of this image inscribed with the phrase “Free South Africa” to a crowd in Central Park, New York City, in 1986. This painting, and its subsequent poster form, show how Haring liked to create affordable and distributable versions of his work, to both profitable and political ends.
Keith Haring, Untitled (Apartheid), 1984. Acrylic on canvas. Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam. Keith Haring artwork © Keith Haring Foundation
Untitled (Self-Portrait), February 2, 1985
In an exhibition so heavily focused on the specific political issues and subjects Haring examined in his work, this self-portrait stands out. The viewer is invited into the artist’s space between the red and black borders that delineate the edges of the canvas. Haring depicts himself as pensive: hair slightly electrified, eyebrows raised, and vision clarified by his signature round-rimmed glasses. He looks out into the world beyond the picture frame. The self-portrait shows an artist whose interiority is activated by the world outside, an artist who looks to the current events, people, and cultures around him. Although it lacks an overtly political subject, this portrait is not apolitical; rather, it considers the role of the artist in society.
For Haring, knowledge of self and knowledge of the world were synonymous. Haring sussed out his own identity in his artwork, taking many photographic self-portraits between 1980 and 1988, and rendering several other self-portraits in paint and ink throughout his life. His famous “tag”—the radiant, crawling baby—became a symbol, signature, and logo to represent him, and can be construed as an unconventional self-portrait, according to art historian Bruce D. Kurtz. Every part of the commentary Haring expressed through his art is filtered through his distinctive style and his unique perspective as a gay white man; as a Kutztown, Pennsylvania native and New York transplant; and as a person with considerable anxiety about the insidiousness of nuclear war, bad political policy, the encroachment of technology into life, threats to public health, and the many other political issues he addressed as an individual. When the New York Post asked Haring, in 1983, if the crawling radiant baby was a self-portrait, he responded, “Not necessarily. It’s the archetypal child. Any human.”
This self-portrait takes on a poignant meaning, memorializing Haring’s short but brilliant life as an artist dedicated to public discourse. He was a celebrity in the public eye, a friend and collaborator to such creative people as Jean-Michel Basquiat, Madonna, Grace Jones, and Run-D.M.C., and an acquaintance of public figures including Mayor Ed Koch and Andy Warhol. He was prolific and energetic in life: “He was always on the go, so you were always on your toes or else you’d miss something,” said Tony Shafrazi, Haring’s friend and gallerist. His style and iconography, despite treating heavy political issues, make room for levity, joy, and color. After being diagnosed with AIDS in 1987 (“I went over to the East River on the Lower East Side and just cried and cried and cried,” Haring wrote), his work became tinged with the knowledge of his own sickness and impending death. But even in sickness, Haring remained energetic as an artist, continuing to work prolifically and advocate for community issues and AIDS awareness. After his death, Haring was remembered both for his vibrancy and fearlessness, and was mourned as a young victim of one of the worst public health crises in American history.
Keith Haring, Untitled (Self-Portrait), 1985. Acrylic on canvas. Private collection. Keith Haring artwork © Keith Haring Foundation
This painting’s bright, neon lines on a black ground lend a quality of energy to this picture—a quality that art historian David Frankel claims is integral to Haring’s life and work. “Energy must have been a primary value for Haring,” Frankel writes. “The word hums through his writings and speech like the chorus of a song.” The qualities of “radiance” and “radioactivity” are often used to describe Haring’s art, placing his glowing figures among both heavenly realms and the zones affected by the fallout of nuclear accidents, such as the one that occurred at Three Mile Island, near the town where Haring grew up. The stick in this picture is a site of energy, as Frankel puts it: “Haring saw the glowing wands held by some of his figures as symbols of physical and political power.” Gallerist Jeffrey Deitch famously likened these “energized rods” to Haring’s paintbrushes.
The iconography of the radiant rod can be interpreted variously in Haring’s work, but it often represents power or authority. Sometimes it is being zapped and endowed with radiant power by a passing UFO; at other times it is the scepter of abused power in the hand of a tyrannical figure. In this image, a red human figure stands on black ground, outlined in electrified neon green. The figure flexes and exerts his arms, having just snapped apart the two halves of a black stick in his balled fists. Above him, upon a black sky, a heart floats in a circle on the left and a cross floats in the upper right corner. Here, the stick—the site of opposition between the left and the right poles of the heart and the cross—is snapped, destroyed, and disrupted.
in this picture Haring palpably depicts the act of struggle against authority in this picture by depicting the snapping of the stick. Rather than making the painting specific to a single issue through the iconography of war (mushroom clouds), technology (televisions), or capitalism (pigs and money signs), he allows for a more open-ended interpretation of the picture. “I don’t think art is propaganda; it should be something that liberates the soul, provokes the imagination and encourages people to go further,” Haring wrote. Because of its capacity to address the artist’s general struggle—in politics, society, and with AIDS—this picture has become an emblem of the exhibition Keith Haring: The Political Line, representing the tangible urgency and broad political stakes to which Haring committed his art throughout his career.
Keith Haring, Untitled, 1982. Vinyl paint on vinyl tarpaulin. Collection of Sloan and Roger Barnett. Keith Haring artwork © Keith Haring Foundation