“It has become increasingly clear to me that art is not an elitist activity reserved for the appreciation of a few, but for everyone, and that is the end toward which I will continue to work.”
F rom Club 57 to the Times Square Show to the streets, Keith Haring was an integral part of the early 1980s downtown art scene. A new student at the School of Visual Arts dedicated to his involvement in the East Village scene, Haring quickly fell into the social circles of other artists from Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat to Grace Jones and Madonna. This thriving creative community both inspired and supported him throughout his career. As a student, Haring was organizing group shows at Club 57—a space dedicated to art outside of the gallery system that attracted an array of emerging artists—and becoming integral to New York City’s streets with graffiti and postering. He was drawn to the streets because he sensed the impetus behind his work’s existence there: to communicate. From the cut-up pseudo headlines such as “Reagan Slain by Hero Cop” to his stenciled “Clones Go Home” graffiti, Haring was determined to convey a potent message through his work. To him, graffiti was not just about filling empty public space, but capturing passersby's attention and making a mark on their consciousness—a sentiment that remained at the core throughout the expansion of his oeuvre.
Haring got his start primarily executing drawings and paintings on paper or canvas, first gaining widespread recognition with his subway drawings. He began tagging the expired ads in the subway, covered with black paper, with his iconic radiant baby, barking dog, flying saucers, and other visual symbols in his lexicon to craft simultaneously complex yet quickly digestible scenes. Haring’s use of these blank pages displays his impulse to use a found surface for his art, stemming from his fascination with graffiti. Haring began to use other found objects as a foundation for his drawings as well, marking objects such as terra cotta vases and a sarcophagus—Haring was not a stranger to the three dimensional.
Haring worked largely outside of the established gallery scene—instead organizing his own exhibitions at Club 57 and focusing on his infamous subway drawings—until 1982, when he joined the roster at Tony Shafrazi Gallery. It was Shafrazi who convinced Haring to begin making sculptures, and in 1983, the artist began creating both monumental sculpture for public spaces as well as smaller scale works, and he translated his drawn visual style to three dimensions with ease. For Haring’s first exhibition of sculptures at Tony Shafrazi Gallery, he decided to draw a frieze along the surrounding wall, clearly demonstrating the ties between his three dimensional and two dimensional works. His creation of monumental public sculptures was a continuation of his desire to continue to hold space and capture attention in the public sphere with his art. The bright colors capture the viewer’s attention immediately, and large-scale works beckon the viewer to climb upon them. Untitled (Figure on Baby) and Untitled (Three Dancing Figures), executed in 1987 and 1989 respectively, are quintessential examples of the dynamism captured in Haring’s signature sculptures, a vivid embodiment of Haring’s iconic drawings come to life.