With his instantly recognizable and highly legible forms, Haring entirely circumnavigated the traditional path from underground culture to mainstream popularity and art-world stardom. The artist’s remarkable application of Pop imagery and tabulated symbolic language succinctly captured the booming social culture of the downtown New York scene in the early eighties, and as such became immensely popular at breakneck speed. His signature lexicon of stick figures, crawling babies and barking dogs became ubiquitous through his subway drawings and public performances. As Haring took his signature hieroglyphic language to the streets, his practice vibrated with enthusiasm for a utopic, populist art form rooted in connection and community. Haring envisaged a universal, anti-elitist language of direct and simplified form rendered in exuberant popping primary colors. This was an art for the people. Delineated in bold, black, cartoonish lines, Haring envisaged a universal language of direct and simplified form and popping primary colors: “A more holistic and basic idea of wanting to incorporate [art] into every part of life,” he explained, “less as an egotistical exercise and more natural somehow. I don’t know how to exactly explain it. Taking it off the pedestal. I’m giving it back to the people, I guess” (the artist in: Daniel Drenger, ‘Art and Life: An Interview with Keith Haring,’ Columbia Art Review, Spring 1988, p. 53).
Haring demonstrated a great propensity for art from a young age. He first learned how to draw cartoons from his father and was influenced by the popular culture that surrounded him from Walt Disney animations to the illustrations of Dr. Seuss. He later became enthralled by avant-garde artists such as Jean Dubuffet and Pierre Alechinsky as his pictorial style developed and the impact of their liberated, instinctual paintings and freedom of color and form can be noted in his own compositions. During this period in the mid-1980s, however, it was Roy Lichtenstein that most captivated the artist’s imagination. However, unlike Lichtenstein, Haring’s graphic immediacy does not reference mass-media, but is rooted in the instantaneous symbolic codes of 1980s downtown New York, the graffiti of its streets, and the East Village art scene that the artist trail-blazed alongside contemporaries Jean-Michel Basquiat and Kenny Scharf.
Ever looking to the past in order to understand and critique the present, Haring’s art was as much a celebration of life as it was a wholehearted endeavor to strive for a better, fairer and more beautiful world. His enduring legacy on the art world is testament to his unique and unparalleled vision that recognized the vital significance of art on culture, history and existence itself. “Work is all I have,” he stated, “and art is more important than life” (the artist in: Alexandra Kolossa, Keith Haring, 1958-1990: A Life For Art, Los Angeles 2004, p. 81).
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