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Keith Haring: A Collector’s Guide

5 things every art collector should know about Keith Haring, the American artist who refashioned Pop Art and Graffiti, creating iconic imagery accessible to all

Works featured on offer at West Chelsea Contemporary.

Keith Haring in his studio, 1983

Bridging the gap between the art world and the street, Keith Haring rose to prominence in the 1980s with his graffiti drawings made in the subways and sidewalks of New York City.

Read on below to discover five things every art collector should know about Keith Haring.

  1. Keith Haring was born on May 4, 1958 in Reading, Pennsylvania, and was raised in nearby Kutztown, Pennsylvania. At an early age, he developed a love for drawing, learning basic cartooning skills from his father and from the popular culture around him, such as Dr. Seuss and Walt Disney. In 1978, Haring moved to New York City and enrolled in the School of Visual Arts (SVA). In New York, Haring found a thriving alternative art community that was developing outside the institutional system in the downtown streets, subways, and spaces in clubs. Living and working in the East Village, Haring became friends with many artists, as well as musicians, performance artists, and graffiti artists that comprised the burgeoning underground art community in the city.  Alongside fellow artists, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Kenny Scharf, and Jenny Holzer, Keith Hrring is regarded as a leading figure in the downtown art scene of New York City during the 1970’s and 1980’s.
Keith Haring creating art in the New York City subway
  1. Using the appeal of cartoons, Haring developed a pop-graffiti aesthetic that centered on raw imagery comprised of fluid and bold outlines for his variety of subjects. Haring’s works feature a distinctively raw energy that is activated by a singular kind of graphic expression based on the primacy of line. A variety of imagery like babies, barking dogs, flying saucers, hearts and Haring’s distinctive figures are among some prominent iconography that trademark his work. Although rendered in a playful style, Haring’s work is dense with subjects and symbols that express universal concepts of birth, death, love, sex, war, and social activism. Aside from the direct messages that Haring conveyed through such, his use of popular imagery came from pop art’s ambitions to bring popular culture into a critique of fine art.
Keith Haring creating art in the New York City subway
  1. One principle that guided Keith Haring’s practice was accessibility and making art that can be experienced in public, by the public. In 1980 he started communicating with the wide audience he desired by using the subway system, specifically the empty black surfaces that covered old advertisements in the New York subway with spontaneous and simplistic illustrations. Drawing over these in countless locations, Haring’s approach to pop art was expansive and performative. The accessibility of Haring’s art actively propagated his mission to make art available for all, “many people could enjoy art if they were given the chance.”  These drawings and paintings were often created in a matter of minutes and viewed by thousands each day, with Haring sometimes completing 40, daily. A seamless flow of his images became familiar to the thousands of New York commuters, making the subway Haring’s “laboratory” for a truly public art form and catalyst for his extreme recognition.
Keith Haring and paintings in studio, 1985
  1. Between 1980 and 1989, Haring achieved international recognition and participated in numerous group and solo exhibitions. His first solo exhibition in New York was held at the Westbeth Painters Space in 1981. Haring completed numerous public projects in the first half of the 80’s as well, ranging from an animation for the Spectacolor billboard in Times Square, designing sets and backdrops for theaters and clubs, developing watch designs for Swatch, an advertising campaign for Absolut vodka, and creating murals worldwide. In April 1986, Haring opened the Pop Shop, a retail store in Soho selling items like T-shirts, toys, posters, buttons and magnets bearing his images. Haring considered the shop to be an extension of his work and received criticism from many in the art world, however Haring remained committed to his desire to make his artwork available to as wide an audience as possible, and received strong support for from friends, fans and mentors including Andy Warhol.
Keith Haring, Ignorance=Fear (1989).

5. Throughout his career, Haring devoted much of his time to creating public works of art, which often carried social messages. His influential motifs broadcasted references to issues like racism, homophobia, drug addition, and AIDS. In many cities around the world, he produced more than 50 public artworks between 1982 and 1989, many of which were created for charities, hospitals, children’s day care centers and orphanages. Haring was diagnosed with AIDS in 1988 and established the Keith Haring Foundation a year later, using his platform as an artist to raise awareness of the condition. The foundation’s mandate being to provide funding and imagery to AIDS research and organizations, additionally to expanding the audience for Haring’s work through exhibitions, publications, and the licensing of his images. Using his artist platform to put a spotlight on the condition he suffered from, Haring enlisted his imagery during the last years of his life to speak about and generate AIDS activism and awareness before dying from it in 1990. His imagery was a universally recognized visual language of the 20th century that continues to still be actively visible in the 21st century, evident in the various international retrospectives, exhibitions, and museum and gallery collections of his work.

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What’s on now at WCC:

West Chelsea Contemporary’s nearly 8,000 square-foot gallery offers the opportunity to highlight work on a monumental scale. From 16-foot originals by RETNA and Cey Adams to colossal sculptural work—including a larger than life mixed media shark and painted aluminum spaceman—the gallery is activated by art world giant’s not only in a metaphorical sense. 

By contemplating ground-breaking movements from the past six decades, Icons & Vandals allows viewers to rediscover and redefine the art world’s most iconic and contentious house-hold names. These artists have left their mark on the development and progression of contemporary art by subverting the norms of their own time.  Through this show it becomes clear that these two labels are not mutually exclusive but in fact ingrained in their interconnectedness. 

Works from ICONS & VANDALS will be on display and for sale at West Chelsea Contemporary in beginning May 15.

Reach out today to inquire or acquire.



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