Art as Activism

Silence = Death poster, 1986

Keith Haring’s life was one of many tragically cut short by the AIDS epidemic in the late 1980s; he was diagnosed with the disease in 1988 and died less than two years later at the age of 31. Haring was painfully aware of how AIDS might affect his own life, as is evidenced in a particularly prescient passage from his journal:

There is one question George [Condo] is asked about life and art and which is more important, and George said art is more important because it is immortal. This struck a very deep note inside me. For I am quite aware of the chance that I have or will have AIDS. The odds are very great and, in fact, the symptoms already exist. My friends are dropping like flies and I know in my heart that it is only divine intervention that has kept me alive this long. I don’t know if I have five months or five years, but I know my days are numbered. This is why my activities and projects are so important now. To do as much as possible as quickly as possible. I’m sure that what will live on after I die is important enough to make sacrifices of my personal luxury and leisure time. Work is all I have and art is more important than life.

The same year as his diagnosis he painted Silence = Death, an adaptation of a poster made by a collective of the same name, and an image that would eventually be adopted by ACT UP, an organization created to fight the AIDS crisis and for visibility of its victims. The present lot is a 1989 screenprint of Haring's iconic painting and is laden with potent symbolism. The pink triangle was appropriated from the Nazis, who forced gay men in concentration camps to wear an inverted triangle as a symbol of their place at the bottom of society. Haring overlaid the shape with repeating figures covering their ears, eyes, or mouths as a representation of the famous phrase “See no evil, Speak no evil, Hear no evil”. This was meant to be an allusion to the Reagan administration’s refusal to acknowledge the AIDS crisis as well as a nod to all American citizens who turned a blind eye to the plight of the gay community. 

In the last years of his life, Haring worked to create imagery relating to social activism around the AIDS crisis. He left behind an important legacy within both the artistic and LGBTQ+ communities and has since been inducted into the Rainbow Honor Walk in San Francisco and the National LGBTQ Wall of Honor within the Stonewall National Monument in New York City's Stonewall Inn.

Keith Haring 1958–1990

Keith Haring was born in 1958 in Reading, Pennsylvania. From a young age he enjoyed drawing, especially Disney characters and other cartoons. He initially wanted to become a commercial artist but after a year at the Ivy School of Professional Art in Pittsburgh, Haring dropped, moved to New York City and enrolled in the School of Visual Arts (SVA). Haring immediately felt connected to the thriving alternative arts scene happening downtown in the late 1970s and became friends with Jean-Michel Basquiat and Kenny Scharf.

Inspired by the ideals of “art as life” and moving the art experience out of galleries and into the streets, Haring’s first major works were his subway drawings. Haring produced over one hundred of these public works between 1980 and 1985, integrating his now-iconic exuberant, cartoonish outlined figures into everyday public space in a way that directly engaged its viewers. Haring recalled that the most important aspects of these works was the immediate engagement people had with them, asking him “what does it mean?” and giving him feedback that he’d then incorporate into future drawings. In this way, these works became reflections of the people who viewed them, responsive to and in dialogue with their environment. These works quickly garnered the attention of tastemakers in New York and his first solo exhibition was held at Westbeth Painters Space in 1981 and a celebrated show debuted at the high-profile Tony Shafrazi Gallery in New York the following year.

Auction Results Keith Haring