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

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.

Throughout the 1980s, Haring was committed to democratizing the art experience and along with paintings, he also created theater sets, billboards, murals, advertising campaigns and even a line of Swatch watches. In 1986 he opened the Pop Shop in SoHo, selling apparel, posters and toys bearing his drawings. This was a controversial move, as many galleries criticized Haring for “de-valuing” the art object while others, such as Andy Warhol, championed Haring’s insistence on making art accessible and affordable. Pop Shop was highly influential to contemporary crossovers of art and merchandise that are now so dominant, as in the work of Jeff Koons, Yayoi Kusama, KAWS, Shepard Fairey and Takashi Murakami.

In addition to this ideology of accessibility, Haring was also very socially engaged and used his striking imagery to promote awareness of various political and social campaigns. His many notable public works included a mural on the western side of the Berlin Wall, the Crack is Wack mural in New York, and a mural for the 100th anniversary of the Statue of Liberty in 1986. Haring was diagnosed with AIDS in 1988 and used his presence in the arts community to raise awareness of the crisis. In 1989, a year before his death, he established the Keith Haring Foundation, whose mission is to raise funds for AIDS organizations and children’s literacy and arts programs.

Since his death in 1990, Haring has become one of the most widely-recognized and celebrated artists of the 20th century, priming the path for the rise of graffiti and street art in the 21st century and a socially-conscious approach to talking about sexuality, intimacy and visibility through public art. Famed New York gallerist Jeffery Deitch asserts that Haring made “works that can hang in museums alongside masterpieces…and hold their own as art-historically important pieces,” expressly because they embrace and engage popular culture with an immediate and dynamic visual language that celebrates the joy and chaos of our society.

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