By Elizabeth Gracen:
"My contribution to the world is my ability to draw. I will draw as much as I can for as many people as I can for as long as I can. Drawing is still basically the same as it has been since prehistoric times. It brings together man and the world. It lives through magic." — Keith Haring, March 18, 1982
As the Keith Haring: Art Is for Everybody exhibit at the Broad Museum in downtown Los Angeles came to a close in November 2023, I was able to make it in just under the wire for the last day of the show, determined not to miss the iconic artist’s extensive retrospective at what has become my favorite museum in the city.
Familiar with Haring’s almost universally recognized symbolic images and with his prolific chalk art from when I lived in the Big Apple and road the NYC subway system in the mid-80s, I wasn’t quite prepared for the vibrancy and scope of Haring’s work displayed at the Broad. Not only did the show expand my appreciation of his art and activist outreach, it reignited in me the drive to create—to never stop making art. From what I know of Haring’s philosophy, that reaction falls right in line with what he endeavored to inspire with his work.
As familiar as I was with Haring’s most iconic symbolic images—the "Barking Dog," the radiant baby, the heart, the dancing figures, and the electric radiating lines so identifiable in his extensive output—I had never experienced the large-scale tarpaulin pieces reinforced with grommets that reached almost floor to ceiling throughout the exhibit.
You wouldn’t think that repeated imagery and simple iconography could elicit emotion, but Haring’s determined use of line, especially in these larger works, exudes powerful emotion, drawing the viewer into his world, insisting that your own emotions participate in the dance.
With heady contemporaries such as Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat, and heavily influenced by the alternative intellectual and literary interests of William S. Burroughs, Jean Dubuffet, Pierre Alechinsky, and others, Haring combined his common interest in popular culture and public graffiti with his own influences from cartooning, Egyptian hieroglyphics, break-dancing, and Semiotics—the study of signs and symbols in the communication of meaning.
His own mission was to bring art to the masses, to create an accessible, true public art that freed it from elitist curation—even as he simultaneously realized the practical benefit of allowing highbrow dealers of the art world to elevate his prices and spread his work internationally.
In his short twelve-year career, Haring rose from underground street artist to art superstar. From the hundreds of chalk drawings made on blank black paper advertising panels throughout the NYC subway system to more than 50 public artworks created between 1982–1989 in cities all over the world, Haring continued to develop his passion for creating art outside of traditional spaces, bridging the divide between pop culture and high art. Throughout his career, he continued to work in a variety of mediums. His vibrant repetition of images found their way into sculptures, public murals, performance videos and installations, collages, over 3,000 works on paper, and nearly 300 paintings.
Various Installations, Broad Museum: Art Is for Everybody, Keith Haring
Haring’s energetic artistic output combined a true activist's heart with the savvy business sense of an artist who began with a short-lived career in commercial advertising. Although he faced criticism in the late 80s for opening the Pop Shop—a Soho retail store that sold his images on everything from T-shirts, buttons, posters, and magnets—Haring considered the venture an extension of his philosophy that established a dynamic immediacy between his work and the viewer, allowing low-cost access to art.
Shortly after he was diagnosed with AIDS in 1988, he established the Keith Haring Foundation, an organization that funded AIDS organizations and provided imagery to bring awareness to the disease and educate the masses.
Since his death, there has been a much- needed cultural shift regarding the appropriation of non-Western references made by artists in their work. No doubt Haring's obvious influences from a variety of indigenous cultures, Egyptian hieroglyphics, totemic sculptural elements, symbology, and style come under scrutiny in this matter. However controversial this subject may be regarding his work, his career was dedicated to many important social causes. Haring's public artworks (many of which were created for charities, hospitals, and children's day-care centers and orphanages) made an immediate impact on the communities touched by his art.
"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 now. Work is all I have and art is more important than life." — Keith Haring, March 28, 1987
The Keith Haring: Art Is for Everybody exhibit travels to the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto and then to the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis in 2024. It is an exciting, educational, and inspirational viewing. If you happen to live near one of these museums, don't miss this powerful show!
To read more about this retrospective and the artist, visit:
"I am not a beginning. I am not an end. I am a link in a chain. The strength of which depends on my own contributions, as well as the contributions of those before and after me." — Keith Haring, November 7, 1978