The Alphabet of Keith Haring

My first summer in New York, Keith Haring’s yellow men seemed to be everywhere I went, especially on the Lower East Side and in Soho, where I spent most days. I hadn’t understood their appeal nor their meaning. At 19, I didn’t understand why this was considered such influential art. I was hanging out with club kids and skaters and street artists and I knew his work was important to them but I would never know why.

Twenty years later, I looked into Haring further, just ahead of an exhibition at the Albertina in Vienna and found a deeper meaning in his work than I could ever have read into back in the mid-90s, shortly after the artist’s death.

Perhaps most memorable of his figures were the yellow-colored outlines of people in movement, their arms and legs turned outward or raised to the sky in what looks like break dancing. These dancing characters appear over and over again in drawings, as do variations on a spiky-headed dog, a symbol that some considered Haring’s street tag, or signature.

Always interested in social activism, Haring turned a critical eye to subjects that were on everyone’s minds in the 1980s: apartheid in South Africa, the Cold War and the military-industrial complex, HIV/AIDS, LGBTQ rights. Although his drawings included no words to reflect his political beliefs, the symbolism Haring employed made transparent his feelings about the subjects: dollar signs representing the greed of the go-go decade or mushroom clouds reflecting the artist’s feelings toward nuclear disarmament. These overtly political statements helped the artist garner invitations to create work in cities across Europe, including a mural on the Berlin Wall.

Both a review of the astounding exhibition in Vienna and a glimpse at Haring’s biography, my response is over at Deutsche Welle’s culture page. What I didn’t get to mention — something I’d love to look into further in future — is how great a role fashion and the fashion industry has played in memorializing Haring’s work. And the way that his drawings appearing on accessories has made his art more accessible to the masses.


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