24 Jun Exploring Keith Haring’s Famous Figures
Keith Haring was one of the most widely-celebrated artists of 1980s New York, and his work is still hugely popular today. His vibrant, eye-catching pieces are grounded in street culture, yet also respected in the art world. And while his cartoon-like drawings may seem simplistic compared to more traditional forms, Haring’s art is no less thought-provoking.
The painter and sculptor intended to create an effective visual language, with every image having a unique meaning behind it. This was extensively explored in a 2018 exhibition called Keith Haring. The Alphabet held at Vienna’s Albertina Museum, with its curators emphasising the artist’s fascination with hieroglyphics. “I am intrigued with the shapes people choose as their symbols to create language,” he once said. “There is within all forms a basic structure, an indication of the entire object with a minimum of lines, that becomes a symbol. This is common to all languages, all people, all times.”
Like the hieroglyphics of the past and the emojis of the present, the visual representations created by Haring succeeded in saying a great deal. And at the heart of his work were his highly symbolic ‘figures’ — outlines of humans signifying the people within modern society. Using his distinct artistic style, Haring conveyed a variety of incredibly important themes and ideas through these characters.
What is Keith Haring’s style of art?
Haring is most famous for his street art, which also took influence from the pop art movement, utilizing thick black lines and bright block colors that became synonymous with his creations. Whether painting energetic motifs or commenting on serious social issues, his work always evoked wit and charm, and was brought to life by the strategic use of lines and dots to convey sound, movement and texture.
Along with his artistic contemporaries (and friends) Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat, Haring was determined to make his art accessible, and engage with as diverse an audience as possible. Though graffiti had traditionally been considered a trashy artform, he broke barriers by creating work that was just as comfortable on street walls as it was in exclusive spaces like galleries and museums. In doing so, he succeeded in proving that even seemingly simple art still had immense value.
What are the main themes of Keith Haring’s artwork?
Many of Haring’s paintings reflect on significant social and political issues, such as his Crack Is Wack mural, created in response to the crack cocaine epidemic that swept America during the 1980s. As a gay man, he also used his platform to address issues which directly affected him, promoting safe sex and AIDS awareness. Other themes Haring tackled include religion, war, and apartheid in South Africa.
What is the meaning behind Keith Haring’s figures?
Haring’s multicolored, faceless figures reveal no hint of gender, race, religion or sexual orientation, representing humans as distinct but equal beings. Haring wrote in his journal that: “It is important to the future existence of the human race that we understand the importance of the individual and the reality that we are all different, all individuals, all changing and all contributing to the ‘whole’ as individuals, not as groups or products of ‘mass-identity’, ‘anti-individual’ or ‘stereotyped’ groups of humans with the same goals, ideas and needs.”
The ways in which Haring displayed his figures conveyed additional meaning. These are some of the most common ways his famous figures were presented, and what these compositions illustrate.
1. Hole in the stomach
Many of Haring’s figures have gaping holes in the middle of their stomachs, which other figures often interact with, such as by high fiving or even dancing through the space. The artist initially came up with this visualisation in response to the murder of John Lennon on 8 December 1980. However, beyond this, the hole in the stomach has also been argued to represent the emptiness within people.
Haring’s dancing figures clearly evoke fun, joy, energy and community, and can also be considered a reflection of the artist’s love of hip hop, which was emerging in New York City around the same time his art rose to prominence. He would often listen to rap while painting, and was inspired by its movement and energy. Fellow artist and friend Kenny Scharf recalled: “He used to paint one stroke at a time to the rhythm of whatever he was listening to.” Figures that are upside down, in backbends or other contortions appear to be depictions of breakdancers in action.
While there is plenty of violent imagery present in Haring’s work, love, togetherness and connection have always been his main messages. This is why there are so many depictions of his figures embracing, be that romantically or in a platonic way, with the lines surrounding their silhouettes evoking a positive energy.
Haring gave plenty of thought to technology and the impact it would have on humanity, once writing: “The silicon computer chip has become the new life form. Eventually the only worth of man will be to service and serve the computer. Are we there? In a lot of ways we are.” As a result, his figures were often depicted engaging with machines. Lines around the gadgets emphasise their power, and often the images could be alarming, if tongue in cheek — like this silkscreen of a figure being physically consumed by technology. Another notable example is Haring’s depiction of a caterpillar with a computer for a head, a juxtapozition which the Albertina curators believe transforms it into a “technological ogre”.
Crucifixes are heavily featured in Haring’s work, with his figures either painted alongside them, attached to them, or even made to resemble the religious symbol themselves. He grew up in a Christian household, but was generally skeptical of organized religion and other forms of fundamentalism, saying: “The fundamentalist Christians, all dogmatic ‘control religions,’ are evil. The original ideas are good. But they are so convoluted and changed that only a skeleton of good intentions is left.” Several of his works show crosses being used to commit murder, while other figures stand by and watch.