Keith haring: From Street Artist to Pop Icon

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Keith Haring, one of the most prolific working artists of the 1980s, acquired international acclaim for his large scale graphic works as well as enormous popularity for his artistic social activism in the LGBTQ community. Though he achieved incredible success in the professional art market, Haring’s career was founded in the New York City graffiti and street culture separate from the predominance of the gallery and museum system. While pursuing a degree in painting at The School of Visual Arts in New York, the artist was naturally expelled alongside Jean-Michel Basquiat for using the school’s facilities as a surface for their graffiti work. Though this transition would take Haring off the streets, his roots in its culture would continue to pervade his work for the rest of his career.

What made the artist such a success were ultimately his origins in the underground art scene; however, though his time at there was was cut short, Haring’s education at SVA provided him with the tools to experiment with a wide variety of media from video to installation. This allowed him to take his graffiti to the next level in the gallery scene and bring the culture of the streets into fine art. He maintained the immediacy and stylization of street art throughout his career, but exposure to the systems of the fine art world allowed him to enter into great prosperity. Underground artists are heralded for their raw ability, immediacy in their practice, and disregard for authority. In his career, Haring never strayed from these conditions and demanded recognition for his surprising work. The fine art market was compelled to see Haring’s work as legitimate, and therefore opened the door for all other street artists to be considered so as well.

The world of “low art” makers with a guerilla attitude and art-making style is no friend to “high art,” which is dominated by traditional forms of making such as painting and sculpture; Haring broke boundaries alongside other pop artists such as Andy Warhol by creating art that appealed to the masses on such a massive scale that the world of galleries and museums had no choice but to take notice. The rebellious artist created work that was accessible to ordinary people who have little to no knowledge of the goings-on in the domain of fine art. The work of Keith Haring is commercially appealing and evokes a childlike naiveté; however, it discusses the human condition in a manner that only a well-seasoned, mature artist is capable of. Both its minimalistic, nostalgic qualities and its capability to connect with the emotions of common people make the work appealing. In his lifetime, the artist was able to blur the lines between street and fine art and pave the way for contemporary artists like Banksy and KAWS. Since Haring’s death in 1990, his work remains abundant in popular culture with companies such as Uniqlo, Target, and countless others using his creations in their designs.