New York ignited Keith Haring’s creativity in 1978. Graffiti, the club scene, the emergence of hip-hop, punk performances, the last days of disco, and even cheap rents: all were contributing influences in a decade of work celebrated in the new AGO exhibition Keith Haring: Art Is for Everybody.
Organized by curator Sarah Loyer of The Broad in Los Angeles working with the AGO’s Fredrik S. Eaton curator of Canadian art, Georgina Uhlyarik, this is the first exhibition of Keith Haring’s work in Canada in 25 years. Featuring over 200 artworks and objects, it includes large-scale works on canvas, illustrations, posters, and sculpture as well as photographs, archival materials, and video, including a 1982 segment from the CBS Evening News With Dan Rather, which featured Haring being arrested by New York’s finest.
The sureness of his line is one of the characteristics of Haring’s style, according to Loyer. Haring didn’t sketch or prepare—he dove right in, using thick black lines, primary colours like red and yellow, and repetition of shapes. His early drawings in the New York subway became so popular, he stopped because they were constantly stolen.
Recognizable Haring style in the displayed works include the barking dog, which emerged in the early 1980s representing oppression and abuse of power in America; radiant baby, symbolizing, the heart, to show his love; and UFOs, because as a gay man who often felt he didn’t belong, Haring wanted to show the importance of otherness.
Reacting to the daily news of the 1980s, Haring’s activism is also on display: the Free South Africa poster, which Haring distributed some 20,000 copies of in New York in 1986 to protest apartheid; collage works using New York Post headlines such as “Reagan: Ready to Kill” or “Reagan Slain by Hero Cop” to comment on U.S. President Ronald Reagan’s conservative policies; his focus on AIDS education with posters like Talk to Us for the AIDS hotline.
Collaboration was also intrinsic to Haring’s work, like with LA II, a.k.a. graffiti artist Angel Ortiz. Blending Haring’s distinctive style with LA II’s energetic tags in paintings and sculptures, on display is a three-piece pink-leather suit the duo painted for Madonna in 1983 that she wore at the Paradise Garage nightclub. Another noted collaborator was performer Grace Jones. Haring painted her body in geometrics and made an elaborate black-and-white metal headdress with David Spada (Snake Totem, included in the exhibition), which Jones wore in a photo shoot with Robert Mapplethorpe for Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine.
Haring’s work epitomizes the 1980s. Loud, proud, and blunt, he was unapologetic about his opinions and his desire to educate about a range of topics, including politics, homophobia, nuclear disarmament, police brutality, and the environment. The phrase “Art Is for Everybody” was written repeatedly in his journals, became a mantra for his work, and influenced his legacy in creating the Keith Haring Foundation before he died, which continues to offer grants for not-for-profit organizations focused on children and AIDS education, care, and research.
Keith Haring died at 31 in 1990 due to complications related to AIDS, leaving behind an art portfolio that, 30 years later, continues to inform and captivate a new generation of art lovers.
Keith Haring: Art Is for Everybody is on until March 17, 2024, at Toronto’s Art Gallery of Ontario.