Keith Haring: art at a specific time and place

Aesthetics, Art, Design

The Museum Folkwang in Essen hosted a big retrospective on Keith Haring from August to November 2020. I visited this exhibition mainly because I was interested in his highly recognizable and simple graphic style. But what struck me is that Keith Haring‘s art emanates a very specific Zeitgeist. His art combines a set of influences that could only have been brought together by a young gay man involved in the New York graffiti scene in the 1980s.

Keith Haring in 1986
Keith Haring in 1986 (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Keith Haring’s biography is shortly outlined in the following. Then the elements of his specific graphic style are discussed. Finally the influences that formed his life and art are laid out.

The main stations of Keith Haring’s short and intensive life are:

  • 1958: Keith Haring is born in Reading, Pennsylvania and grows up in nearby Kutztown.
  • 1976: He begins studying advertisement art at the Ivy School of Professional Art in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He quickly breaks of his studies and works as a free artist.
  • 1978: Keith Haring moves to New York to study at the School of Visual Arts.
  • 1979: He moves to the East Village in New York and is involved in the gay community and the underground art and graffiti community there.
  • 1980: He leaves the School of Visual Arts, convinced that he can learn nothing more there. He gains increasing acclaim as an artist. He begins making his Subway Drawings on unused black billboards in the New York subway,
  • 1981: He gains public attention via several exhibitions.
  • 1982: Art collectors are buying his works. He is officially represented by gallery owner Tony Shafraz.
  • 1983: Keith Haring begins traveling internationally to present and locally create his art.
  • 1986: The Pop Shop opens in New York, where Keith Haring merchandise articles are sold.
  • 1988: He is diagnosed with AIDS.
  • 1990: Keith Haring dies, aged 31, from the effects of his HIV infection.

Keith Haring’s graphic style is highly recognizable. He depicts simple iconic persons, animals, and objects in a way reminiscent of graffiti and comics. Specific elements of his style are:

  • Clear flowing lines: lines of equal width form soft contours and patterns. People, animals, and objects depicted in this way are simplified and iconic. This visual language was influenced by comics that Keith Haring’s father drew for him as a child and the graffiti he later encountered in New York. Keith Haring drew these lines with paintbrushes and pens and did not use spray cans.
Keith Haring works
Works by Keith Haring showing typical flowing lines (Photographed at Folkwang Museum)
  • Patterns of consistent density: Beyond the lines that form the contours of object, he often filled the remaining spaces with lines and dots that form a pattern of consistent density. The resulting pictures sometimes look like abstract patterns from afar, and only reveal their pictorial content from up close. This visual style reminds of the abstract art of Pierre Alechinsky and Jackson Pollock, and Egyptian and Aztec ornamental art. When he drew a big window painting in Australia, the local public interpreted it as referring to Aboriginal art.
Keith Haring: The Matrix, 1986 (Photographed at Folkwang Museum)
Keith Haring: The Matrix, 1986, detail (Photographed at Folkwang Museum)
  • Few contrasting colors: his artworks often have only 2-3 contrasting colors. He often drew black lines on colorful or white lines on black backgrounds.
Keith Haring: Untitled, 1983
Keith Haring: Untitled, 1983 (Photographed at Folkwang Museum)
  • Variety of themes: Keith Haring’s more popular works simply seem joyful, depicting motives such as dancing people, radiating babies, barking dogs, UFOs and televisions. But many of his works also include political messages against gentrification, racism, apartheid, homophobia, drug abuse, and AIDS. His works did always also include a dark streak of homoerotic sex and violence. After his AIDS diagnosis this extended into dark hellish visions of disease and death (see picture below), reminiscent of the tableaus of Hieronymous Bosch.
Keith Haring: Untitled, 1986
Keith Haring: Untitled, 1986 (Photographed at Folkwang Museum)

Keith Haring’s life and art combines specific influences that could only have been brought together by a young gay man living in New York in the 1980s. His main influences were:

  • Academic high art: Despite appearances, Keith Haring’s roots do not lie in the graffiti and street art scene. He studied at two art and design schools. When he saw an exhibition of abstract paintings by Pierre Alechinsky in 1977/78, he saw similarities to his own work (see example below). This convinced him that he had something relevant to contribute with his own art. Besides western abstract art, his influences also include Japanese calligraphy, Aztec symbols (see picture below) and Egyptian hieroglyphs. Within a few years, he gained public acclaim by the art establishment with collectors buying his works, and official representation by gallery owner Tony Shafraz. Already in 1982 Keith Haring participated at the documenta VI art show in Kassel, Germany.
Pierre Alechinsky: The Night, 1952
Pierre Alechinsky: The Night, 1952 (Source: Tate Gallery)
Aztec Codex Borgia: page 23 (Source: Wikimedia commons)
  • Grafiti: After moving to New York, Keith Haring became fascinated with the grafiti he saw on walls and subway trains. He met early grafiti artists such as Jean-Michel Basquiat and Al Diaz, and cooperated with Angel Ortiz (aka LA II). Keith Haring did not use spray cans himself but drew his lines with markers and paint brushes. In 1980 he began drawing with white chalk on unused billboards, covered with black paper, in the New York subway. He saw this is as a possibility to keep up with the grafiti artists, without copying them. He also painted many large scale murals in New York and later all over the world. Keith Haring liked to stage his painting processes as performances to music, taking up elements of hip hop and breakdance culture.
Keith Haring and Angel Ortiz: Untitled, 1982
Angel Ortiz and Keith Haring: Untitled, 1982 (Photographed at Folkwang Museum)
Keith Haring: Subway Drawings, 1983-85
Keith Haring: Subway Drawings, 1983-85 (Photographed at Folkwang Museum)
  • Pop Art and popular art: Keith Haring named the comics his father drew for him as a child as one of his earliest influences. He disliked painting with oil paint on canvas, and instead preferred to work with markers on paper or to paint on large colored vinyl tarpaulins. He produced thousands of artworks, working quickly without preparatory sketches. Keith Haring met his idol Andy Warhol in 1983, who became his friend and mentor. Keith Haring wanted his art to be for everyone. He made his subway drawings to reach a large audience, not actually earning any money from them. In 1986 the Pop Shop opened in New York, where Keith Haring Merchandise articles such as T-Shirts, Stickers and posters were sold at affordable prices.
Keith Haring and Andy Warhol: Andy Mouse, 1986 (Source: Keith Haring Foundation)
  • Gay culture: Keith Haring’s art is of course not specifically “gay”. But his identity as an openly homosexual man shines through in many ways. When he moved to New York he became a regular visitor of the local gay clubs, namely the multi-cultural Paradise Garage. His artworks often show penises and homoeroticism and seldomly seem to depict women. When the AIDS epidemic started in the 1980s in the gay community, people around him were dying, among them also his black ex-boyfriend Juan Dubose. In 1988 Keith Haring received his AIDS diagnosis. In the following two years before his death he produced many artworks on the topic of AIDS, and financially supported anti-AIDS campaigns. His early death of AIDS at age 31, at the peak of his popularity, contributed to him becoming a legendary artist. This way his work will always be associated with a specific 1980s atmosphere.
Keith Haring: Silence = Death, 1989
Keith Haring: Silence = Death, 1989 (Source: Keith Haring Foundation)

Keith Haring’s style is highly recognizable with clear flowing lines, patterns of consistent density, and a reduced color palette of few colors. His works often seem joyful, but also address serious political issues. Living in New York he combined a specific set of influences from academic high art, pop art, and grafiti. As a gay man dying young from AIDS in the 1980s, his work emanates a specific 1980s atmosphere.


Exhibition at the Folkwang Museum Essen: “Keith Haring”, 21.08 – 29.11.2020,

Darren Pih (Editor): “Keith Haring”, 2019, Hatje Cantz Verlag

Elke Buhr: “Jetzt erst recht” in Monopol, Magazin für Kunst und Leben, Juni 2020

Video: Ben Anthony: “Keith Haring – Street Art Boy”, : article on Keith Haring:

Keith Haring Foudation Website:

Digital Museums of Design, Modern Art, and Architecture

Art, Design

During the current Corona pandemic, museums and exhibitions everywhere are closed and will apparently stay so for the next weeks or months. Visiting museums is something I already miss. A longer bicycle tour to a museum is my standard Sunday routine. Because I am always working from home as a freelancer on Monday to Friday, I really feel an urge to get out and experience new things on the weekends.

In this lockdown situation, articles recommending digital museums are surfacing on diverse chanels. Under normal circumstances I would scarcely be interested, but now this is a very interesting option. Thus I thoroughly looked into the possibilities that contemporary digital museums provide.

What is a digital museum? Without getting too philosophical about it, one could describe it as a webpage that allows visitors to experience the artefacts at display in a museum in digital form. Three ways of presenting exhibitions are common:

  • Catalogues (archives, databases): Photographed artefacts with descriptions are made accessible via searchable databases. Applying filters to the content is necessary to get something useful out of this (for instance by art epoch, also very useful: only showing those objects on display in the physical museum). The enjoyability of these catalogues increases with functionalities such as short explanatory texts, showing curated highlights, or showing crosslinks between objects. A great example of this format is the catalogue of the Städelmuseum (Frankfurt, Germany):
  • Slideshows (articles, stories): For a specific topic several photographed artefacts are shown accompanied by longer explanatory text. This is often done in scrollytelling format, where new content dynamically appears as the reader scrolls down. A great example of this format are these slideshows of new acqusitions by the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York, USA):
  • Virtual museums (360° immersive experiences): The museum rooms are replicated as 360° views. The entire museum can be navigated from skipping from one viewing point to the next. In many cases the images are of such high resolution that the lables at the exhibits can be read. In some cases clicking on objects opens explanatory text windows or higher resolution photos. Audio descriptions may also be added. A great example of this format is the virtual tour of a part of the Rijksmuseum (Amsterdam, Netherlands):

Some museums make use of all of these formats. Further multimedia content such as videos and podcast are also often provided on the museum website.

The single best ressource for digital museums is Google Arts & Culture. Many of the most renowned museums of the world present parts of their collection on the site. I very much recommend to browse and search the incredibly long list of participating museums (also see image below). Within the site, the content is provided in the three formats discussed above. Immersive 360° views are availabe on many museum pages when scrolling down. It needs to be taken into account though, that many museums provide some of their best content only on their own websites.

For German museums the best single source seems to be Museum Digital. This is a searchable catalog of photographed exhibits provided by more than 600 German museums:

Here a list of the best digital museums I found in the domains of design, modern art, and architecture. If you are interested in other genres you could take a look at this list here (in German).

Digital design museums:

Digital modern art museums:

Digital architecture museums:

  • Streetview within google maps provides a nice way to take a 360° look at architecture around the world. Simply drag and drop the yellow person icon on the lower right onto any blue line or point on the map. Google has prepared content for many main roads. Individuals have added many single 360° viewpoints for popular sightseeing spots. Content of this type is also directly available in Google Arts & Culture here.
  • 3D view within google maps makes it possible to take a bird’s eye view at architecture (where 3D data is available). Simply activate the satellite view on the lower left, and then click on the globe icon in the lower right. Press control and press the left mouse button to rotate the view. Alternatively you can use Google Earth to look at 3D views.
  • UNESCO World Heritage List: a searchable catalogue with photos and videos.
  • World Monuments Fund: a searchable catalogue with photos
  • Museo della Civilità Romana (Rome, Italy): in Google Arts and Culture: with slideshows, catalogue, and 360° views.
  • Seoul Biennale of Architecture and Urbanism (Seoul, South Korea): in Google Arts and Culture: with slideshows, catalogue
  • SOS Brutalism: a catalogue of brutalist architecture

The list is far from complete, but hopefully contains enough interesting tips to whet your appetite. With museums closed for the next weeks or months it will be interesting to find further pearls and to see if new digital museums are made available.

The 50 cent designer bag

Aesthetics, Art, Design

The supermarket chain Aldi Nord replaced it’s one-way plastic bag by a more durable version in february 2019. I bought one myself and am quite fond of the design. It is simple yet refined enough to be interesting. The picture below shows the side without the Aldi Nord Logo.

For me the look invokes associations with a cool day at the sea, with the stripes reminiscent of the classic navy striped shirt. The color combination white and blue is one of the absolute classics in graphic design and can be traced back to islamic and chinese pottery. Nowadays the high contrast color combination of white lines on a blue background is used on many European traffic and street signs.

Beyond that there is a lot more to this bag than meets the eye. Aldi Nord commissioned the German artist Günter Fruhtrunk to design the bag in 1970. Like most designs seemingly original and retro it has slightly been altered over time, with a change of the Aldi Nord Logo and a change of format. Fruhtrunk was an abstract geometric artist who has by now largely been forgotten by the German public. I just had the rare opportunity to see some of his prints and paintings at an exhibition in Bochum (until 17.03.2019). Many of his works are made up of very precisley drawn stripes in bright contrasting colors.

His work can also be classified as op art (optical art). An effect seen in many paintings are thin blue borderlines of different widths. These blurr the edges when seen at a distance and lead to a perceived 3D effect. The picture below, a detail of the painting above, demonstrates this.

Günter Fruhtrunk was quite succesful in the 1960s and 70s. He exhibited his works both at the Documenta IV and the Venice Biennale in 1968. His abstract, anonymous and internationally comprehensive style was well suited to represent post-war Germany. Probably the main reasons why he is largely unknown today is that the commited suicide in 1982. He suffered from lifelong pain due to his war injuries and depression.

It is a commonly known psychological effect that knowledge about things increases their perceived value. So the next time you go shopping or to the laundromat, you could simply leave your IKEA Frakta bag at home and use your Aldi Nord bag instead. After having read this article you will then know that you are holding a designer bag of the forgotten German artist Günter Fruhtrunk that you got as an incredible bargain.

Addendum: Two products sold at Aldi Nord also take up the design of Günter Fruhtrunk’s shopping bag: sugar and matches (see photo below). The front- and backside of the oversized matchbox is shown. The matches are only for sale during the christmas season.

Günter Fruhtrunk's shopping bag design taken up for sugar and matches packaging.

The art of Qiu Shihua: monochrome to the extreme

Aesthetics, Art

Monochrome images, that is images in which only shades of a single color are used, have a nice reduced, minimalist look to them. When the saturation and contrast between used shades is low, the images seem airy and ephemeral. The effect can for instance often be seen in black and white photographs in light grey tones.

Being a fan of this look, I visited the exhibition Scheinbar: nichts – Bildwelten von Qiu Shihua im Dialog in the Situation Kunst exhibiton space in Bochum (prolonged until 05.05.2019). Qiu Shihua is a contemporary chinese artist born in 1940. He is known for his monochrome white landscape paintings. His work is rooted in chinese landscape painting and taoist philosophy.

Glancing at the paintings shortly give the impression that this must be some kind of concept art hoax.

Only when viewed from a distance, and after some time, when the eyes have adapted to the very low contrast, do deep landscapes with trees, lakes, sunlight, waves and clouds appear from the white mist. This is something that one really needs to experience standing in front of the paintings. Because Qiu Shihua works with very subtle shades of white, it is quite difficult to capture this effect in photographs. Here are two photos where the landscapes are somewhat visible:

For me this was the most impressive contemporary art I’ve seen in some time. Qiu Shihua is apparently one of the most outstanding artists in the field of monochrome painting. And his work is a reminder of the wonder which the human eye is, being able to discern about 10 million different colors. Maybe we should give it a chance from time to time do so.