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: