Keith Haring’s vivid and instantly recognisable images have become the icon of a generation. The mélange of man and animal alongside universal symbols express concepts like birth and death. The immediacy of his graffiti-inspired style and the influences of his contemporaries (Jean-Michel Basquiat and Andy Warhol to name two) illustrated 80’s New York.
From decorating the blank walls of the New York Subway to setting up his Pop Shop, Keith Haring always sought to make his work accessible and affordable. His work often had a social message and he used art to express opinions about the society around him and raise awareness for charities close to his heart. Today his work fills galleries and inspires retrospective exhibitions, but his attitude of public inclusivity in every aspect of the artistic process encouraged many murals in public places around the world. Such an openness of expression has made Haring’s work so immediately identifiable and the timely messages behind his bold, striking style have challenged and inspired thousands.
The endearingly public nature of Haring’s art means that examples of his work crop up in the most unexpected places. Haring’s visits to Paris resulted in two such works, one of which is an energetic fresco on an exterior wall of the Necker Children’s Hospital and the second (in somber contrast) is the last work before his death: a triptych of the life of Christ in the church of Saint Eustache.
He carved the piece into clay and they were then cast in bronze and covered in white gold. So inspired was he by these pieces that a firsthand account from his friend Sam Havadtoy said, ‘…the images came directly from his head…He never stopped to rethink the line; he never edited himself and never made corrections. The lines he carved in the clay were seamless, flawless.’
The work is both beautiful and remarkably solemn, considering that he died just two weeks after its completion, it carries with it a poignant significance. It was, for him, a reflection on the grief of his friends’ death and his own mortality in the face of AIDs.
Twenty-six years, almost to the day, since his death, Keith Haring’s artistic legacy, freedom of expression and personal translation of society through art lives on.
The inclusivity of his work is best described in his own words, ‘[The]… basic idea of wanting to incorporate [art] into every part of life… Taking it off the pedestal. I’m giving it back to the people, I guess.’
With thanks to St Louis University for the interview with Sam Havadtoy, Untapped Cities for the information regarding the Saint Eustache triptych and The Keith Haring Foundation for excerpts from Daniel Drenger’s, “Art and Life: An Interview with Keith Haring” in the Columbia Art Review, Spring 1988 and information regarding the Necker Children’s Hospital.