May 4, 1958– Keith Haring:
“My contribution to the world is my ability to draw. I will draw as much as I can for as many people as I can for as long as I can. Drawing is still basically the same as it has been since prehistoric times. It brings together man and the world. It lives through magic.“
Today would have been, should have been Keith Haring’s 63rd birthday. I like to think that he would be having carrot cake with Jean-Michel Basquiat, Trey Speegle and Andy Warhol.
Haring found much success during his time on our planet, with his pieces going for as much as $350,000. His friends: Warhol, Speegle, Roy Lichtenstein, Kenny Scharf, Madonna, Boy George, and Yoko Ono championed his work. His art was featured in the era of discos like The Palladium, and used as set decorations on MTV. His murals were seen as a backdrop for a 1985 hunger-relief benefit concert in Philadelphia, on walls on the Lower East Side and scenery for various theatre works and dance concerts.
Haring opened a pair of Pop Shops in New York City and Tokyo which sold merchandise based on his designs with every inch of the shops devoted to Haring’s work including floor-to-ceiling murals. Haring was devoted to creating cultural awareness about HIV and LGBTQ Rights issues. The Pop Shops are closed now, but the Keith Haring Foundation was established in 1989 to assist his HIV related and children’s charities.
I had a bit of a reservation about writing about the ultimate symbol of manhood. Penises have been getting a bad rap the last few years. I guess we are not supposed to exhibit them willy-nilly or ejaculate into potted plants. Then I thought, why not? The art world is full of dicks.
An obsession with the male sex organ has been present since the start of humanity and it is often been explored in art. There are tiny ones in ancient Greek sculptures to some rude representations of the potent penises in contemporary art.
Phallic sculptures were commonplace in the everyday lives of the Romans. The average Roman home would have phallus wind chimes or household objects representing oversized dicks fully erect. As symbols of fertility, they brought good luck. Erotic art had a special place in the life of ancient cultures. From Egypt to Japan, each civilization had its own gods of fertility and phallic art flourished on all continents. Ancient Greeks were perhaps the only ones who have developed the art of itsy-bitsy peens to avoid the grotesque and to make sculptures symmetrical, but for the other ancient cultures this wasn’t a problem and there are some wild examples out there. Google “ancient penis” and, despite that you might guess, mine does not come up on page one.
Although Haring had a career that was brief, his work was featured in over 100 solo and group exhibitions. According to the Haring Foundation, in 1986 alone, he was the subject of more than 40 newspaper and magazine articles.
Throughout his life, from when he began in the late-1970s until to his passing in 1990, Haring produced work that was both intense and explicit around the subject of sex and sexuality.
In 1978, Haring left Kutztown, Pennsylvania and arrived in New York City to attend the School of Visual Arts. He enjoyed the backrooms and bathhouses in the city, and those sex nights became his research. Marked by the atmosphere of the sexy-1970s, full of carefree sex, brilliant colors and communal effervescence, Haring took note of his perception of the body and sexuality. Throughout his entire career, the way he portrays male genitals reveals both endless, insatiable and all-consuming desire, and serve as an allegory for nirvana. Sex also serves as a symbol of reconciliation, union and harmony.
But sex, symbol of the transformation and transmission of life, soon points the way to death when it showed up in the early-1980s as the specter of AIDS.
Unlike many artists who sought to hide the queerness, Haring found the way of affirming his pride in being gay through the very explicit homoerotic character of his works. Haring’s determination to fully incorporate his gayness as one of the imperishable facets of his art, despite the homophobia and oppression that queer artists had suffered throughout history, triggered a movement in which artists no longer held back from positively expressing their gayness in their art.
A notable figure in New York’s downtown arts scene, Haring socialized and collaborated with artists and performers as diverse as Grace Jones, Roy Lichtenstein, Bill T. Jones, William Burroughs, Timothy Leary, Jenny Holzer, Yoko and Andy.
His radiant babies, flying saucers, deified dogs, and abundant penises could be seen in discos like The Palladium in Manhattan, MTV sets, as a backdrop for the 1985 Live Aid 1985 concert in Philadelphia, walls on the Lower East Side and props for modern dance pieces. His prodigious far-flung works can be seen in such disparate settings as the world’s major museums, a Swiss department store, and a community center bathroom. His imagery has become a widely recognized visual language.
In 1988 Haring was diagnosed with HIV/AIDS. The following year he established his foundation to provide funding and imagery to AIDS organizations and children’s programs, and to expand the audience for his work through exhibitions, publications and the licensing of his images. The Foundation also gives grants to not-for-profit groups that provide educational opportunities to underprivileged children or engage in education, prevention and care with respect to AIDS and HIV infection.
Totally off-subject, but the largest collection of mammal penises on the planet is in Reykjavik, in case you find yourself in Iceland.