Born on 4 May 1958, in Reading, Pennsylvania, Keith Haring was best known for striking graffiti-inspired drawings that took him from New York City's streets, subways and clubs to museums and public spaces around the world. Fascinated by cartoon art from an early age, Haring dropped out of the Ivy School of Professional Art in Pittsburgh to move to New York and enrol in the School of Visual Arts in 1978.
In New York, Haring found a thriving alternative art community that was developing outside the gallery and museum system, in the downtown streets, the subways and spaces in clubs and former dance halls. Here he became friends with fellow artists Kenny Scharf and Jean-Michel Basquiat, as well as the musicians, performance artists and graffiti writers that comprised the burgeoning art community. In addition to being impressed by the innovation and energy of his contemporaries, Haring was also inspired by the work of Jean Dubuffet, Pierre Alechinsky, William Burroughs, Brion Gysin and Robert Henri's manifesto The Art Spirit, which asserted the fundamental independence of the artist. With these influences, Haring pushed his own artistic impulses toward a singular kind of graphic expression based on the primacy of the line. Also drawn to the public and participatory nature of Christo's work, in particular Running Fence, and by Andy Warhol's unique fusion of art and life, Haring was determined to devote his career to creating truly public art.
In 1980, Haring found a highly effective medium that allowed him to communicate with the wider audience he desired when he noticed the unused advertising panels covered with matte black paper in a subway station. He began to create drawings in white chalk upon these blank paper panels throughout the subway system. Between 1980 and 1985, Haring produced hundreds of these public drawings in rapid rhythmic lines, sometimes creating as many as forty "subway drawings" in one day. This seamless flow of images became familiar to New York commuters, who often would stop to engage the artist when they encountered him at work. The subway became, as Haring said, a "laboratory" for working out his ideas and experimenting with his simple lines.
After using the city as his canvas - from making countless quick chalk drawings on empty black subway advertising spaces to creating a Crack is Whack mural in Harlem - Haring applied his bold lines and bright colours to freestanding drawings and paintings. Between 1980 and 1989, the artist achieved international recognition, participating in numerous group and solo shows and producing more than 50 public artworks from New York to Paris. In 1982, he made his Soho gallery debut with an immensely popular and highly acclaimed one-man exhibition at the Tony Shafrazi Gallery. In April 1986, Haring opened the Pop Shop, a retail store in Soho selling T-shirts, toys, posters, buttons and magnets bearing his images. Haring considered the shop to be an extension of his work and painted the entire interior of the store in an abstract black-on-white mural, creating a striking and unique retail environment. The shop was intended to allow people greater access to his work, which was now readily available on products at a low cost. The shop received criticism from many in the art world. However, Haring remained committed to his desire to make his artwork available to as wide an audience as possible and received strong support for his project from friends, fans and mentors, including Andy Warhol.
During a brief but intense career that spanned the 1980s, Haring's work was featured in over 100 solo and group exhibitions. By expressing universal concepts of birth, death, love, sex and war, using a primacy of line and directness of message, Haring was able to attract a wide audience and assure the accessibility and staying power of his imagery, which has become a universally recognized visual language of the 20th century. He died of AIDS-related complications on 16 February 1990. Since his death, Haring has been the subject of several international retrospectives. The work of Keith Haring can be seen today in the exhibitions and collections of major museums around the world.