On a recent trip to New York City, I had a chance to visit the studio of the late Keith Haring. The fifth-floor space, located on Broadway between Bleeker and Great Jones Street, is now home to the Keith Haring Foundation. Haring first rented the studio in May of 1985, and it was his workspace until his untimely death in 1990 at the age of 31. He also owned an apartment on LaGuardia Place, only three blocks from the studio.
Haring was born in 1958 in Reading, Pennsylvania, and grew up in the nearby town of Kutztown. Inspired by Walt Disney and Dr. Seuss, he learned to draw cartoons from his father at a young age.
The artist is best know for his graphic drawings and paintings of dogs, children, and dancing figures. “He was one of the most astonishingly unique talents of recent times,” gallery owner Tony Shafrazi told The New York Times. ”In a short time after he arrived in New York at age 20, he practically took over Manhattan with his subway drawings, which were an instant series of signs and pictograms that everybody became familiar with.”
Between 1980 and 1985, Haring produced hundreds of public chalk drawings in the New York City subways. According to the Foundation, he could create as many as forty subway drawings in a single day. Commuters would often stop and talk to Haring while he was working. The subway became, as Haring said, a “laboratory” for creative experimentation.
Haring believed that art should remain accessible to people of all ages and income brackets, and he was always looking for new ways to make his work available outside a gallery setting. He conducted art workshops with children, created logos and posters for public service agencies, and produced murals, sculptures, and paintings to benefit health centers and disadvantaged communities.
Haring’s 1986 Crack is Wack mural has become a famous New York City landmark on FDR Drive. He also collaborated with 900 children on a mural for the 100th anniversary of the Statue of Liberty, and he painted a mural on the western side of the Berlin Wall three years before its fall.
In 1986 Haring opened the infamous Pop Shop in SoHo, a retail store that sold T-shirts, toys, posters, buttons and magnets bearing his images. As the Foundation explains, “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.” Many people in the art world criticized him for becoming too commercial. “I could earn more money if I just painted a few things and jacked up the price,” Haring said in response. “My shop is an extension of what I was doing in the subway stations, breaking down the barriers between high and low art.”
Although Haring’s career was brief, his work was featured in over 100 solo and group exhibitions. According to the Foundation, in 1986 alone, he was the subject of more than 40 newspaper and magazine articles.
A notable figure in New York’s downtown art community, Haring socialized and collaborated with artists and performers as diverse as Madonna, Grace Jones, Roy Lichtenstein, Boy George, Bill T. Jones, William Burroughs, Timothy Leary, Jenny Holzer, Yoko Ono and Andy Warhol. As his New York Times obituary observed, “his art adorned discotheques like the Palladium in Manhattan, MTV set decorations, a backdrop for a 1985 hunger-relief concert in Philadelphia, walls on the Lower East Side and props for various modern-dance works. His prodigious and far-flung works could also be seen in such disparate settings as Australian museums, Brazilian fishermen’s houses and a Swiss department store.”
In 1988 Haring was diagnosed with AIDS. The following year he established the Keith Haring 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.”
The Foundation’s offices aren’t merely a workspace. The Broadway studio is also a part of art history. In this 1989 interview with Rolling Stone, writer David Sheff describes the scene in Haring’s studio a short time before his death at the age of 31:
A sticker on the heavy industrial door of Haring’s lower-Broadway studio reads, JUST SAY KNOW – TIM LEARY. Through the door, the studio is like the inside of a kaleidoscope. There are Warhol soup cans, Mobil flying horses, a Mona Lisa with colored nails smashed into her face, toys – a talking Pee-wee and Chairry and a Roger Rabbit Super Flexie – and stacks of art books. There are wrapped wall-size canvases, a huge hot-pink phallus, a larger-than-life black-and white sculpture of a headless man and shelves of paints. There are photographs of Brooke Shields and Michael Jackson, a poster of Grace Jones painted like a warrior and a pair of fluorescent bikes.
The organization has done a marvelous job of making the space functional, while also respecting Haring’s presence. Paint is still splattered across the checkered floor, and stickers that Haring placed on doors have been left untouched. The caulk drawing Haring made on the studio window during the installation of an air conditioner also has been preserved, as have the ghostly imprints of paintings that remain on the walls. The Foundation has been able to match these marks with specific paintings Haring made over the years. There is also a vast collection of framed Haring works, a library, and an archive.
Since his death, Haring has been the subject of several international retrospectives. This year the Brooklyn Museum had a major show of Haring’s early work. While I didn’t see it, an artist friend who did told me that the exhibit completely changed his opinion about Haring (for the better). There will also be a Keith Haring retrospective at Musée d’Art moderne de la Ville de Paris opening April of 2013.
The Foundation has been working hard to make its vast archive more accessible to the public. They’re now posting pages of Haring’s journals online, and an archive of Haring’s artwork is available on the Foundation’s website, along with other interesting memorabilia.
As Eileen Kinsella reported in the January 2012 issue of ARTnews, since government and corporate support for the arts is decreasing, artists’ foundations are becoming increasingly influential. Last year the first-ever comprehensive survey of this field was released by the Aspen Institute’s Program on Philanthropy and Social Innovation. According to Kinsella, “the study identified 300 artist-endowed foundations holding a total of $2.5 billion in assets, of which more than $1 billion was in art assets. Between 1990 and 2005, the number of these foundations nearly doubled, with charitable-purpose payments totaling $954 million. Of that sum, $639 million was paid out in grants, while $315 million went toward administrative costs, such as funding exhibition programs and study centers.”
As ARTnews reports, “among recently deceased artists who set up foundations are Louise Bourgeois (the Easton Foundation) and Cy Twombly. Living artists who have set up foundations are are already making substantial gifts of money and artwork include painters Alex Katz, Ellsworth Kelly, LeRoy Neiman, and Helen Frankenthaler.”
Haring set up the Keith Haring Foundation not only to manage his archive, but also as a legacy project to assure that the causes he cared about most, education and AIDS research, received support, even after his death.
Keith Haring died of AIDS related complications at the age of 31 on February 16, 1990. A memorial service was held on May 4, 1990 at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City, with over 1,000 people in attendance. Madonna declared the first New York date of her Blond Ambition World Tour a benefit concert for Haring’s memory, and donated all proceeds from her ticket sales to AIDS charities, an act that was documented in her film Truth or Dare.
A few months before his death, Haring spoke to Rolling Stone reporter David Sheff about the AIDS epidemic and living with HIV:
For more information about Keith Haring’s life and work or the Keith Haring Foundation, please visit the Foundation’s website. A special thanks to Matt Barlo, Julia Gruen, and the staff of the Keith Haring Foundation.
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