To mark would have been his 60th birthday, the Albertina is devoting a large-scale exhibition to the exceptional American artist Keith Haring (1958–1990) that includes around 100 works sourced internationally from numerous museums and private collections. The artist, who initially became known for his drawings of the crawling baby, the barking dog, and figures dancing and climbing over each other, numbers among the most celebrated artists of his time. Haring’s creative career, though short, took a truly meteoric course, and the exhibition Keith Haring. The Alphabet retraces his wholly unique artistic development and historical significance.
Symbolic Practice As Resistance
Keith Haring conceived of his artistic practice as a political statement in the public realm that took aim at the establishment, the authoritarian enforcement of order, and state repression of citizens. He consistently emphasized the creative process and the aspect of performance as well as the political, anarchic act in and of itself. Haring’s works were shown at documenta 7 (1982), at leading international museums and galleries, and at numerous biennials all over the world, and his impact on his contemporaries as well as subsequent generations of artists has been both enormous and lasting.
Messages of Social Justice
Keith Haring’s drawings, paintings, and sculptures embody messages that take a stand against the violence of ruling elites, against the oppression of minorities, against prejudice, and against barbarism. His themes thus repeatedly revolve around justice and change. His notion of art is an egalitarian one: Keith Haring’s oeuvre draws on the creative principles of graffiti as well as on semiotics and the art-historical canon. With his deceptively simple stick figures—embodying deliberately primitive codes—he is part of that process by which low art is transformed into high art, such as with the cartoons and advertisements that found their way into museums via the Pop Art movement. Haring never conceived of art as propaganda, yet he did make use of similar mechanisms as well as public space in order to disseminate his art and his ideas. He championed the individual, standing up to the oppression emanating from dictatorship, racism, capitalism, and drug addiction. He fought to end Apartheid in South Africa, and his dedication to the struggle against AIDS is legendary. He was also among those voices that, during the 1980s, uttered the loudest warnings about the perils of nuclear war, environmental destruction, and countless other threats to humanity and our planet.
Development of a Symbolic Language
Despite his early and lasting success with critics and on the art market, one central aspect— which can be viewed as a primary concern of Keith Haring’s art—has to this day hardly been recognized in its true significance: the systematic symbolic language that runs through his entire oeuvre like a golden thread. Haring—whose coursework at the School of Visual Arts in New York had also included semiotics—developed his symbolic vocabulary and its alphabet based on a keen awareness of how pictures can function just like words. His famous drawings in stations of the New York subway system played an important role in this development: “It sort of became the perfect environment or laboratory for working out all of the ideas that I was discovering,” said the artist. The ultimate outcome of this was Haring’s development of his very own artistic vocabulary. Quite early on, Keith Haring was impressed by the hieroglyphic writing of the ancient Egyptians. What interested him was how they were reduced to just a few lines, a principal that he adopted in his own work. In doing so, he evolved the abstract shapes of his early drawings into his very own language of symbols. This gave rise to his characteristic symbols including the baby, the human being, the dog, the golden calf, the heart, the snake, the pig, the nuclear reactor, the pyramid, the radio, the UFO, sexual intercourse, and much more besides. He “activated” the silhouettes of living beings and objects by drawing radiant halos around them.
Communication and Humanism
Keith Haring’s picture-word system was something like a predecessor to today’s emojis: his smiley faces as well as his hearts, his stylized globe, and his other ideograms aren’t that far off from the miniature graphics that we send on our smartphones today. After all, the desire for a universal system of communication is something that our Internet age, Keith Haring’s ideograms, and ancient hieroglyphics all have in common. Haring’s involvement in the struggles against drugs, against AIDS, and for a fairer, better world for all people, as well as his obsession with drawing in public places from New York, Paris, and Tokyo to the Berlin Wall, found expression in his works and symbols, which have by now become part of our everyday popular culture. His “urban guerrilla art” pushes back against ignorance, fear, and silence, remaining in one’s memory like a beneficial, humanistic virus.