Art should be something that liberates your soul, provokes the imagination and encourages people to go further.

(Keith Haring)

We all know him as one of the world’s most famous animated pop and street artists, easily identified by graphically black-outlined silhouettes of faceless human figures, with outstretched arms, and short line strokes around his cartoonish images, dancing on single-colored backgrounds. Keith Haring lived a short life, but left behind an enormous collection of sketches, drawings, prints, sculptures, and paintings—some presently breathing in logos and advertisements—which provoke debatable issues about culture, society, and humanity. Following the pop art path of his seniors Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, and James Rosenquist, Haring delivered a powerful message of instigating human connection virtually lost in a chaotic society by injecting luminous light and color even in pitch dark spaces, like subway stations to grasp public attention.

Mori Arts Center Gallery in Tokyo is presenting Keith Haring : Art to the Streets until February 25th. Approximately 150 works, including large-scale six-meter pieces, narrate his dynamic life and commitment to social awareness, especially in the campaign for HIV prevention.

Inspired by the artist’s mantra “Art is for everybody” (also used in some of his catalogs and exhibitions), the showcase indulges in Haring’s colorful background and life endeavors, from his art studies at the School of Visual Arts in New York to solo exhibitions, commercial recognition, and art activism. His concepts of expression delve into the world’s unresolved matters concerning sexual minorities, gender inequality, societal alienation, violence, nuclear war, and the confrontation of AIDS. He strived to disseminate his art to people of all classes, occupations, genders, and ages. “I am interested in making art to be experienced and explored by as many individuals as possible with as many different individual ideas about the given piece with no final meaning attached. The viewer creates the reality, the meaning, the conception of the piece.” (Keith Haring Journals)

From approximately 1980-1985, Haring developed an obsession with creating drawings in subway stations, mainly in New York City. Sometimes, he ended up drawing forty pieces a day.“One day, riding the subway, I saw this empty black panel where an advertisement was supposed to go. I immediately realized that this was the perfect place to draw…Because they were so fragile, people left them alone and respected them…It gave them this other power. It was this chalk-white fragile thing in the middle of all this power and tension and violence that the subway was. People were completely enthralled...It was reaching all kinds of people in different levels from different backgrounds.”1 These subway drawings, some illustrating radiant babies, barking dogs, or UFOs emitting rays of light, carved a profound impression on many New Yorkers' hearts and minds, so much so they have become Haring’s iconic creations, profusely scattered in media and across the hip-hop scene. Selected drawings are exhibited in Japan for the first time. One of the famous drawings on display is an image of a monkey being held up by a crowd of people.

It was also during the same time that the HIV/AIDS epidemic started to spread, without accountable medical treatment. It spurted a negative image and harsh discrimination, prompting Haring to pour his ultimate energy into the interpretation of joy of life and the fear of death. The brightly colored Flowers I, II, IV, V series (1990) emote the artist’s last fragile days before his death due to AIDS complications. The muscular contours and drooping stamens and pistils, drawn graphically, seem to represent human sexuality, life, and death.

Similar symbols of life and birth are also seen in the popular Untitled (1983) showing deep fuchsia outlines of a baby being thrown up in the air over a yellow background. The picture celebrates the strength of mothers and the joy of living. This piece and a series of prints appeared in the Tony Shafrazi Gallery in New York.

With the rise of the pop art culture in the 1980s, Haring joined the movement’s foremost pioneers, such as Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat. Haring and Warhol first met in late 1982 in one of the former’s shows in New York. Since then, Warhol acted as Haring’s most valuable mentor and supporter. The artist claims, “Andy set the precedent for the possibility for my art to exist.” The iconic Andy Mouse (1986) depicts a fusion between Mickey Mouse and Haring’s deep admiration for Warhol, characterized in huge glasses and silver hair.

Of course, no one could ignore, perhaps Haring’s most popular work in the portfolio of Five Icons (1990), the image of a radiant baby in a striking orange and blue background. The baby, crawling in his early stages of development, represents innocence, purity, and goodness. Haring wished to evoke the potential of a new beginning and hope for the future, swarmed by positive energy as illustrated by the comforting glow of black lines wrapped around the infant. The other four images in the series: a barking dog, an angel and flying devil, a three-eyed monster, and a three-eyed man, have become Haring’s emblematic symbols of the urban, tribal language, echoing social views of authoritarianism, greed, power, anxiety, and spirituality.

Haring created more than a hundred posters, alluding to varied social issues from Apartheid in South Africa, and racial discrimination, to nuclear disarmament. At one time, he printed 20,000 copies of an anti-nuclear war poster he completed and distributed them himself at a huge protest in Central Park. Another poster Silence=Death (1989) illustrates a pink triangle based on the inverted pink triangle markings given to gay men in Nazi concentration camps. The upward-pointing triangle symbolizes the resistance against homosexual discrimination. Haring paid tribute to the LGBTQ+ community and to those who had lost their lives as a consequence of such severity. He strongly believed he held the power to stir people's emotions and usher peace into the world.

The exhibition also features the artist’s popular print series The Story of Red and Blue (1989), consisting of twenty pictures made for children. A special section, The Blueprint Drawings- (1990) reveals huge black-and-white, comic-style works, which capture a time capsule of Haring’s early beginnings in New York. Looking closely at each panel, one can decipher the forceful messages of capitalism, technology, gun violence, and behavioral conflicts that continue to override human morality even today.

For these reasons, Haring’s art world transcends beyond time and trend, and will always remind us of on one side, careless human errs we may often overlook or disclaim, and on another, his light and colors that breathe a promising future ahead.


1 Haring website