Keith Haring was born on May 4, 1958 in Reading, Pennsylvania, and was raised in nearby Kutztown, Pennsylvania. He developed a love for drawing at a very early age, learning basic cartooning skills from his father and from the popular culture around him, such as Dr. Seuss and Walt Disney.
Upon graduation from high school in 1976, Haring enrolled in the Ivy School of Professional Art in Pittsburgh, a commercial arts school. In 1978, he had a solo exhibition of his work at the Pittsburgh Arts and Crafts Center.
As a student at SVA (School of Visual Arts) in New York City, Haring experimented with performance, video, installation and collage, while always maintaining a strong commitment to drawing. 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.
Haring was diagnosed with AIDS in 1988. In 1989, he established the Keith Haring Foundation, its mandate being to provide funding and imagery to AIDS organizations and children’s programs, and to expand the audience for Haring’s work through exhibitions, publications and the licensing of his images. Haring enlisted his imagery during the last years of his life to speak about his own illness and generate activism and awareness about AIDS.
During a brief but intense career that spanned the 1980s, Haring’s work was featured in over 100 solo and group exhibitions. In 1986 alone, he was the subject of more than 40 newspaper and magazine articles. He was highly sought after to participate in collaborative projects, and worked with artists and performers as diverse as Madonna, Grace Jones, Bill T. Jones, William Burroughs, Timothy Leary, Jenny Holzer, Yoko Ono and Andy Warhol. 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.
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.
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.