Artist Keith Haring: The Man Behind the Lines

November 24, 2020

American Masters – Keith Haring: Street Art Boy premieres Friday, December 4 at 9 p.m. on THIRTEEN.

The black outlines and hieroglyphic-like figures of pop artist Keith Haring are immediately recognizable, but I don’t know much about Haring’s life or his interactions with other creative people in New York City in the 1980s.

He came to New York to study painting at the School of Visual Arts, but he launched his career on subway advertising boards and concrete walls – well outside the academy of art and insular gallery scene. He used his art in his activism, giving away posters at protests related to ending Apartheid, nuclear disarmament and calling for government action to fight the HIV-AIDS epidemic.

A bright orange mural with black figures on it and the words Crack is Wack, which stands right next to busy roadway. A bridge is in background and in foreground is the mural artist, Keith Haring who wears jean shorts and no shirt.

Photo by Julien Chatelain

The first Haring work I saw was his day-glow orange mural, “Crack is Wack” (1986). It glared on a handball court off the Harlem River Drive in Manhattan, and I had either seconds or minutes to consider it, depending on the roadway’s traffic. I was a high schooler within the suburban bubble of my family’s car as it rattled to relatives in Yorkville. I knew crack was a street drug, but the word “wack” was new to me. While the skull depicted obviously signaled a danger, the mural was cool.

As cited in the “Crack is Wack” mural’s own Wikipedia entry, art history professor Natalie E. Phillips points out that because the mural was alongside a busy, public parkway, it engaged a variety of passersby – East Harlem locals and travelers to whom it served as a billboard. Now, we don’t have to leave home to see art by Keith Haring: his life story and creations will be seen around the country in a national broadcast on PBS. I’m looking forward to learning more.

–Christina Knight, Managing Editor, Institutional Marketing at WNET.

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About the Documentary Film

An off-white poster with black and white image of man in glasses, unsmiling. Beneath photo are handwritten words: 2 WALLS & THE FLOOR PAINT ON PAPER nuclear reactors/ dogs/ penises. The dates Sept. 24-25-26-27-28. R.m 1--A 214 E. 21st St. and Name Keith Haring

B&W poster for Keith Haring exhibition. Photo Credit: The Haring Foundation

Artist Keith Haring came to New York City and established himself as an art world celebrity and pop culture icon between 1980 and 1990. Haring’s distinctive and instantly recognizable style on the subways and streets of New York – and in its galleries and museums – came to define the decade.

The new documentary film American Masters – Keith Haring: Street Art Boy is the definitive story of the artist in his own words. In 1988, Haring was diagnosed with AIDS and the next year, he began telling writer and art critic John Gruen the story of his life for his biography. Haring died of complications from AIDS on February 16, 1990, at the age of 31.

A poster by Keith Haring that says Free South Africa at bottom. The square image above it has a black and red square outline. Within that frame is a large black silhouette of human that has a white rope-like object circling its neck and it extends like a rope downward to the hand of a white figure. The black figure is kicking the smaller white figure down. The white figure has a red x on its chest. The image implies movement with black dashes.

Keith Haring “Free South Africa,” protesting Apartheid. Photo Credit: The Haring Foundation

His previously unheard interviews with Gruen form the narrative of American Masters – Keith Haring: Street Art Boy. With exclusive, unprecedented access to the archives of the Haring Foundation, the film captures the wild, creative energy behind Haring’s art and the downtown New York culture of the 1980s that inspired him.

Haring’s closest friends, family and collaborators — from the sleepy Kutztown, Pennsylvania, of his youth to the gay nightclubs of New York City — share revealing memories. The film features interviews with hip-hop pioneer Fab 5 Freddy, artist and actor Lee Quinones, gallery owner Tony Shafrazi, choreographer Bill T. Jones, painter Kenny Scharf, performance artist Ann Magnuson, writer Kurt Andersen, visual artist George Condo and others.

Haring’s Early Career

A 1950s or 1960s era photo of a family: A tan man in suit is next to woman with eyeglasses and light green patterned dress. In front of the couple is a little boy in a grey suit and tie that looks too large for him, and two little girls who wear matching light green patterned dresses.

Family portrait of the Haring Family. Photo Credit: The Haring Foundation

Born on May 4, 1958, in Reading, Pennsylvania, and raised in nearby Kutztown, Haring became interested in art at a young age. He was influenced by the animations and illustrations of Disney, Peanuts, Dr. Seuss, and his father Allen, a keen amateur cartoonist.

A black and white photo of a boy, perhaps 10, sitting without a shirt at a kithcen table. He smiles slightly without showing his teeh and holds a glass of water up in one hand and drapes the other arm over his chair back. A bowl is on table in front of him.

Keith Haring as a young boy. Photo Credit: The Haring Foundation

A conventional middle-class childhood was followed by a teenage curiosity that drew Haring to religion. He joined the evangelical Jesus movement, then turned to the counterculture, drugs and the Grateful Dead, hitchhiking across America, making and selling T-shirts along the way.

In 1978, Haring dropped out of college in Pittsburgh and moved to New York, where he joined the School of Visual Arts as a scholarship student.

Haring and Downtown New York Culture

A white man in jeans and orange polo and glasses and Black man in black pants, black and white t-shirt and white jacket and sunglasses stand close together and backed into a very large bush flowering with white flowers.

Keith Haring and his lover, Juan Dubose, a DJ, in 1982 polaroid. Photo Credit: The Haring Foundation

Haring immersed himself in the underground downtown art and music scene, home to new wave and punk.
He became a fixture at Club 57, where he organized shows, made friends and creative connections with fellow artists like Kenny Scharf and Jean-Michel Basquiat, and experienced his identity as a gay man in an environment that celebrated queer culture.

New York also exposed Haring to graffiti. He valued the direct connection to the public and began creating art using white chalk on empty black advertising panels in the subway. He called the New York City subway his “laboratory,” experimenting with ideas and form through the hundreds of drawings he made there over a five-year period.

Haring’s Legacy

Encouraged by artist Andy Warhol, in 1986, Haring opened The Pop Shop on Lafayette Street in SoHo, which sold his own designs on T-shirts, badges, watches, magnets and prints for everyday prices.

Haring continued to make public works, painting over 50 vast public murals (often in hospitals and children’s centers) in Melbourne, Paris, Pisa, Monaco, Barcelona, Philadelphia, New York, Chicago and on the Berlin Wall.

“My philosophy was always that art really could communicate to larger numbers of people. Instead of the elitist group of people who could afford it and – quote, unquote –understand it,” said Haring.

A poster that says STOP AIDS at bottom in red. Above it is image framed in black line. The image square is yellow and a green pair of scissors cuts a red snake in half. There are black dashes indicating movement.

Keith Haring “Stop Aids” Poster. Photo Credit: The Haring Foundation

In 1989, Haring established the Keith Haring Foundation to raise money for AIDS organizations and children’s programs. He demonstrated publicly against the stigma and prejudice associated with the disease.

Haring’s art was shown in over 100 group and solo exhibitions during his lifetime and he continues to be celebrated as a major artist today, with works on display in exhibitions and museums around the world.

Keith Haring Works in New York City

Keith Haring art and street art can be seen in public spaces in New York City and in collections of its most esteemed museums.

New York City Department of Parks & Recreation

Eye-witness accounts by New Yorkers who watched Keith Haring paint his murals outdoors are part of this New York City Parks & Recreation Department YouTube video.

“Crack is Wack” (1986) is a mural within the New York City Parks & Recreation Crack is Wack playground at E. 127th Street, between 2nd Avenue and Harlem River Drive. It was restored most recently in 2019.

Gate entrance to Crack is Wack Playground with playground name on sign. The pathway and basketball court in view are empty, the day is sunny. There are green deciduous trees and a garden bed with a few red flowers.

Entrance to Crack is Wack Playground, named for the Keith Haring mural it holds. Photo by Edward H. Blake edwardhblake/Flickr.

Carmine Street Pool Mural (1987), is a 170-ft wall mural above the pool at the Tony Dapolito Recreation Center at Carmine and Clarkson streets, Seventh Avenue, New York.

Cathedral of St. John of the Divine

The Life of Christ (1990) is a bronze and white-gold triptych altarpiece that Keith Haring completed weeks before his death and which the Estate of Keith Haring donated to Cathedral of St. John of the Divine. Haring’s memorial service was held at the cathedral. In the video above, educators from the Cathedral of St. John of the Divine discuss the triptych, which can be seen when the cathedral is open. The address is 1047 Amsterdam Avenue at 112th Street in Manhattan. The cathedral asks for a $5 admission fee for sight-seeing purposes and is free of charge for those attending for prayer or meditation purposes.


The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) includes Keith Haring art in its ongoing exhibition “Collection 1970s–Present,” and shows 17 of his works on its website.

Museum of the City of New York

Keith Haring works are among the Martin Wong Collection of street art, which Wong donated to the Museum of the City of New York in 1994. The items are not always on view.

Whitney Museum

The Whitney Museum has six Keith Haring art works in its collection, which can be seen online.

American Masters – Keith Haring: Street Art Boy premieres Friday, December 4 at 9 p.m. on THIRTEEN. See clips and learn more on American Masters now.

Keith Haring as adult, in a overexposed photo. He wears a white undershirt and multicolored solid-color bead necklaces. His eyeglasses have decorative pattern arm. His hair appears a bit curly and wet.

Keith Haring as adult. Photo Credit: The Haring Foundation