The subject of a new traveling retrospective opening May 27 at Los Angeles’s The Broad museum, Keith Haring (1958–1990) shot to fame in the art world at an unusually young age. He was in his early 20s when he first gained notoriety as a graffiti artist who crossed over to become a defining figure in New York City’s downtown scene of the 1980s—a decade when artists of the baby boomer generation made their outsize demographic felt by breaking down the last remaining barriers between high and low culture.
Haring’s rapidly dashed-off combinations of hieroglyphics and coloring-book outlines epitomized these developments, as his work went from street to gallery and finally to the auction house, where it ultimately fetched millions of dollars. Cut down by AIDS in 1990 at age 31, he left behind a legend that rivaled Warhol’s and that of his coeval, Jean-Michel Basquiat.
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Capturing lightning in a bottle, Haring reflected a cultural moment in New York that matched the louche glamor of Paris in the 1920s. Both milieus witnessed an influx of creatives prompted by larger historical forces: the aftermath of World War I for the French capital, and municipal bankruptcy for NYC during the 1970s, when white flight to the suburbs collapsed the city’s tax base. NYC became nearly as empty as its coffers, clearing a space for a tsunami of artistic aspirants—many of whom, ironically, were escaping suburbia, where they’d come of age amid the fruits of postwar prosperity and a firehose stream of television programming.
Thanks to television, Boomers grew up immersed in sitcoms, variety shows, dramas, commercials, and B-movies that introduced its impressionable audience to genres such as horror and sci-fi. Just as important, TV brought world-shattering events—JFK’s assassination, civil rights protests, the Vietnam War—into suburban living rooms. The result transformed images into a generationally shared shorthand.
It’s no surprise, then, that artists shaped by midcentury mass media—which also included rock-and-roll music and comic books—saw that the high-minded abstractions of 20th-century modernism had been exhausted after Conceptual Art and Minimalism, driving a return to representation. For Haring, this meant reviving a kind of Pop Art that was even more energetic and democratized than the original.
“Keith Haring: Art Is for Everybody” will be on view at the Broad Museum, Los Angeles May 27–Oct. 28, 2023; the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, from Nov. 11, 2023–Mar. 17, 2024; and the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, April 27–Sept. 8, 2024.