Keith Haring (1958-1990) developed his creative career out of the grit and glamour of New York City street culture in the 1980s. An advocate of gay rights and safe sex, Haring’s social activism became a central focus after he was diagnosed with AIDS. Despite the disastrous effects of the AIDS epidemic on Haring’s community and his own life, he maintained a playful and rambunctious spirit throughout his career. Today, Haring’s posters, paintings, and murals are iconic images around the world—and they remind us of the importance of community, advocacy, and love.
“The Swiss watch manufacturer Swatch sponsored the first—and for six years the only—break-dance world championship. Swatch also commissioned the poster” (Haring Posters, p. 109). The Roxy, located in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood, got its start in 1978 as a roller disco, earning the name the “Studio 54 of roller rinks.” In 1982, the space was revamped into a dance floor, and the venue became a hub for dance music, hip hop, punk, and DJ experimentation.
Curated and organized by Keith Haring, Rain Dance was a benefit for UNICEF’s African Emergency Relief Fund: Pop Art’s contribution to pop music’s Live Aid that same year. This poster—now considered to be an iconic piece of the Pop era—stemmed out of Warhol’s system of collaborating upon the same canvas with a variety of his protégées. Here, he joins forces with Lichtenstein, Haring, Basquiat, and Yoko Ono to create a unified, exciting composition. “This poster reflects the créme de la créme of New York’s artistic and social circles in 1985. Water, so essential to combat drought and famine prevailing in Ethiopia, was the poster’s principal message and its theme, rain, is treated from different perspectives by each of the artists: graphic (Lichtenstein’s oblique lines), practical (Warhol’s umbrellas), ethnographic (the rain dance by Haring), political (Basquiat, combining the homophones rain and reign), and geographic (Ono, whose footsteps illustrate Africans’ long walks to reach rare water sources)” (Warhol Posters, p. 116).
Haring promotes his exhibition at Galerie Daniel Templon with a bright, playful design with his Haring-figures climbing atop a robo-elephant creature. The exhibition featured large-scale paintings and painted steel sculptures, which naturally made use of bold primary colors and his signature geometric characters. This poster is from an edition of about 200.
Haring’s Pop Shop in Soho was a unique retail experience where consumer goods designed by Haring were offered along with exhibitions and events. In this striking black and yellow design, Haring announces the opening with the sort of gusto that only Haring could manage to pull off. As he said, “I discussed the Pop Shop many times with Andy Warhol, and he was totally supportive of my taking the plunge, and not caring what people thought” (Haring Posters, p. 113).
“In 1984, Haring had employed a young assistant who became addicted to crack. His struggle with the drug prompted Haring to come up with an idea for a large-scale mural in East Harlem, directly on the FDR Drive” (Haring Posters, p. 114). This poster was created at the same time, and was used to help promote the 1986 “Crackdown on Crack” benefit concert in New York City. Bill Graham, the famed music promoter, organized the event to raise funds to combat the crack cocaine epidemic in New York.
Keith Haring spent the ’80s among the New York art world’s elite, fully in the Madonna-Basquiat-Warhol golden triangle, and was at the height of his fame when he was diagnosed with AIDS in 1988. Openly gay and a strong advocate of safe sex, he established the Keith Haring Foundation for AIDS in 1989. This poster for the AIDS organization ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) is without a doubt the most famous and most impactful of all AIDS activist artworks produced during the period.
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