In the 1980s you’d be forgiven for thinking Keith Haring had been employed to wallpaper Manhattan, so ubiquitous were his images of radiant babies, barking dogs and euphoric dancers. For a few years, New York’s famously dangerous subway became his own personal art salon, teeming with his pulsating and iconic chalk figures. It was clever too. Millions of commuters each week were absorbing this new and vibrant visual language.

Working at speed, he found space wherever he could, defacing billboards and the black spaces that existed between them. Crowds formed around him whilst he drew, it was a performance piece as much as anything and it did not take long before the art world began prowling. First up was influential curator Henry Geldzahler, who immediately, as the story goes, gathered up all his 60 or so staff and held up the drawing he had just bought from Haring’s studio and said: “This artist is 23 years old. His name is Keith Haring and he’s a genius. If you can do it, go out and buy yourself one of his paintings.”

Keith Haring, Ignorance = Fear, 1989. Poster. Image: Courtesy of Collection Noirmontartproduction, Paris

Those staff members who did not follow his advice must be now kicking themselves. The price of his work has risen at least tenfold. Even then, at this tender age, he was celebrated for the confident strength of his line. The style was simple and convincing, bringing a smile to everyone who looked upon it and giving off a radiant upbeat energy. Which of course is nonsense. His work tackled many of the most pertinent questions of the day, from apartheid, the Aids epidemic to the soaring rates of crack addiction.

Those apparently childish scrawls belied a forthright moral aim, to draw attention to the oppressed and abused. His greatest skill was in taking on these issues in an accessible manner – Hieronymous Bosch with a Disney makeover.

Installation view Keith Haring at Tate Liverpool, 2019. Image: © Mark McNulty

Haring joined up with Act Up, a group of activists whose intention was to make as much noise as possible about the disease; his three figures, covering the eyes, ears and mouths “See no evil, Speak no evil, Hear no evil” acted like a global alarm call and did much to raise awareness around the world. The boy who never stopped drawing, once said that his “contribution to the world is my ability to draw. I will draw as much as I can for as many people as I can for as long as I can.” Luckily for us he did just that.

 

Keith Haring is on at Tate Liverpool through to the 10th November 2019

 

Duncan Ballantyne-Way