As the leaves change color, the pool is emptied of water, the children have cleared out, but what remains is the unmistakably powerful imagery of Keith Haring’s mural at the Carmine Street swimming pool (Clarkson Street and 7th Avenue South). Executed in 1987, the artwork is nothing short of a kinetic soup of abstract primary shapes and colors playfully interconnected, flowing across a 180 ft. horizontal wall (by 18 ft. high) that witnesses say was erected in a few hours. Dolphins dance and jump through rings, engage amphibious humans of warped proportions; a person emerges from a fish’s mouth; the emphasis here is on fun and youth. The late Haring magically created a backdrop laced with hope for the kids who were to frequent the pool in years to come, the message succinctly universal.
Born in 1958, Haring grew up in Kutztown – a small town in Pennsylvania – and at a young age began to follow in his artist father’s footsteps, latching onto cartooning and popular culture, in particular Walt Disney. In 1978, after a brief dabble in commercial art, he moved to New York City to study at the School of Visual Art (SVA). Haring quickly fell into the burgeoning downtown art scene characterized by punk and hip-hop music, dance and graffiti. The city quickly became his canvas, the subways of the Lower East Side, Upper Manhattan and the Bronx, his studios. His spontaneous, iconic chalk renditions on the blank subway advertising panels gave him access to the public and became a key component of his artistic voice.
Haring became immersed in the uninhibited expressive environment that the downtown art scene was becoming; the rotating gallery he curated at the underground music and counter-culture Mudd Club (77 White Street) became a regular fixture. Fellow creative transplants such as Madonna, William Burroughs and Andy Warhol gravitated towards Haring, all of with whom he collaborated. In 1982, he hung his first New York one-man show at the Shafrazi Gallery (544 West 26th Street) gaining immediate critical acclaim and international recognition.
Haring’s arrival on the global stage paved the way for in excess of 50 public works worldwide during the 1980s. His art investigates topics such as birth, death, love, sex and war. The primacy of his line and figures made his art accessible to the masses with the directness of his message never in doubt. Haring identified the importance of bridging the gap between the bourgeois gallery world and the masses, which he achieved through his public murals. NYC based graffiti artist Rusk cites the importance of street art and graffiti as, “an element of the urban environment that commandeers public space beyond the control of big money real estate and advertising.” In 1986, Haring controversially opened Pop Shop, a retail store in SoHo, that sold his artwork in the form of buttons, T-shirts, mugs and key rings at a modest price.
Haring utilized his artistic star power to tackle the greater social problems at hand such as the crack epidemic, literacy and HIV/AIDS. The “Crack is Wack” wall (128th Street and FDR Drive) completed in 1986 was evidence of Haring’s fierce concern for society and is the only remaining NYC public piece alongside of Carmine Street Pool mural. Lower East Side artist Chico, a contemporary of Haring, recognizes that change is inevitable in street art, as he has seen his works evolve and disappear over time. He explains, “It must be original and beautiful, unify the community, and carry a deeper message.”
On February 6, 1990, at the age of 31, Haring died of AIDS-related complications. Before his death, he established the Keith Haring Foundation to continue his charitable support of children’s and AIDS-related organizations. He stated, “No matter how long you work, it’s always going to end sometime. And there’s always going to be things left undone (Keith Haring Foundation). Haring’s legacy has lived on through his accessible iconic imagery. In his final years, devoid of self-pity, his paintings spoke to greater social realities. Even though he has exited this lifetime, his art has remained immortal.