Keith Haring’s Legacy Is Not Found at the Museum

Toward the end of “Radiant: The Life and Line of Keith Haring,” Brad Gooch’s exhaustive new biography, he quotes from a journal entry Haring made after visiting the Museum of Modern Art in 1988 expressing his “sense of injustice” that contemporaries of his “were represented upstairs in the galleries, while he was confined to the lobby gift shop: ‘They have not even shown one of my pieces yet. In their eyes I don’t exist.’”

Haring’s frustration surely feels surprising for anyone who is familiar with his work, which is mostly everyone. You needn’t be able to name a Keith Haring picture to recognize it; its vibrating line and electric palette announce itself as efficiently as a neon sign. That was true in 1988, by which time Haring had completed more than 50 murals around the world, largely for hospitals and children’s charities, and was designing Swatch watches and ads for Absolut vodka and Run DMC. And it is more so now, 34 years after his death, in 1990 at the age of 31, as his work continues to permeate contemporary art.

In his short but intense career, Haring’s pulsating figures became an inextricable part of New York City life, like ancient hieroglyphics that weren’t as much drawn as unearthed. Remnants of his public works, like his crimson “Crack is Wack” handball court mural in East Harlem from 1986 and the 700-foot wraparound frieze in Woodhull Medical Center done the same year, remain highly visible. At once modern and classical, gnomic yet instantly clear, Haring’s work distilled the Pop Art of the previous decades and Neo-Expressionism of the 1980s, wrapping in uptown graffiti movements into a genderless, raceless utopia — a basic but expansive vision of human equality. And yet the most likely place you’ll encounter it now is still not the museum, but the mall, which was his own doing.

Haring’s “Crack Is Wack” mural in the East Harlem neighborhood of Manhattan.Credit…Robert Wright for The New York Times
Haring’s 700-foot wraparound frieze at the Woodhull Medical Center in Brooklyn.Credit…Sara Hylton for The New York Times

Haring’s view was that art ought to be available to as many people as possible, and he correctly identified that most people’s exposure to it was not in galleries but on the street and in stores.

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