‘It’s all about having your label everywhere’: why Keith Haring’s art is all around us | Keith Haring

GRAMoogle Keith Haring And unlike other artists, say Picasso or Tracey Emin, you’re just as likely to find ads as art. The ads suggest an Abercrombie & Fitch sweatshirt with Haring’s artwork on the front for £60. A Pandora ring with Haring dancing figures around the design for £125. Or a Uniqlo t-shirt, with two figures and a heart, for €14.90.

This is just a fraction of the items you can now purchase displaying Haring’s artwork. The Keith Haring Foundation, the organization responsible for his images since his death in 1990, has partnered with a host of brands in recent months, including H&M, Primark and Bershka, collaborations that follow his partnership with Uniqlo, which began in 2003. More than 30 years after his death, Haring’s crawling babies, barking dogs and dancing figures are ubiquitous.

Commercial value has long been a central tenet of Haring’s work. But is the sheer number of these new collaborations taking things too far and compromising his legacy? Has his art been reduced to glorified logos? Have we reached Haring Peak?

Haring was born in Pennsylvania and moved to New York to study art in 1978. Two years later, he began drawing on the subway; the artist and his work became a familiar sight for city travelers. His fame grew during the decade: he was the subject of 40 articles in 1986, appeared in more than 50 solo exhibitions during his lifetime, and created more than 50 public works of art. In his own life, Haring had few qualms about commercial work. He’s worked with Absolut, Fiorucci and Swatch, though he’s also turned down some brands, including deals with Kraft cheese and Dodge trucks. Crucially, in 1986 he opened the Pop Shop, a store on Lafayette Street in New York, selling affordable T-shirts, toys, posters, and badges.

Absolut Vodka by Keith Haring, 1986.
Absolut Vodka by Keith Haring, 1986. Photograph: © Keith Haring Foundation

Haring died of an AIDS-related illness at the age of 31, but left behind important work and a life that made him a hero to many. He campaigned against racism, drug abuse (see his famous Crack Is Wack Mural) and for the AIDS organization Act Up. He established his foundation in 1989 to provide grants to AIDS organizations and those that work with underprivileged children. Collaborations continue to generate income for those causes; last year, the foundation issued grants worth between $7 million and $8 million.

However, some collaborations have seen pushback from fans. In October, RosaNews posted an article highlighting responses to the most recent ones on social media. “Keith Haring is collaborating with Pandora, Primark, Casetify… what’s going on?” wrote one Twitter user, while others complained that Haring’s sexuality had been removed from publicity surrounding the Pandora collection. “Heteromarcas once again appropriating and disrespecting the work of the artists of my communities, for whipping some earrings. Absolutely enraged,” was one comment.

Gil Vázquez, the foundation’s executive director, is well aware of such criticism. “We are often accused of not highlighting Keith’s fight against HIV in our licensing program and it is often seen as erasing not just his fight, but the fight of many who fought and died,” says in an email. “It is a reality that we, the Haring Foundation, do not shy away from.” He adds that, when it comes to commercial projects, they come with different concerns: “We don’t think it’s fair to force a brand to tell a story that doesn’t make sense to them. With that being said, we would love the opportunity to work with a brand that it does I want to tell a story about the fight against HIV/AIDS in the 1980s and 1990s using images from Haring.”

The ability to purchase Haring at affordable prices is, Vázquez argues, a crucial part of staying true to the artist’s legacy. The foundation partners with Artestar, the company that acts as a go-between for artists and brands, on these collaborations (Artestar also handles artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat, Herb Ritts, and Mickalene Thomas), and focuses on affordable brands. “Fast fashion gets a bad rap sometimes because of ecological concerns, but for us, it’s about access,” says Vázquez.

Philippa Grogan, sustainability consultant at Eco-Age, says she understands these collaborations are in line with Haring’s thinking: “They’re mass appeal, just the way he wanted it to be,” but the bottom line is that all fast fashion has a downside. negative impact on the environment. “When brands launch new collections, they are contributing to growth, [not] unlink fashion from excessive consumption”, he says.

Grogan adds that the foundation’s commitment to children’s charities could be undermined by working with fast-fashion brands. “I know for a fact that some of these brands cannot guarantee child labor free supply chains,” she says. The foundation responds to this by saying that each license agreement stipulates that a brand guarantees that products made through the collaboration will not be made in a place that uses inhumane working conditions, child labor, or forced labor.

Haring’s acceptance of trade came long before we began to think about the human and environmental impact of what we were buying. He was inspired in part by Andy Warhol, an art giant in his day and a child of postwar consumerism. While Haring’s ethics were not questioned, there was criticism and rejection from the art world. Robert Hughes called him “Keith Boring” and described his work as “amusingly easy”.

A charm from the Keith Haring x Pandora collection.
A charm from the Keith Haring x Pandora collection. Photography: Courtesy of Pandora

Darren Pih, who curated Tate Liverpool’s Haring retrospective in 2019, says it’s easy to dismiss Haring as purely commercial. But, he argues, his work is smarter than that, in part because of his commitment to activism. “Their work of him had two sides to it,” says Pih. “He was critical of the market and capitalism and inequality. But also, for things like Pop Shop, you can see that he saw it as a way to reach a broader audience.”

The products sold at the Pop Shop often spoke to causes close to his heart; they presented slogans for Act Up or messages against apartheid. Emily Dinsdale, art writer at Dazed, says this is crucial. “He wasn’t concerned with marketing his work, he was more concerned with raising public awareness,” she says. “In a sense, you could describe his work as propaganda for compassion and equality.” Harrison Tenzer, head of digital strategy for Auctions, Modern & Contemporary Art (Americas) at Sothebys, worked on the Dear Keith auction of the artist’s personal collection in 2020. He says the way Haring lived his life resonates within the legacy. of the. “His role as an activist is probably the strongest element of his lived experience. He adds to the cache, for lack of a better term, around his artwork, because his art is so authentic to him and his vision, and he feels like an artist who really lived inside. his own morality”.

If critics were dismissive during his lifetime, Haring, at least posthumously, got the last laugh. Such is the demand for his artwork that a baby she drew on the wall of his bedroom in his childhood home was sold in September, an act that Guardian art critic Jonathan Jones , I call “brutal”, thanks to the fact that it was “ripped from its tender, intimate and original context to become a commodity in the art world”. Such extremes make sense when you discover that, in 2017, a Haring canvas sold for £5 million at Sotheby’s.

Tenzer says the market has grown in the last five years as collectors have digested Haring and his contemporaries. “There is a growing interest in that era and generation of New York artists. It spans so many different realms: street art, being out of the box, as well as having a fine art practice. [and] I think this generation of collectors is very comfortable with all of that.”

Ultimately, it is perhaps the simplicity of Haring’s work that allows it to exist in multiple contexts: on the high street, on the gallery wall, in collectors’ homes. Dinsdale argues that the “message of love and acceptance” behind these symbols lifts them up, wherever they are. “Perhaps like a design on a Uniqlo T-shirt, his work is in danger of becoming more of an indicator of the T-shirt wearer’s cultural capital than anything else,” he says. “But I like to think that Keith Haring’s visual language of dancing dogs and beaming babies is powerful enough to communicate some of his original intent, wherever you find it.”

Even Grogan thinks these items have an advantage over fast fashion. “I hope these designs are so cool that people will wear them longer,” he says, “because the materials they’re made of, cotton blends, aren’t going away.”

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