Why Keith Haring never sold out

As the artist’s art vehicles are exhibited in LA, we explore how the commercial moments in his career were just extensions of what he did on the street, painting and drawing on every surface available

In 1989, Chicago’s mayor Richard M. Daley invited Keith Haring to Grant Park to paint a mural with 300 school children.

To any of the kids working on the mural, the only signs of Haring’s illness, which would takes his life seven months after, were lesions and purple blots behind the artist’s ear and on his forehead. Interviewed by Rolling Stone during his visit, Haring was asked if he was worried he wouldn’t be able to work with kids because he had AIDS.

He replied: “I know they won’t invite me. But I think it’s not fair for them not to know and to go on and then find out: ‘He was here, and he had AIDS’[...] I think one of the hardest things AIDS has done is to kids growing up now, trying to figure out their sexuality in an unbiased way.”

In 1987, Haring tested HIV positive. His illness worsened with Kaposi’s sarcoma, an AIDS-related cancer. But, while in a fatal condition, nothing seemed to slow him down that week in Chicago. The morning after his last day in the city, Haring visited an elementary school in Iowa, then returned to paint New York’s Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center.

His schedule, as it had been since gaining recognition for his subway drawings in the 1970s, was exhausting. Only death could stop Haring making art and helping the people he wanted to.

Throughout his career, he always encouraged inner-city kids’ creativity. On his last day in Chicago, one of the children told him, “I really got to thank you, most people consider us an eyesore.” Many of Haring’s closest friends were kids. When he was dying, Haring wanted to make sure that the way he passed away was the least painful to his young friends. “Would it be worse for them to know that you took your own life?” he said. “Or to know, even if it wasn’t pretty at the end, that you fought and had a will to fight and tried to survive? Even though at a certain point it’s killing everyone around you.”

It seems strange then that someone who remained so passionate about his work and cared so much for others – even when faced with an early death – received criticism for selling out. Perhaps it was because fame came so early on in his career.

After arriving in New York in 1978, Haring started doing chalk sketches on the Metro and soon settled into the East Village’s art scene – making friends with the likes of Andy Warhol and Madonna. In the early 1980s, his work became more and more well known. He crafted sculptures for playgrounds and murals for children’s hospital wards. His work often contained strong messages about AIDS, crack and apartheid. In 1986, he painted the Berlin Wall. But as his fame increased – with works selling for around $100,000 – many critics dismissed him as just a commercial artist.

In the same year he painted the Wall, criticism of Haring reached its peak after he opened the Pop Shop, a store selling merchandise with reproductions of his paintings. On top of this, he also worked on advertising for Absolut and watch-designs for Swatch. In 1987, he painted a BMW Z1 at the Hans Mayer Gallery in Düsseldorf. Haring also painted other vehicles, such as a 1971 Land Rover in 1983. A selection of these are now included in The Unconventional Canvases of Keith Haring a new exhibition at Petersen Automotive Museum in LA.

For Haring, it was never about the money. Painting cars might seem commercial because they are a mass-produced product but really they were just another canvas. From the days when he was drawing all over New York’s subways, Haring wanted his art to appear anywhere on any surface. As wealth and attention was thrust upon him later on, it just was what he was painting or drawing on that changed, not why he was doing it. “When I paint, it is an experience that, at its best, is transcending reality,” he said. “When it is working, you completely go into another place, you’re tapping into things that are totally universal, of the total consciousness, completely beyond your ego and your own self. That’s what it’s all about.”

That week in Chicago, knowing his time was very much limited, Haring’s desire to spread awareness and compassion around the world became his primary focus.

“If you’re writing a story,” he said, “you can sort of ramble on and go in a lot of directions at once, but when you are getting to the end of the story, you have to start pointing all the things toward one thing. That’s the point that I’m at now, not knowing where it stops but knowing how important it is to do it now. The whole thing is getting much more articulate. In a way it’s really liberating.”