Keith Haring and His Performance Art

Portion of Keith Haring's massive Untitled panel from 1982. Snapped at MoMA.

Keith Haring is one of the most inventive and talented artists of the end of the twentieth century as he combined a variety of forms in his works. Thus, his works can be regarded as a combination of comics, graffiti, performance and, of course, classical art. He revealed the world around him and his inner world in his very specific manner. People still try to understand the source of Haring’s inspiration. They want to understand where his ideas came from. One of his friends once said, “He got his themes from the newspaper. Keith’s lifeblood was the newspaper, and his oxygen the clubs”.[1] Notably, his works do tell the story of the major ideas and trends that existed in the end of the twentieth century. The works can even be regarded as a certain kind of articles where the author gives certain news. Some of his works are entitled but some do note bear any titles as they simply need no commentaries. Likewise, human life is not only a number of headlines as there is something bigger than any titles and labels.  

One of such works is now on display in Museum of Modern Art in New York. This work by Haring is displayed on the second floor of the museum where many contemporary artists’ works are presented. This work is untitled.[2] It was created in 1982. It is black ink on two sheets of white paper. This is quite a large work (182.9 x 1705.6 cm). The work reveals a mosaic of a variety of images. Flying saucers, strange animals, human figures and abstractions are depicted. This rather huge work in black and white evokes a lot of ideas and visions. However, to understand the work better, it is essential to pay attention to some facts concerning the artist’s life, death and his legacy.

Keith Haring was born in 1958 and he developed love for drawing in his early childhood.[3] He was the eldest of four children in the family of a cartoonist. The artist reflected upon his childhood and stated that he used to observe his father’s work and he was surrounded by images from cartoons so he started creating his own world, “Since I was little, I had been doing cartoons, creating characters and stories”.[4] It is important to note that the artist was born in the age of the space Odyssey when people were fascinated by the outer space exploration.[5] This fascination is revealed in the artist’s works.

Haring’s attitude towards education is also specific. He entered a commercial-art school as his parents stressed that artists need to be able to sell their art. However, Haring saw that illustrators and graphic designers he saw were really unhappy as they had to draw in accordance with orders and they had no time and then no talent to create real art.[6] This understanding made him quit the school as he wanted to create not simply draw. Haring noted that he learned a lot when he visited Carnegie Museum of Art. He derived his inspiration from works by Pierre Alechinsky, Dubuffet and Christo. Haring claimed that Christo’s works had “the most profound effect” on him and he wanted to respond to Christo’s “belief that art could reach all kinds of people, as opposed to the traditional view, which has art as this elitist thing”.[7] This polemics brought Haring to the open spaces of the streets and subways. He created his works for ‘ordinary’ people.

Moreover, Haring started drawing in public places in daytime when many people could see him working and this was “a whole sort of philosophical and sociological experiment” for him.[8] He learnt reactions of people and he could respond to positive as well as negative feedbacks. He also responded to indifference. This experience led to a brand-new genre for the artist. His works could not be defined as drawings any more as they were certain parts of artistic performances. Notably, Haring often drew on black surfaces using white chalk or white paint, which made him “a graffiti artist with a difference”.[9] The artist once said that he saw black spaces and he simply drew on them.[10] He filled the empty spaces with meaning, with his own universe. What is more, he involved different people into creation of his universes as every viewer or even every passer-by co-created each of his works.

He became a star in the early 1980s. First, his images sold out as anonymous works as people simply copied the images he drew in public places and no one even thought about the artist behind the drawings and graffiti.[11] However, when people got their hero, Haring became a really ‘radiant’ artist for many. His works were full of meaning and they revealed the world around people. Viewers found ideas which were in the air at that time. This was one of the reasons Haring’s works were so popular.

It is important to note that the artist lived a very hectic life as he loved clubs and he had lots of love affairs or even sexual relationships. One New Yorker (an actor involved in the musical based on Haring’s life) even noted, “I was probably the only gay man in New York in the ‘80s who never met or slept with him”.[12] He was open gay and he participated in a variety of events where issues of gay people were touched upon.

He found out about his disease (AIDS) in 1988 and his art became a bit different. His works became more personal and even more meaningful. The death of Andy Warhol also had a great impact on Haring.[13] Apart from general ideas that were in the air, the artist started paying more attention and even focusing on issues concerning homosexuality, AIDS and death. He also tried new forms and new colors. He moved from the worlds in black and white. His universe became colorful. The colors were bright and sometimes really radiant.

The artist passed away in 1990 at the age of 31. Of course, his works are still admired and are still up-to-date. People are still inspired by Haring’s energetic creativity and his specific style. His performance drawings have proved that art is not for elite only as all people can appreciate them and can even co-create. Each work by the artist reveals a whole universe that makes people think of their life and the society they live in.

The work under analysis is also very evoking. It makes viewers think of many quite global issues. It brings back memories of the space craze and makes viewers understand that the issues concerning animals were apparent in the 1980s and still nothing is done. The picture also makes people think about their place in the universe and the meaning of their existence.

Some may say that this untitled work is not as significant as his Radiant Baby, for instance. However, I think the work in question is as significant as Radiant Baby, since it can be regarded as a certain embodiment of one of the most important periods in Haring’s life. This was the period of his work which was a great experiment as well as a great fun. He drew and he went to parties. He listened to people and he accumulated these ideas which were eventually tessellated into a mosaic of Haring’s universe. This mosaic consisted of his childhood memories and new trends, his past and his present. He used a variety of tools to reveal his ideas. Cartoons and graffiti were his primary tools at that period.

The large work represents one of his works created in subways. It is possible to feel the presence of others in this picture. Even though this work was not drawn in public, it is still possible to feel the atmosphere during his artistic drawing performances. The work is really lively. Every object and every image is in motion. Thus, the picture makes viewers picture a subway and Haring creating this work in front of numerous passers-by. It is also necessary to note that the work is in black and white. This work pertains to the black and white period when he created his universes using two colors only.

Furthermore, the picture reveals one of the codes he used in his works.[14] The code is quite multi-layered. However, this code may be traced in many works of that period. Therefore, the significance of the work is obvious. It helps decipher the code which can help understand many other works better. Remarkably, the author used to say that he did not know where those images came from.[15] However, even if he did not think of the origin of his ideas and did not want to talk about the meaning of his works, it is possible to state that the meaning is quite obvious. Even if the artists said he did not want to say anything drawing his pictures, there is a specific message. The artist revealed the world around him, and he also revealed the world as he saw it. Thus, the major significance of the present work (as any other work by Haring) is that he perpetuated the period he lived in. This untitled piece of art makes contemporary viewers understand what kind of the world the artist lived in. Contemporaries of Haring may reflect upon those distant years and compare their lives in 1980s and 2010s.

When considering Haring’s works, it is necessary to mention the atmosphere and the impression the works make. When I saw the work in question, I understood that it is really special. It creates a very unique atmosphere. Viewers find themselves inside the world revealed in the picture. Viewers find themselves inside a very specific cartoon where all ideas are revealed in a grotesque form. The picture shows that life itself can be compared to the cartoon. All know that any cartoon has a specific meaning, idea and a lesson to learn. Sometimes these messages are on the surface, but sometimes it is necessary to look for the meaning. Likewise, people tend to search for the meaning of their existence. Being inside Haring’s world-cartoon one can come across the meaning.

Apart from the didactic component, the work is descriptive in nature. It depicts the western society of the 1980s. It is possible to hear the voices of the 1980s. The picture is a reflection of certain trends that reigned in the end of the twentieth century. For instance, the craze for flying saucers is revealed by the artist. The flying saucers send their rays to the Earth and, maybe, try to seize humans. The artist does not show whether the civilizations are friendly or hostile. The picture reveals humans’ ideas concerning other civilizations. However, it is certain that the flying saucers are a part of people’s picture of the universe.

It is quite difficult to understand the message the artist sends while depicting the animals. Though, it seems that the animals are suffering. They try to find support in the universe, they want to be saved and they want to be heard. These images tell the story of the relationships between people and animals. In other words, the artist depicts some people’s ideas on the matter. Haring tries to make people think of the world they live in. The animals seem to be central to the picture as these concerns were quite widespread in the 1980s. Many people (including the artist) understood that animals need help. Thus, the picture has two major aims in this respect. On the one hand, the artist reveals the ongoing debate on the matter. On the other hand, Haring draws people’s attention to the problem. The work makes people think that something should be done.

Notably, Haring depicts people in a very specific manner. Human figures are literally scattered all over the picture as well as all over the universe. People still do not know what their place in the universe is. Apart from the figures’ location, there is something special about them. There are lines inside the figures. These lines can be a certain way to fill in an empty space. However, these lines may well stand for people’s souls, beliefs, ideas, etc. The artist believes that people are not shallow and there is something special in every human being. It is also possible to note that the artist believes that people have the future and humanity will overcome any issues. It is possible to note that the picture brings hope.

Keith Haring was an extraordinary personality and a very talented artist. He managed to combine really incompatible forms, genres and tools. He made many people understand that art is not for elite only as every passer-by could become a co-creator of an artistic work. The work in question was created in 1982. This was the period when the artist became known and admired. The work is untitled but it is far from being meaningless or insignificant. On the contrary, the work is really significant as it embodies a specific code present in each work by Haring. The work helps decipher the code and adjust it to other works of the same period (and even other periods). Apart from this, the work is really significant as it makes viewers think of a variety of important issues.



“About Haring.” The Keith Haring Foundation, accessed October 25, 2012.!/about-haring/in-his-own-words#.UIjOfm9vgb3.

“Exhibitions.” MOMA, accessed October 24, 2012.

Giltz, Michael. “Radiant Talent.” The Advocate (April 15, 2003): 52-53.

Keith Haring: Journey of the Radiant Baby. Piermont, N.H.: Bunker Hill Publishing, Inc., 2006.

Kolossa, Alexandra. Keith Haring: Life for Art. New York: Taschen, 2004.

Loos, Ted. “In Code: Spaceships, Babies, Evil TVs.” The New York Times, June 2012, accessed October 25, 2012,

Yarrow, Andrew L. “Keith Haring, Artist, Dies at 31; Career Began in Subway Graffiti.” The New York Times, February 1990, accessed October 25, 2012,

[1]. quoted in Keith Haring: Journey of the Radiant Baby (Piermont, N.H.: Bunker Hill Publishing, Inc., 2006), 32.

[2]. “Exhibitions,” MOMA, accessed October 24, 2012,

[3]. Alexandra Kolossa, Keith Haring, 1958-1990: Life for Art (New York: Taschen, 2004), 92.

[4]. “About Haring,” The Keith Haring Foundation, accessed October 25, 2012,!/about-haring/in-his-own-words#.UIjOfm9vgb3.

[5]. Alexandra Kolossa, Keith Haring, 1958-1990: Life for Art (New York: Taschen, 2004), 37.

[6]. “About Haring,” The Keith Haring Foundation, accessed October 25, 2012,!/about-haring/in-his-own-words#.UIjOfm9vgb3.

[7]. Ibid.

[8]. “About Haring,” The Keith Haring Foundation, accessed October 25, 2012,!/about-haring/in-his-own-words#.UIjOfm9vgb3.

[9]. Andrew L. Yarrow, “Keith Haring, Artist, Dies at 31; Career Began in Subway Graffiti,” The New York Times, Feb. 17, 1990, accessed October 25, 2012,

[10]. “About Haring,” The Keith Haring Foundation, accessed October 25, 2012,!/about-haring/in-his-own-words#.UIjOfm9vgb3.

[11]. Ibid.

[12]. Michael Giltz, “Radiant Talent,” The Advocate, April 15, 2003, 52.

[13]. Alexandra Kolossa, Keith Haring, 1958-1990: Life for Art (New York: Taschen, 2004), 85.

[14]. Ted Loos, “In Code: Spaceships, Babies, Evil TVs,” The New York Times, Jun. 14, 2012, accessed October 25, 2012,

[15]. “About Haring,” The Keith Haring Foundation, accessed October 25, 2012,!/about-haring/in-his-own-words#.UIjOfm9vgb3.