Keith Haring on How to Be an Artist
Keith Haring’s ebullient figures—the babies, the dancers, the dogs—may have been born in New York City’s subway stations in the early 1980s, but they certainly didn’t stay there. Over the span of a single decade, the American painter rocketed into the international spotlight. His distinctive style, incorporating elements of “low-brow” culture such as comics and graffiti, infiltrated the worlds of fine art, advertising, and fashion all at once. For that, he was sometimes derided as a sellout—an artist whose work was too commercial to be taken seriously.
But his journals reveal a young man thinking deeply about his role as both an artist and a public figure. Haring was 18 years old when he penned his first entry, then a high school graduate preparing to hitchhike to Minnesota to see the Grateful Dead. He continued to keep records of his thoughts and his itineraries, often written during international plane flights—rare breaks in his increasingly frenetic schedule. His final entry, from Milan, is dated September 22, 1989, five months before he died of AIDS-related complications, at age 31. Below, we highlight four takeaways from Haring’s writings.
Lesson #1: Make your work accessible to the public
In 1978, while living in Pittsburgh, Haring attended a lecture given by the famed artist Christo, followed by a screening of a film about his 1976 installation in California, Running Fence. The experience affected the young artist deeply. In an interview years later, he recalled watching a group of California farmers—initially resistant to Christo’s project—rising early to watch the sunrise reflected in the fence. They were “saying it was the most beautiful thing they had ever seen!” Haring said. “And seeing them affected and challenged by and inspired by a work of art! No matter how contemporary it was, and no matter how alien it was to everything they knew—somehow, that forced intervention by an artist made them see things in a whole other way.”
The film, along with the writings of artist Jean Dubuffet, were two of Haring’s earliest influences. “The thing I responded to most was their belief that art could reach all kinds of people, as opposed to the traditional view, which has art as this elitist thing,” he told Rolling Stone in 1989.
Haring dedicated himself to making work that resonated with regular people. “The public needs art, and it is the responsibility of a ‘self-proclaimed artist’ to realize [what] the public needs are, and not to make bourgeois art for the few and ignore the masses,” he wrote in his journals. He launched his career in subway stations—about as far from the white cube as one could get—sketching early versions of his now-iconic figures in chalk for all the city’s commuters to see.
In 1978, working out of a studio on West 22nd Street with the doors propped open, “the main thing that impressed me was the ‘kinds’ of individuals who would stop and talk to me,” he wrote. “They were not, for the most part, gallery-goers and not people who generally frequent MoMA, but they were interested. There is an audience that is being ignored, but they are not necessarily ignorant. They are open to art when it is open to them.”
He continued to widen the audience for his art through the Pop Shop, a Manhattan storefront that sold his creations at price points that the average person could afford, and his numerous public murals scattered across the globe.
Lesson #2: Create an artwork in a single sitting
According to Haring, the best art is made in just one sitting. “To paint differently every day makes it impossible to paint a consistent composition over the period of more than one session,” he wrote. “It is done, but not without pain, needless changes, de-evolution, false repetition (duplication), over-working, collage (piling ideas on top of each other and calling them a ‘whole’), etc. Pure art exists only on the level of instant response to pure life.” That’s not to dismiss the quality of historical paintings created over the course of several months or years, he noted. But in the midst of the computer age, art has evolved. “A modern artist has to produce images quickly and efficiently enough to keep up with our changing world,” he continued.
Drawing in snow, he noted later, was the perfect way to reflect these concepts. Because the images melt away almost immediately, it frees the artist to make more authentic, inventive, spontaneous work. “You draw fast and you are always aware that you are creating something very temporary, very auto-destructive, very instant. It goes quickly and there is not time to worry about it,” he explained. When you know that the work you’re creating is temporary, he continued, “then you realize you are reacting instead of acting. Responding instead of contriving. Art instead of imitation. Primal response.”
Yet, he cautioned, don’t become an automaton. “The elements of chance, and magic, and spirit cannot be sacrificed in this quest” for efficiency, he said.
Lesson #3: Leave the meaning of your art open-ended
The quickest way to kill your art, according to Haring, is to rigidly define it. “There is no need for definition,” he wrote. “Definition can be the most dangerous, destructive tool the artist can use when he is making art for a society of individuals.” That’s not to say an artist can’t have certain concepts or themes in mind when creating an artwork. But the “artist’s ideas are not essential to the art as seen by the viewer.…The viewer does not have to be considered during the conception of the art, but should not be told, then, what to think or how to conceive it or what it means.”
This idea went hand in hand with his belief that artists should consider more than just the art world. “The viewer should be able to look at art and respond to it without wondering whether he ‘understands’ it. It does not aim to be understood! Who ‘understands’ any art?.…Nobody knows what the ultimate meaning of my work is because there is none.…It exists to be understood only as an individual response.”
Haring believed strongly in the power of individuality—both for the viewer and for the artist. He thought that the time for art movements was past. “I believe we have reached a point where there can be no more group mentality, no more movements, no more shared ideals,” he declared. “It is a time for self-realization.”
Lesson #4: Lower the stakes
As an art student in New York, Haring found that using expensive materials like canvas actually inhibited his artmaking. “I’m paranoid about what it will look like ’cause I spent $12.00 on the painting, and I think it should be worth something,” he wrote. “However, when I paint on paper that I have found or purchased cheaply, and use ink that is watered down, I do a whole 4’ x 9’ painting for next to nothing. I love to paint. And you can see it in the work.”
Everything Haring made, he considered a work in progress. “The paintings are not final statements,” he wrote. “They can be changed, reshaped, combined, destroyed.” In November 1978, Haring created a “painted environment” for the School of Visual Arts’s student gallery that involved altering—even destroying—older works for the sake of a new one.
“If a piece is final, that implies that it is perfect, or the purest form attainable,” he explained. “I do not believe I am capable of imitating the perfection of nature.” That mindset, he believed, kept him moving forward in his practice. “Risks are what make the difference between new ideas and re-worked old ideas,” he wrote.