Keith Haring’s Bold Prints Highlight His Signature Line and Thriving Legacy

Keith Haring’s signature line has permeated physical space and universal truths, delving into social and political issues, crisis and conflict. Sprawling across paper, canvas, walls, and subway platforms, and depicting dancing silhouettes, barking dogs, and dolphins—among a vibrant lexicon of other trademark motifs—Haring’s fluid, persistent approach to form and figure has transcended the limits of geography and time. Now, 15 years after his death, interest in Haring has not wavered; in recent years there have been dedicated museum and gallery shows from Brooklyn to Brussels, from Gwangju to Rio de Janeiro. This year is no different, as the Keith Haring Foundation celebrates its 25th anniversary. Last month, while the de Young Museum in San Francisco opened a major new Haring exhibition, “The Political Line,” in New York, the foundation partnered with Pace Prints to present an in-depth look at the late artist’s prints. Featuring primarily black-and-white works that span over a decade, the exhibition features rare editions and foregrounds Haring’s iconic imagery, offering an opportunity to experience the fine details and striking simplicity of the artist’s work. In honor of the exhibition, we caught up with Pace Prints Chelsea director Rachel Gladfelter to learn about Haring’s use of printmaking, highlights of the exhibition, and his definitive line.

Artsy: Can you tell us about Haring’s relationship to printmaking? The works in the show span over a decade—was printmaking a medium that Haring worked in regularly?

Rachel Gladfelter: Over the course of Keith’s 10-year career, he created lithographs, silkscreens, etchings, embossings, and aquatints. In this short time period, he created over 60 editions on paper, so it’s safe to say he was making prints more frequently than the average artist. However, Haring was not average—he was constantly creating, so prints are relatively rare in relation to his unique work. 

He worked hands-on with print publishers in the USA, Switzerland, Japan, Germany, France, Denmark, and Holland in creating both individual prints and boxed, editioned portfolios. In addition to works on paper, Keith also created editions in steel, aluminum, bronze, wood, concrete, and terracotta.

Artsy: Can you talk us through the 24-part work Retrospect (1989)? What are some themes or motifs that these works employ that were particularly important to Haring?

RG: Retrospect (1989) is an incredible compilation of 24 individual compositions, 16 of which are from Keith’s “Pop Shop” series. This piece celebrates Haring’s favorite symbols: the radiant baby, the barking dogs, the angel, and the dolphin. It’s somewhat of a survey of his most iconic figures.

Haring initially created the work in vibrant, fluorescent colors in a larger edition of 75. The black and white Retrospect, currently on view, was created in a very limited edition of 10. The absence of color allows the viewer to appreciate the playfulness of line and influence of early animation and television.

Artsy: The works in the show are primarily black-and-white; can you tell us about the significance of the lack of color in these works? Can you talk about the highlights of orange and red found in certain works?

RG: We chose to focus on the black and white works because they showcase the purity and fluidity of Haring’s line. It’s tremendous to walk into the gallery and be surrounded by such an expressive and continuous mark, one that has the universal power it did when the works were created.

Cadmium red was often used to highlight a certain element within an artwork. Haring used this pop of singular color to grab the viewer’s attention. Untitled (1985), a set of three lithographs, is a prime example. These works deal with South African apartheid, an issue which Haring was an avid activist against. He outlined the composition in red, heightening the intensity of the issue. Haring was hyper aware of angles of communication—how color can manipulate attention, borrowing from the marketing and advertising strategies of Madison Avenue to evoke specific feelings in his art. 

Artsy: Haring’s signature line is the inspiration behind this show—what makes it signature? What makes his use of line so compelling? What about his works do you think makes them so timeless, universal, and appealing to younger generations?

RG: Keith used line as a vehicle for communication. When you see documentation of his process, it is very clear that the line poured out of him. It was a direct extension of his mind channeling his environment, and he never erased. The symbols he created touched on topics that are relevant to youth, in the 1980s or today—love, life, death, pop culture, and politics.

These images are as timeless as they are universal and idiosyncratic. They remain relevant because of their brilliant simplicity, legibility, and mysticism. They are absolutely relatable, always open to some level of interpretation, and are a mirror of the human condition. We see it every day, from two-year-olds to 92-year-olds—there is an immediate and innate connection with Haring’s work. 

 —Casey Lesser

Keith Haring is on view at Pace Prints, New York, Nov. 14–Dec. 24, 2014.

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Installation images and portrait of Rachel Gladfelter and Julia Gruen courtesy of Pace Prints.