Monday, November 2, 2009

Keith Haring's Radiant Baby

Despite the social activism that is commonly associated with the AIDS and gay rights movement and Haring's artwork, one of his most famous pieces, the "Radiant Baby" actually derives its origin from Christianity. Although Keith Haring was raised in a Protestant household, he encountered and voluntarily joined the 1970s "Jesus Movement" in his youth. Its followers were known as the "Jesus People," or more commonly "Jesus Freaks." The movement was evangelical and their message was to spread the word of Christ. It was predominately anti-church and anti-fundamentalist, and was also characterized by their anti-materialism and extreme compassion for the poor.

By his late teens, Haring's involvement with the Jesus Movement ended, but it still left an influential mark on his art. Haring's "Radiant Baby" is also named the "Radiant Child" or "Radiant Christ." The Radiant Baby first appeared in his work as a subway artist in which he used the piece as his "tag" or signature in most of his works. Haring described the Radiant Baby as the "purest and most positive experience of human existence." Though the image is clearly an influence of the great impact of his ideology and religion, it is also a vague and ambiguous interpretation, drawing roots from its "redemptive imagery into more pessimistic and ambiguous statements." It is largely symbolic of "Haring's hope for the future and also his continuing interest in the Messianic powers of Jesus. "

The image's religious connotation is evident from a comparison to the Mexican representation of the Virgin of Guadalupe:

The drawing of the child with energized rays emanating from its body is a well known convention of religious art, popular in Medieval and Renaissance paintings.

The Mexican representation of the Virgin of Guadalupe also illustrates energized rays emanating from its body.
"These lines radiating from the body indicate spiritual light glowing from within, as though the baby was a holy figure was a religious painting."

The Radiant Baby is also directly linked to Christ, and thereby recognized as the "Radiant Christ" in many of Haring's other artwork. In many of his pieces of subway art, Haring directly placed the Radiant Baby in a Nativity scene complete with a manger, shepards, and Magi.

The Radiant Baby has been used many different contexts of Haring's work. Another popular, but directly contrasting image to the "Radiant Christ" is one of the Radiant Baby sitting atop a nuclear mushroom; an image used in antinuclear rallies by Haring himself.

The mushroom cloud not only signifies death, but also the religious connotation of destruction and the final apocalypse.

Haring noted in a 1982 interview that many people “think they can see the aura of a radioactive or electric baby” in the figure of the Radiant Child. In addition to its appearance on the poster, the baby served as the symbol on an antinuclear button. These usages link the image to nuclear holocaust and, in Haring's experience, most likely to the Jesus People's views on Revelation. Haring acknowledged reading this biblical text, which contains many powerful images of fire destroying the Earth. Revelation 8:7–10 describes three angels, much like the trio featured in his antinuclear poster, who usher in a series of apocalyptic events. The first angel blew his trumpet and “there followed hail and fire, mixed with blood, which fell on the earth; and a third of the earth was burnt up, and a third of the trees were burnt up, and all green grass was burnt up.” The second angel's trumpet signaled the burning of a mountain, which, when thrown into the sea, consumed it with fire as well. Then the third angel blew his trumpet and “a great star fell from heaven, blazing like a torch.” Evaluating these passages from a twentieth‐ century perspective, it is easy to see how Haring could have related the imagery to nuclear holocaust and used the biblical descriptions as inspiration for his antinuclear poster. By placing the Radiant Child on the top of a mushroom cloud, he suggested the destruction of the child and the purity associated with it. This tragic annihilation of innocence alludes to the contention that the evil prevalent among pre‐apocalyptic people would be the catalyst for the Battle of Armageddon. The dualistic meaning of this motif can be seen in an alternative interpretation: the image of the baby accompanied by angels could also represent Christ's predicted descent from heaven just before the Battle of Armageddon (represented by the mushroom cloud), in which he saves his righteous followers. The ambivalent meaning of the Radiant Child is characteristic of Haring's art. The viewer is unsure whether the baby is being consumed by the flames or saving mankind. Haring shaped his religious sources to reflect his contemporary concerns about the end of the world.

Slide show of his work

History of AIDS

The acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) was first reported as a distinct clinical entity in 1981. In the next year or two misconceptions regarding the disease ranged from the belief that AIDS could be acquired only via anal intercourse and would affect only homosexual men.

During the first half of the 1980s, rapid advances were made in the understanding of the clinical course and epidemiology of this syndrome, including identification of its etiologic agent-the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and the development of antibody tests to detect infection. The primary modes of transmission of HIV were documented to be limited to sexual intercourse (anal or vaginal), administration or injection of infected blood/blood products, and from an infected woman to her fetus or infant before, during, or shortly after birth (prenatal transmission).

By the mid-1980s it was clear that AIDS as a disease syndrome is the late clinical manifestation of an underlying immunodeficiency due to HIV infection. Cohort studies have shown that the destruction of the immune system by HIV can take from a few months to a decade or more. The proportion of HIV-infected persons who have developed AIDS has progressively increased with time, and it seems likely that almost all infected persons will eventually develop AIDS.

Precisely where, when, and why HIV began to spread in human populations cannot be determined. Although the first AIDS cases to be recognized and reported were in the United States in 1981, it is clear from retrospective studies that this syndrome has been occurring in several other areas of the world since the mid-1970s. The large numbers of AIDS cases reported since the mid-1980s are due to HIV infections that began to be silently and extensively spread in the 1970s and the first half of the 1980s.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Death and Legacy

"I don't think art is propaganda; it should be something that liberates the soul, provokes the imagination and encourages people to go further. It celebrates humanity instead of manipulating it."

Keith Haring was diagnosed with AIDS in 1988. In 1989, he established the Keith Haring Foundation, to provide funding and imagery to AIDS organizations and children’s programs, and to expand the audience for Haring’s work through exhibitions, publications, and the licensing of his images.

Haring used his imagery during the last years of his life to speak about his own illness and generate activism and awareness about AIDS. By expressing universal concepts of birth, death, love, sex, and war, through his art, Haring was able to attract a wide audience and assure the accessibility and staying power of his imagery, which has become a universally recognized visual language of the 20th century. When once asked to state the values he was trying to impart in his work, Keith replied,

“A more holistic and basic idea of wanting to incorporate art into every part of life, less as an egotistical exercise and more natural somehow… taking it off the pedestal…giving it back to the people, I guess.”

Keith Haring died of AIDS related complications at the age of 31 on February 16, 1990.

Life Experience

As a student at SVA, Haring experimented with various mediums – performance, video, installation and collage, while maintaining as strong commitment to drawing. In 1980, Haring found a highly effective medium that allowed him to communicate with the wider audience he desired, when he noticed the unused advertising panels covered with matte black paper in a subway station.

“One day, riding the subway, I saw this empty black panel where an advertisement was supposed to go. I immediately realized that this was the perfect place to draw. I went back above ground to a card shop and bought a box of white chalk, went back down and did a drawing on it. It was perfect – soft black paper; chalk drew on it really easily.”

“I kept seeing more and more of these black spaces, and I drew on them whenever I saw one. Because they were so fragile, people left them alone and respected them; they didn’t rub them out or try to mess them up. It gave them this other power. It was this chalk-white fragile thing in the middle of all this power and tension and violence that the subway was. People were completely enthralled."

"I was always totally amazed that the people I would meet while I was doing them were really, really concerned with what they meant. The first thing anyone asked me, no matter how old, no matter who they were, was ‘what does it mean?’”

"The context of where you do something is going to have an effect. The subway drawings were, as much as they were drawings, performances. It was where I learned how to draw in public. You draw in front of people. For me it was a whole sort of philosophical and sociological experiment. When I drew, I drew in the daytime, which meant there were always people watching. There were always confrontations, whether it was with people that were interested in looking at it, or people that wanted to tell you you shouldn’t be drawing there…”

“I was learning, watching people’s reactions and interactions with the drawings and with me and looking at it as a phenomenon. Having this incredible feedback from people, which is one of the main things that kept me going so long, was the participation of the people that were watching me and the kinds of comments and questions and observations that were coming from every range of person you could imagine, from little kids to old ladies, or art historians.” ~Keith Haring

Between 1980 and 1985, Haring produced hundreds of these public drawings, sometimes creating as many as forty “subway drawings in one day.

During 1980 and 1989, Haring achieved international recognition and participated in numerous group and solo exhibitions. Haring completed numerous public projects in the first half of the 80s as well, ranging from animation for the Spectacolor billboard in Times Square, designing sets and backdrops for theaters and clubs, and creating murals worldwide.

In 1986, Haring opened the Pop Shop, a retail store in Soho selling merchandise bearing his images. Haring considered the shop to be an extension of his work and painted the entire interior of the store in an abstract black on white mural. The shop was intended to allow people greater access to his work at a low cost. The shop was criticized from many in the art world for its commercialism. However, Haring remained committed to his desire to make his artwork available to as wide an audience as possible, and received strong support for his project from friends, fans, and mentors, including Andy Warhol.

Throughout his career, Haring devoted most of his time to public works, which often carried social messages. He produced more than 50 public artworks between 1982 and 1989, in cities around the world, many of which were created for charities, hospitals, children’s day care centers and orphanages. The Crack is Wack mural of 1986 has become a landmark in New York. Other projects include;
a mural created for the 100th anniversary of the Statue of Liberty in 1986, on which Haring worked with 900 children;
a mural on the exterior of Necker Children’s Hospital in Paris, France in 1987;

and a mural painted on the western side of the Berlin Wall three years before its fall. Haring also held drawing workshops for children in schools and museums in New York, Amsterdam, London, Tokyo, and Bordeaux, and produced imagery for many literacy programs and other public service campaigns.

The last public project he ever did, called the Tuttomondo (in Pisa).


"My contribution to the world is my ability to draw. I will draw as much as I can for as many people as I can for as long as I can."

Keith Haring was an artist and social activist whose work responded to the New York City street culture of the 1980s. Like his artistic idol Andy Warhol, Haring used bright colors, bold lines and simple subject matters. He used his artwork to bring awareness to issues of AIDS, racism, gay rights, South Africa, nuclear weapons, and literacy to name a few. Haring has left an impact on the pop art culture world, and his messages are still clear in his artwork.

Keith Haring was born on May 4, 1958 in Reading, Pennsylvania, and was raised in nearby Kutztown, Pennsylvania. His introduction to art came at a very early age from watching his father draw cartoons, as well as popular culture around him, such as Dr. Seuss and Walt Disney.

During Haring's experimental and rebellious adolescence, art continued to be an important interest in his life. He was counseled to attend a commercial art school to gain a commercial-art background and show he was serious about being an artist. After graduating from high school in 1976, Haring moved to Pittsburgh to attend the Ivy School of Professional Art. He dropped out after two semesters, realizing that he had little interest in becoming a commercial graphic artist. Most of the people he met seemed extremely unhappy in the work and considered it a job to pay the bills while they did their own art on the side – something than never seemed to materialize. While in Pittsburgh, Haring continued to study and work on his own, sitting in on classes at the University of Pittsburgh Arts and Crafts Center, leading to his first important show at age nineteen.

Elements that would become central to Keith Haring’s style were beginning to emerge; he began working with small, interconnected abstract shapes. Later that year, Haring moved to New York City and enrolled in the School of Visual Arts (SVA) on a scholarship. Here Keith was able to experience a multicultural urban community; an environment where he was free to explore his gay identity; and a new peer group of artists as energetic and uninhibited as Keith himself.

The alternative art community that was developing outside the galleries and museums – the art community that was in the streets, subways, and public spaces inspired Keith. He befriended fellow artists, musicians, performance artists and graffiti writers that embraced the energy of the alternative art scene. In addition to being amazed by the innovation and energy of his contemporaries, Haring’s philosophical ideals were inspired by the work of three key artists: Robert Henri’s manifesto The Art Spirit, helped him assert the fundamental independence of the artist; also, drawn to the public and participatory nature of Cristo’s work, and Andy Warhol’s unique blending of art and life, Haring committed his career to creating a truly public art.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009