Keith Haring: The street artist as political activist

During times of the rise of populist politics in Europe, more museums and art spaces seem to take a stand against nationalist ideologies by exhibiting artists who engaged in various historical events, working towards social justice and humanity. 

The Albertina Museum Vienna is currently devoting a large-scale exhibition to the American artist Keith Haring (1958-1990) that includes around 100 works, sourced internationally from numerous museums and private collections. I had the chance to visit the show in the course of a “Social Conference”. My reflections are focusing on the political and formal aspects of Keith Haring’s oeuvre.


Keith Haring’s art gets very often associated with rather amusing or humorous illustrations. But if you dare to take a closer look, you may as well find some rather negative, sometimes even frightening symbols of topics such as violence, hate and power structures. Haring himself conceived his artistic practice as a political statement in the public realm (the subways of New York City). His drawings, paintings and sculptures embody messages that take a stand against the violence of ruling elites, against the oppression of minorities, against prejudice, and against barbarism. His oeuvre draws on the creative principles of graffiti as well as on semiotics and the art-historical canon. 

“Most of my political and social concerns came from my life experiences. Partly being born in the late 1950s and growing up in the 1960s and sort of being around that counter culture but not being able to participate. Definitely being very affected by that and being at an age at the time when I think I was most impressionable, like seeing the Vietnam War when I was ten years old, seeing race riots on television and reading Life magazine (…)”

Despite his early and lasting success, one central aspect – which can be viewed as a primary concern of Keith Haring’s art – has to this day hardly been recognised in its true significance: the systematic symbolic language that runs through his entire oeuvre like a golden thread. Haring – whose coursework at the School of Visual Arts in New York had also included semiotics – developed his symbolic vocabulary and its alphabet based on a keen awareness of how pictures can function just like words. His famous drawings in stations of the New York subway system played an important role in this development. For the artist it became the perfect environment or laboratory for working out all of the ideas that he was discovering. The ultimate outcome of this was Haring’s very own artistic vocabulary. 

Quite early on, Haring was impressed by hieroglyphic writing on ancient Egyptian tables. What interested him was how they were reduced to just a few lines, a principal that he adopted in his own work. In doing so, he evolved the abstract shapes of his early drawings, giving a start to his characteristic symbols including the human being, the dog, the golden calf, the heart, the snake, the pig, the pyramid, the radio and much more. 

From a synthesis of Paul Klee’s archetypal forms and the instruments of street art, Keith Haring developed a visual language built of simple lines. 

By using a symbolic and figurative language Haring was able to give his thoughts a voice and spread them in a “democratic” way. Leaving the political messages behind the corridors of the subway in New York’s sidewalks and facades, Keith Haring realised his art not only in the sheltered zones of museums and galleries. 

“The public has a right to art. The public needs art, and it is the responsibility of a self-proclaimed artist to realise the public needs art, and not to make the bourgeois art for the few and ignore the masses. Art is for everybody.”

Haring’s response in a period of a growing social gap between rich and poor, high life and low life, white and black, is strongly connected to his New York friendships including Grace Jones, Basquiat and Andy Warhol. This marks a moment in history when the mass culture of Pop and the artistic avant-garde were not perceived as opposites.

Make sure you don’t miss #AlbertinaHaring!

Click here for more information.      
Opening hours: Daily from 10 am to 6 pm / Wednesdays & Fridays from 10 am to 9 pm 
Adress: Albertina Museum, Albertinaplatz 1, 1010 Vienna, Austria

Photo credit (except for indicated): Judith Bradlwarter. ©

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The Curators of “Keith Haring: The Alphabet” – Dr. Dieter Buchart and Elsy Lahner.
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Judith B. (founder and author of atelierjudith.com) listening to the Curators explaining the concept of the Keith Haring exhibition at Albertina Museum, Vienna.
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Keith Haring after painting a street mural in New York (Source: Pinterest)
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Keith Haring in his New York “Pop Shop” (Source: haring.com)

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