Artist Focus: Keith Haring

Exploring the prolific artist’s use of dogs

By Jon Nelson

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You can’t describe the 1980’s without including Keith Haring’s artwork. Capturing the bright, warm and happy heyday of commercialism, the end of the cold war, a generation of consumerism and a why the f*** not attitude, Haring was an artist that summed it all up in expressive eye candy that popped at the center of pop culture.

Of course, the 80’s were both completely awesome and totally terrible; behind the glam image lay dark consequences. Drugs and sex were at the forefront of pop culture and their exploits led to drug abuse and the AIDS epidemic. Immersed in the scene, Haring thrust these issues into his work, becoming an activist and promoter of AIDS awareness.

Keith Haring, Get Leashed Magazine

Haring identified with the culture of his time, connected with its biggest questions and issues, and found an outlet to represent them in likeable, uncomplicated works. Drawing on available space, most notably subway platforms and schoolyards, Haring found ways for his work to be viewed by thousands in New York City and eventually the world, a significant moment coming with a mural on the Berlin Wall shortly before its intended collapse.

A street artist inspiring a new genre, he asked questions of the cultural landscape, never giving answers while providing visual imprints on society. His Barking Dogs (1989) image can be seen today in pop culture and is still widely sold and displayed.

Keith Haring_Get Leashed Magazine

Dogs are found widely in Haring’s artwork. They’re symbolic of unanswered questions, prevalent in the 80s: “Can I do this?” “Is this right?” “What are you doing?” “What is happening?” Dogs stand by people, barking or dancing along, sometimes in precarious scenarios, even involved in some of Haring’s explicitly sexual work. Dogs are neither approving nor disapproving of what people do in the images; their mouth angle is neutral or even happy. In some cases, human bodies wear a dog’s head, possibly stating that we know only our own enjoyment, unaware, like a dog, of life’s next stage or the consequences of our actions.

Whether you know Keith Haring by name or not, you’ve enjoyed the stamp he made on pop culture in one way or another. Regardless, when a child draws a dog, we’re reminded of our innate love of these animals, rooted in their endearing character traits: companionship, friendliness and their unswerving ability to reflect a simple take on an otherwise complicated life. Much like Haring’s work.

The Keith Haring Foundation supports not-for-profit organizations that assist children, as well as organizations involved in education, research and care related to AIDS. Learn more and apply for assistance here.