Remembering the impact of queer artist and AIDS activist Keith Haring

Having lived in New York in the 1980s, Maurice Cassidy recalls meeting the iconic artist and AIDS activist Keith Haring.

The image shows a black and white photograph of New York artists Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat. In the image, Basquiat (left), is kissing the forehead of Haring (right). Haring is wearing glasses and fez style hat with the letters BMX on it.
Image: @basquiatkingpleasure via Instagram

Following a visit to the Keith Haring: Art is for Everybody exhibition in LA, Maurice Cassidy was prompted to recall the legendary artist’s legacy on New York, the arts community and people living with HIV.

I was in Los Angeles in early September to catch the Keith Haring show at The Broad Museum in downtown LA. 

When I arrived in the States in the early 1980s, one of my first jobs was waiting tables at a Japanese restaurant in Manhattan. Haring would arrive from time to time with an entourage of attractive young men.  

The downtown nightlife and art scene in New York were entwined and thriving at the time. Keith Haring was already a star on the scene, and notable contemporaries included Basquiat and Warhol.

Haring had a fairytale story of sorts, a graffiti artist who had risen to fame from humble beginnings, rendering quick chalk drawings of vibrating figures, dogs and other forms on the empty subway advertising spaces. 

He quickly moved from the subways, gained recognition with solo shows in downtown galleries, and participated in the Whitney and the Venice Biennales. 

In 1985, as a result of the recognition he received, he stopped drawing in the subway as often someone would steal his drawings as soon as he had created them. 

Unhappy with the business of art, he sought to engage with the viewer and community directly, seeking to cut out the middleman and was often commissioned to create large murals for community spaces. 



View this post on Instagram


A post shared by The Broad (@thebroadmuseum)

In 1986, he opened the Pop Shop in Soho, selling artwork and Keith Haring branded merchandise – it was his answer to the exclusivity of the art establishment, and it’s a model that many large museums and institutions have copied to this day. 

There is a comprehensive review of his work on view at the Broad, including some of the larger pieces created for community spaces. The show contains news segments, interviews, and videos documenting Haring painting in his studio or as part of performance pieces that were executed in nightclubs of the era. 

It captures the breadth and scale of Haring’s work and gives us a window into the art scene in New York in the 1980s. His work addressed many issues of the day, particularly HIV/AIDS and Apartheid. He brought awareness to the AIDS epidemic as it impacted New York in the 1980s. 

At the time, there was a debate in Congress over funding for safer sex education, with conservatives arguing that it encouraged a “lifestyle” that perpetuated the spread of HIV – Haring created artwork for safer sex campaigns that were direct, humorous and engaging. 



View this post on Instagram


A post shared by The Broad (@thebroadmuseum)

He worked directly with the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP), a direct-action organisation founded to combat the indifference of the Reagan administration, creating artwork for flyers and posters that supported ACT UP’s mission.  

Haring was diagnosed with HIV in 1988 and died of AIDS in 1990, a life and career cut short way too soon.  

He influenced a generation of young artists, and his artwork lives on as a visual language that is potent and instantly recognisable to this day. Before his death, he set up the Keith Haring Foundation to continue his artistic legacy and to support funding for education and research for HIV/AIDS. 

Keith Haring: Art is for Everybody is currently on view at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto until March 17, 2024, and will move to the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis from April 27 to September 8, 2024.



View this post on Instagram


A post shared by The Broad (@thebroadmuseum)

© 2023 GCN (Gay Community News). All rights reserved.

Support GCN

GCN has been a vital, free-of-charge information service for Ireland’s LGBTQ+ community since 1988.

During this global COVID pandemic, we like many other organisations have been impacted greatly in the way we can do business and produce. This means a temporary pause to our print publication and live events and so now more than ever we need your help to continue providing this community resource digitally.

GCN is a registered charity with a not-for-profit business model and we need your support. If you value having an independent LGBTQ+ media in Ireland, you can help from as little as €1.99 per month. Support Ireland’s free, independent LGBTQ+ media.

0 comments. Please sign in to comment.