|BY GENE FRIEDMAN
Born and reared in Berks County, Pa., Keith Haring, who in his brief career reached near-superstar status, was basically unknown and unloved in his home territory, except by baby boomers.
The 31-year-old Haring, who died in 1990, remains one of the most popular and controversial artists of the late 20th century, during which time his social activism and charismatic personality fueled his meteoric rise to celebrity status. He helped reshape the art world in the 1980s with street graffiti, pop culture, tarps, furniture and paintings.
Ronald C. Roth, director and CEO of the Reading Public Museum, which ran a 2006 four-month exhibit titled Keith Haring: Journey of the Radiant Baby, remarked on Haring’s relative obscurity on his home turf. “That’s a mixed picture,” he said. “The younger set knew him. Haring was close to being a superstar in his short period of work. He did a lot of work, a natural-born artist. He is better known out of Berks County than in Berks County.”
Haring’s sister, Kay, still resides in Reading, while his parents, Allen and Joan, remain in the Kutztown, Pa., area, where Keith is buried. At a memorial Kay said, “Keith showed me that it is possible to live what you believe.”
Keith Haring was born in Reading on May 4, 1958, and resided in nearby Kutztown, home of Kutztown University, which is known for its art curriculum. When Haring occasionally came home, Kutztown students lined up at a downtown gallery to watch him draw. However, a lifelong friend, Kermit Oswald, chairman of the board of The Keith Haring Foundation, also a Reading area resident, recalled Haring’s early years as “rebellious and driven,” with extended periods of running away from home.
Haring was from a traditional middle-class family, graduating from Kutztown Area Senior High School in 1978. He spent some time traveling across America before studying at Pittsburgh’s Art Centre. His love for drawing began at age 4 when Haring’s father, an amateur artist, taught him basic cartooning skills. Young Haring was also heavily influenced by television popular culture, such as Dr. Seuss and Walt Disney, which later showed up in his Mickey Mouse sketches, including one of Mickey with Andy Warhol. Haring said that his father encouraged him to continue drawing throughout his school years.
An example of the Disney influence was a Mickey-type figure called Andy Mouse that he did in collaboration with Warhol. Santa Monica Auctions’ June 1, 2008 sale featured a numbered print, 26/30, signed by Haring and Warhol in pencil recto on a color silkscreen on cardboard, printed by Rupert Smith, N.Y. The 38 by 36 inch image scampered to $75,950, against a $70,000-$90,000 estimate.
In his biography, Haring wrote, “Drawing became a way of commanding respect and communicating with people. When I was 18, my work, which had been primarily cartoon-oriented, became increasingly abstract and concerned with spontaneous action. I became interested in Eastern calligraphy and the art of the gesture.”
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