Keith Haring’s “Untitled, 1982” (photo © Keith Haring Foundation, courtesy of Akron Art Museum)

‘Keith Haring: Against All Odds’ at Akron Art Museum

Keith Haring’s distinctive art rose from the streets of New York City to become part of popular culture as it explored subjects ranging from AIDS to apartheid. 

Even if you can’t name a single piece of art by Keith Haring, you likely recognize his work. The pop artist, who died in 1990 from complications of AIDS, created a prolific range of drawings and paintings featuring subjects ranging from UFOs and stick figures to hearts and dynamic linework that have become ingrained in pop culture.

“If anybody doesn’t know him by name, they know his imagery, they’ve seen it somewhere,” says Jeff Katzin, associate curator at the Akron Art Museum, where “Keith Haring: Against All Odds” is on display through Sept. 24. “It’s just so immediately recognizable in its style.”

The exhibition features over 60 works by Haring and his contemporaries (many on loan from Miami’s Rubell Museum). Haring started his art career in the early 1980s, chalking thousands of pictures onto blank advertising space on the walls of the New York City subway system. These pieces, a group of which are part of the exhibition, built his popularity as they cemented his distinctive style.

“What made his early reputation is that people in New York saw these popping up everywhere,” says Katzin. “They’re important for telling the story of Haring’s early career and developing the style that he’s known for.”

Keith Haring’s “Untitled (Against All Odds), 1989” (photo © Keith Haring Foundation, courtesy of Akron Art Museum) 

The exhibition’s name references a book with the same title that was published as a collaboration between Haring and the founders of the Rubell Museum. All 20 original drawings featured in the book will be on view in the show, accompanied by Haring’s handwritten foreward.

As Haring gained popularity, he recognized that bootleg versions of his designs were inevitable. So, in 1986, he opened his own store in Soho called the Pop Shop to sell T-shirts, pins, posters and stickers featuring his art so people could get the real thing for an affordable price. The exhibition includes a re-creation of the Pop Shop with items available to purchase in the museum gift shop. Other highlights of the exhibition include a sculpture of the Statue of Liberty painted by Haring and frequent collaborator Angel Ortiz and works by artists Jean-Michel Basquiat, Jenny Holzer and Andy Warhol.

While Haring’s art features happy, energetic figures and bright colors, the artist infused his work with meaning, using it to bring awareness to the AIDS epidemic, apartheid in South Africa and anti-racist movements.

“I hope by bringing these works together, it helps to create a picture of him as a person,” says Katzin. “I think he was very caring, aware, collaborative and kind to others, and there are a lot of really wonderful qualities that come through in his art.”

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