Urban folk art
Graffiti artist Haring's works show the heart of the painter
NEW YORK (CNN) -- Keith Haring believed art could transform lives. Following in the footsteps of pop art legend Andy Warhol, Haring left his mark around the world, including autographing the Berlin Wall in 1986.
He considered himself a "people's artist" -- and in the beginning, he put his art where it could reach the most people. The streets and subways of New York City were the canvases for Haring's graffiti -- works about love, war, sex and struggle, depicted through simple, stark characters and bright colors.
A traveling exhibit is showcasing Haring's political statements and messages of social concerns. CNN toured the show during its stay at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City, Haring's second hometown (he was born in Kutztown, Pennsylvania outside of Pittsburgh).
The first room of the exhibition reproduces a studio the artist created in a New York City public school.
"He hung everything that he had done during the residency on the walls and covered the walls floor-to-ceiling with his drawings," said Elisabeth Sussman, the show's curator. "So we tried to get the informality and the kind of grandeur of that installation in our installation."
All the world's a canvas
Some of the works are displayed on plywood.
"Since Keith in the early part of his career worked on the streets and on construction sites and everywhere was a surface for his art, we wanted to give some of that sort of urban street flavor to the exhibition," explained Sussman.
Every room of the exhibit covers a certain segment of Haring's career -- and dozens of different art forms.
"We call this one of Keith Haring's paintings but he's not painting on canvas the way most artists do," said Sussman. "He's actually painting on tarp -- waterproof oil cloth."
"And the image is this large man with a hole in his stomach with dogs jumping through," she continued. "(It) was an image that Keith Haring said came to him the night John Lennon was assassinated in Central Park."
From his beginnings in construction sites and on subway walls, Haring moved on to statues, vases, television sets, refrigerator doors -- anything that would hold his paint. Many of the characters he painted appear to be in motion -- he loved dance and New York's hip hop culture, said Sussman.
One room in the show even looks and sounds like a dance club -- Sussman's favorite part of the exhibition.
"He was a real physical guy -- he loved the physical act of painting and painting for him was almost like a dance," said Sussman.
Glass cases filled with personal effects complete the story -- giving visitors a look into his diaries, his private photo collection.
Some of Haring's work is still visible out on New York's streets, including a mural painted illegally in 1986 that is now a New York City landmark.
Haring focused on the power of the people until his death from AIDS complications in 1990 at age 31. The work he left behind is a powerful -- and timeless -- message of artistic expression.
"He painted, or made a lot of art," Sussman said. "He must have had a premonition that his life was going to be a short one, and he just worked like a maniac."
The traveling Keith Haring exhibit is at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto through January 18, 1998, and opens at the Montreal Museum of Fine Art on November 5, 1998 through January 10, 1999.
Based on a report from CNN Travel Correspondent Stephanie Oswald.