Artist Keith Haring (1958–1990) was raised in a traditional middle class family in Kutztown, Pennsylvania. He developed a strong interest in drawing as a child, learning basic skills from his amateur cartoonist father and inspired by the pop culture of the time. His early creative influences were not unlike those of many American children growing up in the 1960s: the cartoons of Walt Disney, Dr. Seuss, Charles Schulz; television's The Bugs Bunny Show; sitcoms such as I Dream of Jeannie and The Monkees; and the powerful images in Life and Look magazines.
Haring moved to the Lower East Side of New York in 1978 to study painting at the School of Visual Arts. Influenced by his study of semiotics, he filled his work with signs and symbols in order to create a pictorial language that was both deeply personal and easily accessible to the general public.
He soon found the perfect medium for his distinctive work. The New York City subway system at the time was filled with disused advertising boards that were painted a simple matt black colour. Using a thick piece of white chalk, Haring turned them into his canvases. He was prolific, producing up to 40 works of art in one day. His drawings became a routine part of the New York commute. Using the subway as his canvas, Haring ensured that his work was visible to a wide and diverse audience and was not constrained to the walls of elite galleries.
Haring turned pop art into popular art, making images that could be enjoyed equally by children and the nightclubbing cognoscenti. He was a modern primitivist who drew together ancient art traditions to create a new urban visual language. Although his career was tragically cut short by the AIDS virus, he left an indelible and enduring mark as both an artist and an activist.
Perhaps one of the most recognisable images from Haring’s work, the Radiant Baby, is a simple outline of a baby or person crawling on the floor on their hands and knees with lines emanating from them. Haring himself has commented that for him this baby represents youthful innocence, purity and goodness.
One Radiant Baby in particular has led a particularly interesting life. As Haring was becoming one of the most internationally recognised artists of the 1980s, he would often come back to Kutztown to visit his parents. During one stay he drew a Radiant Baby in gold ink next to the bedroom door, appropriately just above the light switch. The little doodle became a hidden art world secret.
In 2004, limousine driver Scott Garner and his social worker wife Angela were a recently married couple looking to settle down in a nice house away from the city. The Haring family house won them over, even before they became aware of the secret drawing in the bedroom. Fast forward 18 years, and it came time for the Garners to send their son Reed to college. They managed to connect with an art consultant who was able to see the value of a doodle that was not just an original Haring art work, but also part of his history. So, they removed the section of wall where he had drawn Radiant Baby in order to sell it at auction.
It sold in September 2022 for US$143,750 (four times the pre-auction estimate); and you’d have to believe that Haring would have been happy to see his work help a family of modest means further the education of their only son.
Watch a short film about that find and auction HERE.
Story Idea: Remo Giuffré
REMO represented Keith Haring's Pop Shop in the late 1980s and early 1990s. In the fax that appointed us Keith added Radiant Baby to his signature.
1. Radiant Baby by Keith Haring. Signed screen print, 1990. Limited edition of 250.
2. Haring in New York City subway, 1984. Photo: Tseng Kwong Chi/Muna Tseng Dance Projects.
3. Haring wears Radiant Baby in his Pop Shop
4. Figure Holding Radiant Baby poster
5. Rocking horse Radiant Baby by Vilac
6. Radiant Baby tattoo. Image: FYeahTattoos.com.
7. Front page news in the Reading Eagle: 22 August 2022
8 & 9. The small painting that Haring scrawled on the wall of his childhood home in Kutztown. Note appropriately relevant adjacency of light switch.
10. 1988 fax from Haring appointing REMO as exclusive merchandise reseller in Australia