Keith Haring: Sacred Symbols

Keith Haring: Sacred Symbols

Religious-Inspired Art
As Steve Turner has noted in his treatise, Imagine: a Vision for Christians in the Arts, “It might surprise us that some of the most controversial art today has biblical precedents” (78). Keith Haring has generated a wide spectrum of religious-inspired art, much of which may be deemed controversial in the graphic images that have been created much of which has been heralded as a reflection of our contemporary culture.

While I had earlier seen many of his images like “Radiant Baby” and some other abstract pieces, I remember later scrolling through some of his works, most of which are homoerotic in their focus, and seeing the “Radiant Christ” nativity scene. My heart skipped a beat, believing that there were surely other religiously-inspired paintings that may have been done during his all-too-brief career. My search began and, with each image I saw, I was drawn to more deeply examining more his larger body of work. This lead me read most everything posted on the Haring Foundation website and to search for books and other research materials. I was quickly struck with the notion that a major article or book on the religious art of Keith Haring could be possible. And by religious, I am referring to that art which may have been influenced by his early influences of church and family.

Keith Haring - Tuttomondo street art
Keith Haring – Tuttomondo street art

Biographical Sketch
It is essential to catch at least a glimpse of Keith Haring’s background and childhood in order to understand the religious motif in a number of his paintings. Early childhood influences and events have had a direct or indirect influence on his later life and work, and were important in defining his career as an artist.

Born on May 4, 1958 at Reading Hospital, Haring grew up in the nearby community of Kutztown, Pennsylvania among a largely Amish and Mennonite population. The Haring’s were a typically traditional middle-class family. He was baptized on December 28, 1958 at St. John’s United Church of Christ in Kutztown.

Keith graduated from Kutztown Area Senior High School in 1976. Following a brief interlude of traveling across the United States, he enrolled for classes at the Ivy School of Professional Art in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania. Feeling the constraints and limitations of a commercial art education, Keith abandoned the program after completing two semesters.

After dropping out of the program at the Ivy School, Keith hung around Pittsburg and worked doing maintenance at the Pittsburg Arts and Crafts Center. During this time he had a couple of minor exhibitions of his work, and embarked on a mission to educate himself. A turning point in Keith’s life and career came about after hearing a lecture by the artist, Christo and seeing Christ’s film, Running Fence. These events affected Haring in a profound way, and began to provide inspiration regarding public art.

Haring arrived in New York City in 1978 and began taking foundational art classes at the School for Visual Arts. Here Keith began making friends with a number of people who inspired him in diverse ways. He became acquainted with  the graffiti art appearing throughout the city and was mesmerized by its beauty and its message. Haring began placing his tags along subway routes and his career as a significant voice in the art world was birthed. Haring worked at a frantic pace to produce art for the masses; art which was not only created along subway lines and other public spaces, but also exhibited in numerous galleries around the world.

On February 16, 1990 Keith Haring died of AIDS.

In the end, religion once again plays a role in Keith’s journey. A memorial service, celebrating the life of Keith Haring, is held in Bowers, Pennsylvania at the Hope Evangelical Lutheran Church. The family had arranged a brief religious ceremony; however, a large contingent of New York friends and associates also attended. Videotapes and slides of his work were shown in several of the rooms in the church.

The final tribute to the life of Keith Allen Haring was held May 4, 1990 – Keith’s thirty-second birthday – at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in New York City. Organized by family and friends this tribute was attended by over 1,000 people who came to pay tribute and honor one of the major influences in the contemporary art world.

A Spiritual Side
To deny the religious influence in the art of Keith Haring is, in a rather selfish and arrogant way, to deny its very existence. A significant number of the graphic images produced by Keith Haring has been directly or indirectly influenced by his early upbringing in the Protestant Church, along with a later association with the “Jesus Movement” of his youth. Turner adds, “The learning of the catechism at an early age also seems to impress the basics of theology so deeply that even if the artist later disowns the faith, the residual doctrine continues to exercise a powerful effect” (35). It is not unreasonable to hypothesize that Keith Haring was indeed influenced by his early religious experiences in the artwork he later produced.

Because of Haring’s early exposure to a religious lifestyle and his later association with the teachings of the Jesus People, there is assuredly a spiritual side to this complex and controversial artist. However, one must wonder whether or not his art serves to criticize the religion of his youth, or is it an emergence of deeply-held beliefs.

In 1994, the Haring Foundation donated Keith’s last sculptural piece, The Life of Christ, to the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, where it was prominently placed as an altarpiece in their Chapel of Saint Saviour. This over 600-pound sculptural piece is a massive (5’ x 8’) three-panel bronze work finished in white gold-leaf that depicts scenes from the life of Christ: a baby held in a pair of loving hands, hands ascending toward heaven, and Christ on the cross.

The art of Keith Haring has certainly captured and captivated a multitude of followers, and his images have had a tremendous impact on the genres of both secular and religious art.

Wayne_PrattJ. Wayne Pratt is a retired United Methodist pastor presently living in Wake Forest, North Carolina.  He holds a Bachelor of Landscape Architecture degree from the State University of New York/College of Environmental Science and Forestry at Syracuse University and a Master of Theological Studies from Drew University. He is the author of Sanctuary: Prayers from the Garden (PleasantWord, 2003) and Worship in the Garden (Abingdon, 2013). Feature articles include “The Garden as Sacred Space” (December 2011/January 2012) and “Designing Sacred Outdoor Space” (February 2012) which appeared in Ministry & Liturgy magazine.

5 Responses to Keith Haring: Sacred Symbols

  1. Thanks so much, Wayne. Having just finished reading “Just Kids”, by Patti Smith, who was a lifelong friend (and lover) of Robert Mapplethorpe, I found myself almost weeping at times over the same things you’re talking about, Mapplethorpe having been a Catholic altar boy as a youth, and leaving the faith for perhaps many of the same reasons as Haring. And, creating an incredible body of work, besides what he’s most famous/infamous for. Thanks for this great article, and the work you did to research it.

  2. Hi Wayne,

    Thanks so much for sharing and writing this piece on the very talented Keith Haring. I understand Haring’s earlier religious inspired work had undertones of anti-institutionalization of religion, however it’s fascinating that his last piece is a glorification of one of the most important scenes in Christianity. You alluded to this in the article, but do you think Haring had a personal revelation and acceptance of his faith nearing death? Makes one wonder…