Sexuality Explored Through Keith Haring’s Art

Micaela Preble
October 25, 2022

American artist Keith Haring, throughout his life, did intense and explicit work around sex and sexuality.

In 1978, at the height of the sexual revolution, Keith Haring arrived in NYC and attended the School of Visual Arts. Frequenting the backrooms and public bathrooms where the gay community hung out, the sex that haunted his nights soon became the fruit and the main inspiration of Haring’s work and activism.

Background on Keith Haring

Keith Haring was born in Kutztown, Pennsylvania, and it was there that he precisely started to explore the possibilities of art, mainly influenced by his own father. But it was when he moved to New York City that his work became what we know today. For starters, that is where he got in contact with Graffiti Art and artists such as Jean-Michel Basquiat, and he was one of the first voices championing Graffiti Art as belonging in fine art museums and institutions.

He later became one of the main players in the later era of Pop Art, working alongside names such as Andy Warhol and Kenny Scharf.

Haring’s second great revolution was conceiving art as something that belongs to the people in their own right. He stopped doing murals in subway systems and began creating art for anyone who’d ask him to, even though many of his friends told him that that would devalue the price of his work. And in 1986, when the art world began to take notice and his creations started to be resold at astronomical prices, he opened his own Pop Shop, in which anyone could buy his t-shirts, toys, and prints at low prices.

Why Keith Haring Chose To Depict Sexuality in His Work

A Keith Haring drawing in subway station.

Haring’s determination to fully incorporate his homosexuality as one of the key facets of his art, despite the homophobia and oppression that many of his predecessors felt, was a component of his success at this time. Unlike many gay artists, Haring didn’t try to maintain silence around his sexuality but affirmed his pride in being gay through his works’ very explicit homoerotic character.

Throughout his career, how he portrays the male genitals reveals unceasing, voracious, and submerging desire and is an allegory for nirvana. Sex also appears in total realism as a guarantee of the durability of relationships and as the symbol of reconciliation, union, and harmony between different entities.

Sex, a symbol of birth and liberation in the 1970s, soon became a vector of death in the early 80s with the AIDS epidemic. In this period of time, Haring was able to understand the duality of sex as a gay man and mark the era deeply with his work.

From his first years in New York, Keith Haring incorporated the universal language of sex into what he created in his collaborations with other graffiti artists on the scene.

His artistic language soon took shape. In 1980, Keith Haring created an independent, universal vocabulary with his signature symbols fount painted in the subway stations. It was by tagging, a way a graffiti artist leaves their signature, that Keith Haring gave birth to the “Radiant baby” and “Dog” character, already expressing the wealth of a language that could be universally understood.

These symbols also took on a new form based on an exchange of energy, in which things, people, and animals are drawn with illuminated lines surrounding them, thus surrounding themselves with a halo.

From these works emerges the frenzy of a submerged desire for discussion and the quest for a passionate relationship marked by frenetic turbulence of mind and body.

His work advised of the dangers of drugs, and, above all, they talked about sex as a wonderful thing instead of a taboo subject. His work confronted the threats of crack cocaine, especially with his Crack is Wack public works, and the bright colors at the same time gave visibility to the gay community.

Art as a Social Protest

His works are denoted by defiance, and even violence that sometimes disturbs the viewer, eliciting a dichotomy around sex and the complexities of his own relationship with it.

Haring’s work offers threats and calls for order. Life and death are intermingled to present all the complexities of human relations. His artwork was a fight against an illness and its stigma and towards freedom for minds and bodies.

The highly stigmatized nature of AIDS made it a highly misunderstood and silent killer as throughout the 1980s.

Early responses to the disease were lacking as the virus was more prevalent among social groups considered marginalized by mainstream society, including prostitutes, sex workers, drug addicts, and gay men.

Ignorance = Fear


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A post shared by Keith Haring Foundation (@keithharingfoundation)

Haring’s art was unlike any other because of his unique cartoon-like characters and his calling out of roles within society. One drawing in particular, “Ignorance = Fear” (1989), sends a message to not only gay men or those infected with HIV/AIDS but to the greater population.

“Ignorance = Fear” was Haring’s image linking three individuals of an unidentifiable race and gender, representing people afflicted with AIDS. The three characters are marked with a pink “X” across their chest, symbolizing AIDS patients, covering their ears, mouths, and eyes.

These characters are uncomfortable and are too afraid to stand up and say something because they fear being ridiculed, put down, or seen as guilty by society due to the stigma that went along with AIDS. Haring’s work forces viewers to realize the struggles these marginalized people silently go through and the urgent feeling that something needs to change.

Silence = Death

Another one of Haring’s most powerful works is called “Silence = Death.” This piece has an abundance of stick figures cramped and confined in a black square with a central pink triangle.

Similar to “Ignorance = Fear,” this drawing also shows stick figures covering their ears, eyes, and mouths, representing people with AIDS who may feel disregarded by others due to societal stigmas. Inside a black square of darkness and silence in which many marginalized groups felt like they were inside, Haring uses a pink triangle to shed light on people who may think they are forced to stay silent since they aren’t heard, understood, or recognized by society.

Haring wants this triangle to pop out to the eyes of passersby and motivate them to act up and make a difference by raising awareness of AIDS. Historically, the pink triangle served as a symbol during the Holocaust to single out gay and trans individuals targeted for murder by the Nazi party. Haring transformed this symbol from a symbol that oppressed a group of people to an empowering symbol suggesting that one should support marginalized groups struggling with AIDS.

Throughout the AIDS crisis, the pink triangle continued to serve as a symbol for raising awareness of AIDS and is seen on many of Haring’s artworks, including both “Ignorance = Fear” and “Silence = Death.”

Illness Led to Life

Sadly, Keith Haring, attacked by the AIDS virus, had in his own life to accept that sex and love could be associated with illness and death. Yet far from giving his artistic expression a fatalistic character, until his death from AIDS-related complications in 1990, Keith Haring redoubled his efforts to bear witness to the value and richness of life, love, and sex and became aware of the importance of time and the urgency of his work.

“Generations of kids growing up now have the advantage of knowing that it (AIDS) is out there. Before it existed, it is something you would never have thought about that you could associate love or blood, or sperm, with the carriers of death. The only good thing to come out is that it has put this real intensity to the time that forces people to rethink why they’re here and why they’re alive and to appreciate every second.”- Keith Haring. 

Illness led Keith Haring to become a militant in associations such as Act Up. In parallel, he devoted himself more than ever in his art to AIDS prevention, as in his painting Safe Sex, to the need for information, fighting against silence and ignorance, and increased involvement for AIDS awareness worldwide alongside the Keith Haring Foundation.

Micaela Preble
Micaela is an NYC-based art content writer covering art investing, art news, and art historical content. Micaela graduated from Georgia Southern University in 2021 with a Bachelor of Arts in Art History with a minor in communication arts. During her time at GSU she was a member of The Design Group (DG) and Student Art League (SAL) while also actively participating in curating and volunteering at the Center for Art and Theatre.