What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Keith Haring? A radiant baby refrigerator magnet? A barking dog tote bag? A few years before he died, in 1990, Haring began translating his cartoonish street idioms into mass-market tchotchkes at the “Pop Shops” he opened in New York and Tokyo. His populist vision made him one of the most iconic artists in American history, but it also meant exile from the “serious” art world for many years.
“There was kind of a misunderstanding about him because of his decision to go a bit commercial,” said Elisabeth Sussman, who organized the artist’s first major retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1997. “People were reluctant to recognize that this was a very intelligent, thoughtful kind of work.”
But recently, Haring supporters have been rallying to change this image — to raise awareness of his fine art practice, raise his profile, and, yes, raise his prices. “It has worked really well,” said dealer Barbara Gladstone, who began representing Haring’s estate two years ago, after its former steward, Jeffrey Deitch, moved west to head up the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art.
Gladstone thought that Haring, who was represented by dealer Tony Shafrazi until he died, was “too associated with graffiti.” So last year she presented an exhibition of his early live paintings, sketchbooks, and his first-ever lithographs. “Obviously he did the series of works in the subways, but, to me, he’s not a graffiti artist. He’s a fine artist,” she said.
So far, collectors haven’t embraced Haring like they have his late contemporaries. Andy Warhol’s auction record stands north of $71 million and Jean-Michel Basquiat is expected to top the $20 million mark later this month at Christie’s. Of course, Haring was a very different artist. Both he and Warhol dealt in hollowed-out semiotics, but Haring’s simple outlines of dancers and animals were earnest and exuberant, while Warhol’s iconography — Brillo boxes, soup cans, and celebrities — was more emotionally barren (and Basquiat’s dark, neo-Expressionist paintings are another topic altogether).
Still, Haring’s auction record remains comparatively low, reaching only $2.5 million for the sale of a signature tarp painting during the height of the 2007 buying boom, according to the Blouin Art Sales Index.
“The price differential between Basquiat and Haring is too high,” said Larry Warsh, a collector of both artists. “Some Basquiat drawings are selling for a million, a million and a half, which is more than some of Haring’s best paintings. That will be corrected.”
It remains to be seen whether or not this prediction comes true, but it does finally seem like a good time to be a Haring collector. Twice this year, the artist has had works exceed the $1 million mark at auction. In July, the Brooklyn Museum closed an exhibition of early Haring works, Gladstone Gallery opened a solo show for the artist in Brussels a few weeks ago, and, in April, Paris’s Musée d’Art Moderne will stage the biggest retrospective of the artist’s work since his survey at the Whitney in the 1990s.
And some experts think this is only the beginning. “Keith Haring's market is grossly undervalued given his contribution to art history, his popular public appeal, and his large body of work,” said art advisor Heidi Lee.
“It’s only a matter of time before the conceptual strength of Haring’s work is recognized by those who have misread it as graffiti or too commercial.” said Barry Blinderman, who curated Haring’s first museum survey in 1990 at the Queens Museum.
Basic supply and demand theory suggests that Haring’s work could become even more valuable now that the Keith Haring Foundation disbanded its authentication board in September. “We will probably see fewer Haring pieces being offered,” said Ron Valdez, co-owner of Los Angeles’s Hamilton-Selway Fine Art. “For this reason, we feel the price points will eventually make a major change.”
The decision to stop authenticating works was part of a move to reallocate resources to the charitable causes to which Haring was devoted, including AIDS prevention, childhood education, and public arts programs. Last month, the foundation donated $1 million to support exhibitions at the Whitney.
Now, Haring’s relationship with the high-brow museum world has never seemed stronger. The Whitney is reportedly among several institutions looking to add Haring’s subway drawings to its collection. The Museum of Modern Art has always been less enthusiastic about Haring — an attitude some attribute to Shafrazi’s tagging of a certain Picasso painting there in the 1970s — yet the museum put on view a massive two-panel ink drawing, donated by the Haring Foundation, earlier this year.
But New York’s big institutions haven’t always been so accepting. Haring participated in the 1983 Whitney Biennial and, several years later, after he had opened his Pop Shops, felt the museum had shunned him. As Blinderman recalls, “Haring once said to me, ‘My work used to hang in the Whitney, now I can’t even get an invitation to a Whitney opening.’ So Yoko Ono took him as a guest to her show there instead.”
Some of that early skepticism still lingers. “On one level, [current interest in Haring] makes perfect sense coming off the momentum of the Brooklyn Museum, Gladstone, and how popular street art and graffiti are today,” said Pettit Art Partners advisor Lowell Pettit. “But it’s hard for us to appraise his practice, and enduring influence, on the same level of peers such as Basquiat and Warhol. I imagine there’ll be a substantial correction to Haring’s market from where it has been, but I don’t think it will follow the same metric.”
Perhaps a few of these predictions will get answered next week, when a handful of Haring drawings and sculptures hit the block at the contemporary art auctions in New York. But no matter what happens in the market, Haring’s intensely human work seems to have hit a chord in today’s increasingly cynical and ironic art world. “He’s definitely an important part of American art history,” said Sussman, “and I don’t think the same thing will happen to him again.”