Keith Harring, one of the most important gay artists comes to American Icons exhibition

One of the most important gay artist of all time, Keith Haring is to be the subject of three retrospectives across the UK this summer including London’s Opera Gallery very own exhibition of his work in American Icons, which will be the only major exhibition actually selling original works by Haring this summer. Now is the perfect time to celebrate his legacy and impact on both art history and the LGBTQ community.

American Icons not only celebrates Haring’s influence over American pop culture from the 1980s which saw the AIDS crisis, the end of the cold war, the space races but also shows how his work is still as relevant to the America of today, especially with Trump’s discrimination and harmful stance on the Equality Act.

Keith Haring, Untitled, 1988, Acrylic on canvas

A part of the legendary New York art scene of the 1980s, Keith Haring was an openly gay artist who chose to represent the hardships of the LGBTQ community in his work.Haring was diagnosed with AIDS in 1988 and though his spectacular career was cut short when he died from AIDS related complications aged 31, he used his platform as an artist to raise awareness of the disease, promote research and educate people.  

Opera Gallery mark their 25th anniversary with a new exhibition American Icons – a vibrant and uplifting recreation of the 1980s New York street culture, with works by world-renowned artists of the 20th century including Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Andy Warhol, and Alexander Calder.

The art in this exhibition reflects the 1980s which saw the drugs epidemic, the AIDS crisis, the cold war, widespread capitalism, space races, and high unemployment.  It also saw the rise in technology and new trends in fashion and music. An influential moment in history, this post-war period saw artists from Europe and Asia migrate to the United States as they searched for cultural emancipation while seeking to challenge the world through their art, in an optimistic way. 40 years later, the work of these American icons is more relevant than ever as we see their activist work in light of the politics that has taken over modern America.

Keith Haring, Untitled, 1986, Sumi ink on paper

On a mission to change the world, Haring used his platform to enable research and to raise awareness about AIDS. Using ideals from the 60s popular culture to inject positive symbols and political messages into creating evocative art for the masses, Keith Haring created more than 50 large-scale works and his imagery has become a widely regarded visual Zeitgeist of New York City in the late 20th century. American Icons displays a large number of his best original works that epitomise his well-known absurdist style. Injected in Haring’s works are the cartoon-like motifs from his upbringing that gave a real sense of energy to his iconic works.

As one of the first American artists to reach international stature and wealth in the art world, Jean-Michel Basquiat’s signature scribbles drew influence from his Caribbean heritage and foresaw the increasingly popular street art movement that now dominates major cities. Though Haring and Basquiat tragically died from the AIDS and heroin epidemics of the 80s, their legacy and optimism lives on.

Keith Haring, Sneeze (via Picasso), 1984, Acrylic on canvas

American Icons can also be seen to champion the female representations as Tom Wesselmann explores the female form with two vibrant oil paintings produced twenty-five years apart. These are juxtaposed by contemporary works by Alex Katz in his portrait of a young woman and Mel Ramos’ striking sculpture depicting a female nude breaking out of a packet of M&Ms – the iconic Pop Art movement which lives on.

The original artworks on display at Opera Gallery demonstrate the diverse generations of notorious artists and their influences, and this is a significant showcase of world-renowned artists of the late 20th century. Other major exhibiting artists also include co-founder of the Pop Art movement Tom Wesselmann and post-painterly abstract painter Frank Stella.

Federica Beretta, Director at Opera Gallery London, said: “American Icons is a highly energetic and thought-provoking exhibition, celebrating Opera Gallery’s 25th anniversary. The diverse and experimental artists left their mark in art history and revolutionised the art world, pushing boundaries as they reimagined the functionality of sculpture and painting, while exploiting taboo subject matters and social commentaries, appropriating popular imagery and giving them new lease of life”. 

Keith Haring, Dessins pour les ballets de Monte Carlo, 1989, Sumi ink on paper

As an artist inspired by pop art, graffiti, and underground club culture, he embraced his own sexuality as an out gay man and created art outside of museums and art galleries, which paved the way for the street art movement. His aim was to make art accessible to everyone and his colourful works allowed him to interact with a diverse audience.

YASS Magazine met Federica Beretta, Director at Opera Gallery London and asked her everything we need to know about American Icons.

Tell me a little bit about the new exhibition American Icons. What shall we expect to see and what does this exhibition reflect?

American Icons brings together the diverse generations of world-renowned artists from the late 20th century. The artworks on display at Opera Gallery are all original works that demonstrate their influences on contemporary art as we know it. In particular, the exhibition celebrates Keith Haring’s influence over American pop culture from the 1980s which saw the AIDS crisis, the end of the cold war and the space races but also shows how his work is still as relevant to the America of today.

Keith Haring, Untitled, June 10, 1984, Acrylic on Canvas

Keith Haring has had a big impact on art and the LGBTQ+ community. Would you include him in the most influential LGBTQ+ artists of all time?
Yes absolutely. Keith Haring was an openly gay artist who chose to represent the hardships of the LGBTQ community in his work. He was an outspoken AIDS activist, incorporating these topics into his work through his colourful, provocative, and socially conscious images that undoubtably form an important part of the history of gay symbolism. Though his career was brief it was spectacular, this was really just the beginning of his growth as a gay icon.

Keith Haring, Mangeur de grenouilles, 1985, Acrylic on Canvas

How has the work of Keith Haring influenced the 80’s pop culture in America that saw the AIDs crisis?

Haring sought to change the world through his art. He created it for the masses and wanted everybody to have access to his art. He first received peoples’ attention with his public art in the subway, and by the 1980s was organising exhibitions at the well-known arts nightclub Club 57. Between 1980 and 1985, Haring’s innovative drawings on empty black advertising panels in the New York subway was just one way in which he used his art to engage passers-by to show his creativity and messaging that shocked and amazed people all over the world. His accessible yet hard-hitting subjects and animated colourful artworks explored issues surrounding racism and the AIDS epidemic, which resulted in his works serving as examples of protest, hope, unity and defiance.

Jean-Michel Basquiat, Untitled, 1985, Oil stick on paper

Keith Haring was an openly gay artist who chose to represent the hardships of the LGBTQ community in his work. How did he raise awareness through his platform?

Keith Haring was diagnosed with AIDS in 1988 at the young age of 30. The following year he founded the Keith Haring Foundation to provide funding and images to non-profit groups for charitable and educational activities. Haring specified that the Foundation should focus its activities in two particular areas: one is AIDS education, prevention and care; the other, the provision of educational opportunities for underprivileged children. Haring dedicated his art during the two last years of his life to creating awareness and fostering understanding about AIDS. In 2008, two of his brightly coloured sculptures were added to UNAIDS “Art for AIDS” collection.

Do you believe that the work of Keith Haring and his impact to the LGBTQ+ is more recognised now?

His reputation is firmly established but as the world continue to explore Keith Haring’s life and legacy to educate the next generations, he continues to be recognised.

Andy Warhol, Campbell’s Chicken Rice Soup Box, 1986, Acrylic and Silkscreen on Canvas

Apart from Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Andy Warhol, and Alexander Calder are among the artists that are featured in American Icons. What do all of these important artists have in common and what makes them American icons?

These artists were all responding to what was happening socially and politically around them and their art reflects this, all in different ways. They are American Icons for their contribution to contemporary art.

Tom Wesselmann, Sunset Nude (Variation #1), 2002, Oil on canvas

What do you think about the LGBTQ+ art scene nowadays?

It’s flourishing which is great to see.

How has LGBTQ+ art evolved the last decades?

We have always seen LGBTQ references in art from Ancient Greece to present day, with many instances of gender and sexuality represented and explored, but it certainly plays an important part in fighting against homophobia and we hope that as more people become open minded and stop being afraid, the more people will have pride in reflecting and representing this LGBTQ+ subjects in their art.

Andy Warhol, Dollar Sign, 1981, Synthetic Paint and Silkscreen Ink on Canvas

What are the biggest issues that LGBTQ+ is dealing with?

Sadly, there are several issues that LGBTQ+ community are dealing with but mainly discrimination and violence which we’ve been seeing all over the news with devasting cases such as the young actors being thrown stones at on the street and two ladies being attacked on their bus home. LGBTQ+ community are in a constant battle with their rights and difficulties surrounding health care.

How would you describe American Icons?

American Icons is a vibrant and uplifting recreation of the 1980s New York street culture, with works by world-renowned artists of the 20th century including Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Andy Warhol, and Alexander Calder.  

Andy Warhol, Eagle, 1983, Acrylic and Silkscreen on Canvas

American Icons will open at Opera Gallery from 21 June – 5 July and they will be celebrating their 25th anniversary at Masterpiece London between 27 June-3 July


Founded by Gilles Dyan in 1994, Opera Gallery is one of the leading international dealers and representatives of Modern and Contemporary Art. Opera Gallery is established worldwide with galleries in locations including New York, Miami, Aspen, Paris, Monaco, Geneva, Zurich, Singapore, Hong Kong, Seoul, Beirut and Dubai. Opera Gallery offers museums, foundations and private international art collectors unique access to a diversity of Modern and Contemporary artists through an exciting programme of curated exhibitions and high-profile art fairs. Notable exhibitions include Pablo Picasso in Monaco, Marc Chagall in London, Jean Michel Basquiat & Andy Warhol in Geneva, Jean Dubuffet & Alexander Calder in Geneva and two major Manolo Valdés exhibitions in Paris and Singapore.  

Opera Gallery opening hours

Mon-Sat: 10am – 7pm, Sun: 12pm – 5pm

*all images are courtesy of Opera Gallery

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