Keith Haring on the Importance of Imagination in Art and Life

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“People always ask me: ‘Where do you get all these ideas?’” Keith Haring mulled in a 1984 journal entry. “Information is coming from all kinds of sources, new sources every day…I digest [it], channel it through my own imagination, and put it back into the world.”

Haring was only 26 when he recorded these thoughts, but he’d already established a unique body of work and a vast fan base. Scrawled across subway stations and canvases, his fluid line paintings of radiant babies, barking dogs, and anthropomorphic TVs fascinated street kids and and the art establishment alike. They were symbols that coursed with life, radiated joy, and simultaneously made potent comments about sexual freedom, nuclear war, bigotry, AIDS, technology, and love. “I am continually trying to find new ways to bring these things into the world,” he continued in his journal, “and to expand the definition of what an ‘artist’ is.”

Haring often credited his innovative work to imagination, giving form to the term across his writings and interviews. In another page from his diary, written several months later in October 1984, he traced his imagination back to a relaxed mindset—one that allowed him to digest and remix the references that swirled around him in 1980s New York. “A lot of times images are simply born out of the need to do something different. Sometimes they come from consciously wanting to get some ideas across,” he wrote. “But often it just comes out of my imagination without trying to make it mean anything specific. The challenge is to be in a state of mind which allows spontaneity and chance while still maintaining a level of awareness which allows you to shape and control the image.”

In other words, imagination gave Haring space from everyday life to develop his own impressions and interpretations, while staying grounded in current social and political issues. In a 1992 biography by John Gruen, Haring’s close friend Madonna encapsulated this powerful duality: “From the very beginning there was a lot of innocence and a joy that was coupled with a brutal awareness of the world…I mean, you have these bold colors and those childlike figures and a lot of babies, but if you really look at those works closely, they’re really very powerful and really scary.”

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