If he was still alive, Keith Haring (1958-90) would be 60 this year. To mark the 30th anniversary of the US artist’s untimely death at age 31, the Albertina Museum in Vienna is surveying the artist’s work from a new perspective. “Keith Haring.The Alphabet” (on view until June 24) is giving center stage to the symbolism that Haring created, revealing the sources that inspired the former street artist who studied semiotics while at the School of Visual Arts in New York.
Egyptian hieroglyphics were an important source of inspiration for Haring’s visual language, according to the Albertina. His pictorial vocabulary is being brought to the fore for the first time at the Austrian museum, where 100 works by the artist are on view.
“I am intrigued with the shapes people choose as their symbols to create language.” Haring said. “There is within all forms a basic structure, an indication of the entire object with a minimum of lines, that becomes a symbol. This is common to all languages, all people, all times.”
In the alphabet of picture-words he developed, each recurring image carries its own set of meanings. Some we already know well, such as Haring’s “radiant baby,” which is a symbol of the future and perfection. Others are just as prevalent but still not completely understood.
Here are some of the most fascinating meanings behind Haring’s personal and politically charged art alphabet.