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I recently went to go see the Keith Haring exhibition at the de Young Museum in San Francisco, and was struck as soon as I entered the exhibition by how impactful, colorful, and graphic his artwork is. To me, he was as much designer/illustrator as a fine artist. His show entitled “The Political Line,” is composed of pieces that feature lettering, pattern, color, and large impactful images in a way that resemble poster or billboard designs—with still-relevant-today messages like consumerism, war, AIDS, apartheid, environmental issues that he addresses head on.
Image from wikiart.org used under principles of fair use.
In going through the exhibition and watching the closing video, I also learned that he commercialized his work on merchandise, which he sold in his SoHo store The Pop Shop, and that he did work for or inspired by Absolut Vodka, Lucky Strike cigarettes, and Coca-Cola. His artwork was on everything from ads to album covers, posters to T-shirts. He was a graphic designer—and a damn good one.
Haring’s not the only fine artist that made the fine art/commercial art crossover: Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein are others that come to mind. In fact Toulouse-Lautrec’s primarily occupation was designing posters for cabarets and such. Lautrec was a working artist designing posters for clients. He was a graphic designer.
Andy Warhol started his career in 1949 as a magazine illustrator in advertising. He became known for his shoe ad illustrations. Yes, he illustrated shoe ads. He even designed album covers for RCA Records. He started out as a graphic artist. Of course most people know him for his pop artwork reproductions of Campbell’s Soup Cans and Coca-Cola bottles, and the like, but even those reproduce, and make commentary on, graphic design for products and consumerism. His art was comprised of pop culture imagery that people could, and still do, relate to.
Roy Lichtenstein’s work evokes comic book panels. He was a designer, an illustrator. His last completed work was a Dreamworks Records logo. Though not the type of project he normally did, it was a bold and graphically effective logo. His art, along with Warhol’s, influenced Haring in a real way, stylistically.
These artists were pop(ular) artists. They created art for everyday people to see and relate to. They didn’t create their art in ivory towers. They didn’t create their art for critics. Some people may think of graphic artists as fine art sellouts; but honestly, how many artists do you know whose paintings fetch millions of dollars while they’re still alive? Not many. Lots of successful and famous artists started out as, or were also graphic artists. Graphic design is a great vehicle for getting art out there and to the people, but face it—it’s also a creative outlet AND it pays the bills!