The year before he died of AIDS-related illness in 1990 at the age of 31, Keith Haring created six animated shorts for “Sesame Street,” which aired a year after his death.
Haring was a pop artist and social activist whose cartoon- inspired street art gained him international fame.
A baker’s dozen of animation cels and drawings on display at the ToonSeum, Downtown, showcase three of these shorts — “Exit,” “1- 10” and “What Comes Next?” — in the exhibit “Animating Haring!”
As visitors will see, each of the shorts feature the same playful dancing men, colorful dogs and other iconic symbols Haring used throughout his career. But these original production cels and sketches prove that animating for “Sesame Street” was a perfect fit for Haring.
“Disney was one of his biggest influences,” ToonSeum executive director Joe Wos says. “One of his ambitions was to be an animator.”
Born in Reading and raised in nearby Kutztown, Haring learned the basics of cartooning from his father and by copying what he saw in Disney and Dr. Seuss cartoons on television.
After graduating from high school in 1976, he enrolled in the Ivy School of Professional Art in Pittsburgh (now defunct), with the goal of becoming a graphic artist. But, after two semesters, he dropped out.
While in Pittsburgh, Haring sat in on art classes at the University of Pittsburgh and continued working on his own art. Involved in the local arts scene, he was given his first solo exhibit in 1978 at Pittsburgh Arts and Crafts Center (now Pittsburgh Center for the Arts), after one of the scheduled exhibits was cancelled.
Soon after, he moved to New York City and enrolled in the School of Visual Arts. While a student at there, he became heavily involved in New York’s graffiti scene, producing hundreds of what he called “subway drawings” and other pieces of “public art,” which would launch a very successful art career.
“Exit” was the first animated short Haring created for “Sesame Street.” The project was an off-shoot of a large wall mural he created in 1987 for the Milliken Clubhouse, a Boys Club in New York City. In the animated sequence, figures dance with live children as the narrator sings about the word “exit” in the background.
In the gallery, several small black-and-white drawings and overlay cels show how this was achieved. “The animation actually showed the creative process of how each one of these characters came into the mural,” Wos says.
“This would have been the first time his dancing men really got to dance, because they were brought to life,” Wos says. “It’s fascinating that he took these sort of hieroglyphic characters and thought about how they would move. And each character moved differently, based on the pose. They were rigid, but then there would be moments when they were fluid and had a sort of bounce to them.”
The counting exercise “1-10” is a colorful animated journey that was designed to teach children to count from one to 10. Each number is preceded by an energetic sequence of people and animals interacting with the number that is about to be shown. For example, in one cel a muscle man lifts seven elephants. In another, a girl counts the eight “legs” or tentacles of an octopus.
Some of the characters in the cels, such as the girl with the octopus, look uncharacteristic of Haring’s work at first glance, lacking that hieroglyphic or silhouetted quality and thick line- work Haring became known for. But, Wos is quick to point out, they were entirely inspired by Haring’s characters in a coloring book he created for children a few years earlier.
“Obviously, we think of Keith Haring as doing this very adult material, but he really loved doing work for children because, again, his passion was for early animation.”
In these particular cels, the characters are each painted in a different primary color. “He didn’t want his characters to have a specific race,” Wos says. “So, he would make them orange, yellow, blue and green. Especially the children characters.”
Finally, in the last sequence, titled “What Comes Next?,” Haring teaches kids about recognizing patterns. First, a figure of a baby wanders onto the scene, immediately followed by a barking dog and then, again, by another baby until the end of the short when the viewer is asked by the narrator, “What comes next?”
Cels from this animation feature the barking dog, each with a different object or character framed inside the belly of the dog. Of the three animated shorts, it is clearly the most experimental in nature.
“I think, in a lot of ways, this is probably what he was leading up to,” Wos says. “I can really imagine that, had he been with us longer, we would have seen a lot more animation pieces by him. I think it would have been a world he would have really longed to go into, because it was the one that inspired him first.”