Taking Shapes: Keith Haring, Piet Mondrian, & Henri Matisse

This week we are talking about artists who rely on shapes of all kinds to make their art. That may seem like a broad category but these artists use shapes in a way unique to them — if you saw their art you would know who made it right away. Some use straight lines and some use squiggles, some use lots of colors and some are more simple but for each of them simple shapes convey emotion and thought.

Our first artist is Keith Haring — one of NAC’s favorite artists! A great place to start learning about him is through this book about him, which was written by his sister.

Haring was born in Pennsylvania in 1958. As a child he loved drawing in cartoon styles with his father, creating characters and stories in his mind. He went to a commercial art school after high school but he quickly lost interest, wanting to focus on his own art, so he dropped out. Eventually he moved to New York City where he joined an alternative art community that operated and showed their art outside of galleries and museums. He also found himself drawn to public art like that of Christo that could be enjoyed by anyone and everyone.

In 1980 he started drawing with chalk on the black paper that covered unused advertising space on subway platforms. From 1980 to 1985 he produced hundreds of these subway drawings, sometimes as many as 40 in a day!

Haring on a subway in NYC, his subway drawings can be seen on the platform behind him

While he created this public art he was also gaining international fame with group and solo exhibitions around the world. Wherever he went for these shows he made art in the streets or in public spaces to be enjoyed by those who couldn’t go to his gallery shows.

From 1982–1989 he created more than 50 public artworks in dozens of cities all around the world — many of them carrying important social messages — in orphanages, hospitals, schools, and charities.

A mural in Brooklyn’s Woodhull hospital
A mural at the Hôpital Necker-Enfants Malades in Paris
a mural Haring did with 500 high school students from Chicago public schools

Haring also created his Pop Shop in SoHo where he sold t-shirts, posters, and other products with his artwork on them at a low cost to make his artwork more accessible to everyone who wanted it. He was criticized by many in the art world for devaluing his work but it was always important to Haring to make his artwork available to anyone who wanted to see it.

Haring was diagnosed with AIDS in 1988 and he used his art and notoriety to create the Keith Haring Foundation to bring awareness to the disease using his well-known imagery to proliferate his message and help work for a cure.

When Haring died in 1990 his memorial service was attended by over 1,000 people. Though his career was short he had over 100 solo and group shows all around the world and his art has become an accessible visual language that continues to be used today. His use of simple characters and lines, his bright colors, and his belief in the power of public art have brought his art and the timelessness of its messages into the modern day.

Haring’s art was used to make cartoon segments of Sesame Street in the 1990’s, so we watched a few of them in our class to see how the lines on his characters show the movement that the cartoons portray — and that that movement can be seen and understood even before it moved.

Keith Haring loved hiphop music and watching and drawing street performers and breakdancers bodies as they danced to music. So for our activity we had half of the class dance to hiphop music (we used an album called The World of Keith Haring — music he liked to listen to as he worked) and then had them pause in place periodically so the other half of the class, who were sitting with clipboards, could quickly draw the shapes of their bodies as stick figures. After a few rounds they switched places so everyone had a chance to draw and dance.

Our students dancing and drawing, they had so much fun!

Then we gave them another paper and they could look at their original stick figured for reference for body shapes and movement and then draw dancing people in the style of Keith Haring using bright colors and motion lines. The results were amazing and it was a fun activity for everyone all the way through!

Doing the two separate steps helped take away some of the anxiety students might have about drawing poses that are already difficult and doing them in a specific style at the same time. This way they could focus on paying attention to the shapes someones body made and then later translate that into the Haring style.

Our next artist was Piet Mondrian who was born in the Netherlands in 1872. His father was a drawing teacher who introduced him to art at an early age. He was an important figure in modern and abstract art and pioneered an artistic movement called Neoplasticism. His work was all about simplifying paintings down to their most simplified geometric elements to create what he called “universal beauty.” To this end he used only the primary colors: red, yellow, and blue, and straight horizontal or vertical black lines (which he drew free-hand, without a ruler!).

L: Composition №2 with Red, Blue, and Yellow, 1930, R: Composition in White, Black, and Red, 1936
Composition in Red, Blue, and Yellow, 1942

Though most of his work, as seen above, was just named composition Mondrian did do some representational work near the end of his life. Seen below are New York City 1 and Broadway Boogie Woogie. We talked as a class about how they might look like what they are named after, streets, buildings, cars, without actually showing those things.

L: New York City I, 1942, R: Broadway Boogie Woogie, 1942

For our activity we gave each student a canvas, a roll of electrical tape, and red, yellow, and blue paint, which we asked them not to mix, to make their own Mondrian inspired pieces. You can use black paint for the lines, but for our purposes electrical tape was perfect as it is always straight and completely opaque so it does not need multiple passes as paint would to make it look really black.

We had them put the tape on first in whatever grid pattern they liked best and then paint in some of the sections and think about the spots they wanted to leave white, since so much of Mondrian’s work ends up being black and white. It was a practice in restraint and deep thinking about composition and color theory!

Our last artist is Henri Matisse born in France in 1869. Matisse was originally planning to be a lawyer but began painting as he was recovering from appendicitis and decided to give up being a lawyer and become an artist instead. While studying art at an academy in Paris he became proficient in landscapes and still lifes but after being introduced to the art of Van Gogh and other impressionists he abandoned his realistic style and palette and began painting with the bright and expressive colors he is known for today.

Les toits de Collioure, 1905

For this art class we focused on the art he began making later in life when he was very sick and couldn’t stand at an easel to paint or draw as he used to. Instead he started to “paint with scissors” as he called it — creating paper collages using cut out pieces of painted canvas and gluing them to a larger canvas. He never traced the designs that he cut out, instead letting the scissors guide the different shapes he wanted to make. He would also initially pin the shapes to the canvas so he could arrange and rearrange his work until he was satisfied with how it looked. These works became known as “The Cut-Outs”. Many were large scale works that were on multiple panels and took up entire walls.

Matisse working on cut-outs in 1952
The Sheaf
Nu Bleu IV, 1952
The Parakeet and the Mermaid, 1952, (R for scale)

For this art project we had the students cut out shapes from colorful paper using only their scissors, no tracing beforehand, and then arrange and glue them down on a white paper. It was simple but they got to think about abstract shapes and how to arrange those shapes and colors the way they liked the most.

This class helped students think about the ways different artists use shapes to convey emotions and beauty, and how they as artists can be purposeful in their choices to make art that looks the way they want it to. All of the projects are pretty simple which is a perfect way to get children’s minds to think about the artists and their style’s, without having to worry about specific aesthetics or skills that would be hard to master.

We are a 501c3 non-profit in Provo, Utah. Our goal is to make art accessible and inspire a lifelong love of art and creativity for children in our community.