Artist Spotlight: Keith Haring
Keith Haring’s (1958–1990) hieroglyphic expressions have become synonymous with the social electricity of New York City in the 1980s. Unlike the Pop artists who preceded him, Haring’s employment of the simplest symbolic relationships elevated everyday meaning-making and celebrated the universality of visual culture in its most reduced form. As one of the few artists of his generation to successfully cross-pollinate public and institutional art, Haring radically redefined practices of art consumption. Haring’s urban interventions are perhaps the most emblematic of this framework, negotiating unpredictable time, space, and materials. While Haring famously resisted discussing his political inclinations, his public works more than compensated for his coyness. In addition to scrutinizing love, greed, power, racism and homophobia, Haring became a prominent figure in the AIDS activism movement. Following his own diagnosis in 1988, Haring formed the Keith Haring Foundation with the mission of supplying financial support and artistic contributions to AIDS organizations, and generating public awareness through the formal dissemination of his work. Haring helped create the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power’s (ACT UP) most iconic visual by co-opting the pink triangle that had been used by the Nazis to identify someone as gay, and contributed to the graphic campaign to spur governmental action in combating the AIDS crisis.
Untitled (1984) features Haring’s ‘monkey men,’ who are a recurring motif in a handful of his works. Compared with other examples of Haring’s hybrid animal-human characters, the monkey man is imbued with a sense of innocence and harmlessness. Here, the two men are torn apart by a large disembodied hand, and the traumatic desperation of the moment is documented by Haring’s canny motion lines. This narrative seems to lament the societal prejudices that prevented gay men from openly expressing their love. One 1983 painting bears a similar iconography, with a miniature depiction of the monkey man caught by his tail. The tableau is embedded in a computer monitor which sits a top a rampaging caterpillar. This work is said to communicate apprehension toward the proliferation of technological media and warns of the commercialization of abuse and injustice. Seeing as such, Haring commonly portrays the monkey man as unwittingly vulnerable. While it is tempting to assign an irrepressible or even divine identity to the faceless power that inflicts the scene’s pain, a more compelling reading may be that the hand represents any faceless power who manipulates individuals to an outsized degree, be that corporate, political, or religious groups. Untitled (1984) evokes the notion that this type of institutional power is only legitimized by the complacency that the work projects onto its viewer.
In contrast to Haring’s subway art, most often rendered on the black paper of unoccupied advertising space, Untitled (1984) was executed on plywood. Less ephemeral than paper, the nature of the work’s material demands more from the viewer than the momentary glance that they would be willing to lend on a crowded subway platform, while maintaining the simple spontaneity and sense of connection that his subway pieces meant to elicit.
“Keith Haring Biography.” The Keith Haring Foundation, www.haring.com/!/about-haring/bio#.XLD5Ti-ZPBI.
Gruen, Julia. “Haring All-Over.” The Keith Haring Foundation, 1999. http://www.haring.com/!/selected_writing/haring-all-over#.XLZd2ZNKhUM.
Chalk on plywood
Signed, dated, and inscribed “ORIGINALLY DRAWN ON/THE STREET–/SIGNED LATER–JULY 13–1989” in black felt-tip marker verso; retains Tony Shafrazi Gallery label frame verso
Keith Haring Estate ID #070505A2
Together with copy of certificate from the Estate of Keith Haring
Panel (vis.): 95″ x 47″; Frame: 97″ x 49″; (Panel: 241 x 119 cm)
Provenance: The Estate of Stephen Reichard; Tony Shafrazi Gallery, New York, New York; Brooklyn Academy of Music, New York, New York; Private Collection, New York, New York (acquired directly from BAM, 1991)
May 19, 2019 Modern Art and Design Auction