Keith Haring’s pulsating compositions reflect the combustible energy of 1980s New York City, which was steaming with sexual liberation and a plethora of artists and intellectuals. Haring left Kutztown, Pennsylvania and enrolled in the School of Visual Arts where he quickly became immersed in the city’s downtown artistic renaissance, surrounding himself and finding inspiration from alternative art communities and graffiti artists, like Jean-Michel Basquiat. Untitled (May 24-83) is a prime example of Haring’s monumentally-sized work and across its grand scale the surface vibrates with a sense of sexual energy expressed in a series of bold polka-dots, stripes, and expressive lines. The color palette of red, white, and black stays true to Haring’s focus on simplified iconography over detail as the highly-charged work conveys the sexual liberation and gay culture of New York City at the time. Haring’s practice encapsulates this sense of celebration that epitomized his youthfulness and spirit, and this particular work is full of this sense of energy and its associated themes of creation, existence, and exploration, all fixed within a pulsating surface.
The graffiti scene is where Haring found his signature style, implementing the power of line to create comic-strip like narratives. His simplified characters, signified by their vivid colors and bold lines, became a staple of New York City appearing on empty ad spaces in the subways and on blank billboards. His work proved universal and although his career was brief, his primacy of aesthetic vocabulary and straightforward messages through symbols have created an iconic style that has inspired artists and has remained within the realm of popular culture to this day.
"I was also combining what was happening at night and what was happening at school, which meant that the subject matter of many of my drawings was completely phallic” Haring said. “All those little abstract shapes I was doing became completely phallic. It was a way of asserting my sexuality and forcing other people to deal with it. Also, there were a lot of guys—kids who had just come from high school, from Long Island and New Jersey—who didn't really know why they wanted to become artists. Because of my drawings, and because of how friendly I was, they were sort of forced to respect me and deal with me" (K. Haring as quoted in J.Gruen, Keith Haring, the Authorized Autobiography, New York, 1991, p. 39).
Although categorized as a street artist, Haring was keenly aware of the conceptual theory and history of art, and set himself apart from other “graffiti artists” by incorporating the art historical references he learned about while enrolled in vigorous studio classes,. He adopted a complex system of universal signifiers and motifs from Pre-Columbian, African, Asian, and Western progenitors to create a recognizable nonverbal language. Haring’s widely used symbols that have become synonymous with his work include the crawling baby, the barking dog, the outlined figure, and erotic motifs all with radiant lines surrounding them to suggest movement and vitality. By distilling imagery down to its simplified form, Haring elevated a global language, “a more holistic and basic idea of wanting to incorporate [art] into every part of life, less as an egotistical exercise and more natural somehow. I don’t know how to exactly explain it. Taking it off the pedestal. I’m giving it back to the people, I guess” (K. Haring, quoted in D. Drenger, “Art and Life: An Interview with Keith Haring,” in Columbia Art Review, Spring 1988, p. 53).
Haring’s work is representative of his own 1980s New York experience while aptly capturing larger themes and communicating them through his own unique idiosyncratic artistic approach.
“[Keith Haring’s] images are insightfully chosen and carefully worked out with a sensitivity toward layers of meaning and sexual connotation. They are not just drawings but ‘signs.’ But these rings of meaning around the individual figures are only part of the Haring process. The work’s full impact results from a mélange of all these elements: context, medium, imagery; and their infiltration into the urban consciousnesses. Individual frames may appear perfectly innocent, but taken together, Haring’s works have a quality of menace, a sense of impending violence and of sexual exploitation. They diagram the collective unconscious of a city–a city that moves along happily enough, but just barely enough to keep from degenerating into the dog-eat-dog, topsy turvy world of Haring’s images” (J. Deitch, Keith Haring, New York, 2008, pp. 220-221).