‘When it is working, you completely go into another place, you’re tapping into things that are totally universal, of the total consciousness, completely beyond your ego and your own self. That’s what it’s all about’ (K. Haring, quoted in D. Sheff, ‘Keith Haring: An Intimate Conversation,’ in Rolling Stone, August 1989, reproduced at www.haring.com [accessed 25 May 2014]).
Epic in scale and ambition, Tree of Life, 1985, was created at the peak of Keith Haring’s tragically short but intensely dynamic life and career. Extending over three and half metres in height, Tree of Life takes on near biblical proportions in its depiction of this fantastical scene. A collision of punk and pop, Haring injects contemporary energy into this decidedly urban celebration that fuses established religious subjects and traditional art historical references with his distinct modern day street art culture. Emanating from whirling branches, a plethora of life explodes in the forms of dancing bodies, as if an explosion of knowledge. Underneath the tree, four fully-formed spotted yellow figures stand in exaltation. With an economy of line, the day-glow green branches appear to hum against the fuchsia and in a carnival of rhythmic pattern. ‘See, when I paint, it is an experience that, at its best, is transcending reality, ’Haring said, explaining that this dimension was reflected also in his state of mind while working. ‘When it is working, you completely go into another place, you’re tapping into things that are totally universal, of the total consciousness, completely beyond your ego and your own self. That’s what it’s all about’ (K. Haring, quoted in D. Sheff, ‘Keith Haring: An Intimate Conversation,’ in Rolling Stone, August 1989, reproduced at www.haring.com, [accessed 25 May 2014]). Tree of Life has been exhibited at Ludwig Forun für Internationale Kunst, Aachen, Museum für Neue Kunst, Karlsruhe, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam; Triennale de Milano, Milan, and Dexia Banque Internationale à Luxembourg.
Painted late in his career, the scale of the present work reflects the success Haring had been enjoying. Executed in 1985, his large scale works such as Tree of Life, mark the artist’s ascension to the ‘big time’, the dominant revelling figures hark the joyous spirit of the early, heady days when he had just broken through to art world super-star status. Created at a climactic moment following his two simultaneous solo exhibitions in Manhattan - showing a suite of paintings at Tony Shafrazi Gallery and sculptures at Leo Castelli Gallery on Greene Street - the year 1985 resulted in the production of some of Haring’s most ambitious and self-assured works.
Just as Haring had initially sought to create accessible art through his graffiti practice, in Tree of Life, Haring continues his passion for creating accessible art through graffiti, this time turning his attention to rejuvenating religious imagery. Spurred on by the belief that painting was capable of inspiring revolution, Haring offers a fresh, reinvigorated perspective on a time honoured motif, making it accessible to a new generation. The vibrant colours and bold outlines are reminiscent of the artist’s earlier wall-based graffiti work and the chalk drawings he tagged across the New York subway, for which he first gained notoriety. Haring was one of the key exponents of the New York downtown scene alongside other art world stars of the time such as Jean-Michel Basquiat and Kenny Scharf. Indeed, the significance of Haring’s work was recognised as early as 1981 owing to Rene Ricard’s now famous iteration in his seminal article, 'The Radiant Child’ entitled after Haring’s now famous motif. Tony Shafrazi extolled, ‘Keith went naked into the world as the perfect boy-child of the electronic age. Like the youthful Rimbaud, he too will be acknowledged as a prophetic figure and one of the most endearing young oracles of the chaotic modern age, opening the way for a new utopic era of fraternal feeling and self-realization. He bravely chose to depict and resolve both destructive and constructive forces in society and art. These are the solutions we all dream of in fancy, but for Keith they were actual and attainable, through his art’ (T. Shafrazi quoted in Keith Haring, exh. cat., Shafrazi Gallery, New York, 1990, unpaged).
Elevating street art to the realm of classical imagery Haring conjures a spectrum of Christian, Buddhist, and Aztec symbolism often relating to immortality or fertility. Its title holds a particular biblical resonance: the Tree of Life has long been a motif adopted by Christian religions as a symbol for the sacred tree, as captured in Michelangelo’s fifteenth century fresco masterpiece for the Sistine Chapel depicting The Fall and Expulsion from Garden of Eden or Gustav Klimt’s Tree of Life, 1905. In its proliferation of images, Tree of Life reveals a rich visual imagery and employs traditional art historical metaphors to draw together the diverse worlds of art, nature, and theology. Grounded in the artist’s lifelong religious interest, painting became a conduit for the artist to address global themes of war, sexuality, homophobia and political chaos. These tendencies elucidate Haring’s rhetorical figures featured in Saint Sebastian, 1984, The Ten Commandments, 1985, held in the collection of the Contemporary Art Museum, Bordeaux, and in this case, the Tree of Life. ‘For Keith Haring, painting was a crucible- a site of celebratory transformation, of birth and death, a place where objects, lines, colours, and forms when through a creative catharsis and were then transmuted in order to experience a tempest of personal and social, erotic and mystical impulses. This alchemy produced labyrinthal images filled with dream like flashes that absorbed the flow of figures and representations – some of them cruel and tragic, some of them playful and happy (G. Celent, Keith Haring, Munich 1992, p. 8).
Tree of Life was created as an homage to his friend Maria Bonnier Dahlin. Part of Haring’s circle of artist friends, Maria was an architecture student at Columbia University in New York, and socialized extensively with young artists. Following Maria tragic death in a car accident on June 1st 1985 at only 20 years of age. Still in mourning, Haring created this painting as a tribute to her, inscribing ‘SEPT. 7-1985 IN MEMORY OF MARIA DAHLIN K. Haring 1985 N.Y.C’, on the reverse. Bursting with positive dynamism and vitality, in this context, Tree of Life remains a joyous, affirmation of life and a celebration of friendship.