Living and working in the Lower East Side of New York, Keith Haring was at the forefront of a new dance culture in the 80s, which manifested itself deeply within the gay community as AIDS began its rampage through a generation. Haring and his friends went to clubs, danced together and formed a close bond to collectively fight the tragedy and prevalence of death in their lives. His bravado painting is indebted to the dance culture of the time, which had bravado of its own. Dancers were voguing, doing the electric boogie and breakdancing on the streets and in the clubs.
Haring followed the frenetic dance movements on the floors of The Roxy and Paradise Garage, where he called famous DJs such as Larry Levan and Afrika Bambaataa some of his closest friends. In his work, distinct and repetitive horizontal ticks outline the ambiguous reptilian figures, as well as, the entire surface of the canvas. The evenly spaced and seamless procession from one dashed line to the next performs the same function to that of the methodic beat of a metronome that musicians use for structure. There is a constant rhythm to a multilayered composition, which might otherwise become exceedingly complex. Indeed. Haring paints in such a measured way as if to capture the body movements of the break dancers, voguers and capoeira dancers that filled his nights, stayed in his mind and spilled over onto his canvas.
Though not quite as evident or literal as his public subway works or murals, the notion of Haring’s personal dance community is stylistically incorporated into Untitled. In fact, in 1983 the same year Untitled was created, Haring’s association with dance reached a formal climax, as he performed at the Kitchen in New York on stage with Bill T. Jones. Haring painted while Jones improvised a solo dance called Long Distance. The performance was an exchange: Without any music, Haring’s brushstrokes provided the metaphorical percussion which Jones danced to, and in return, Haring’s painting also picked up on the movement and hieroglyphs of the human body. The bright red and yellow hues that fill in the space between the thick black lines on the canvas capture the notion of liveliness, and also heighten an even more precise sense of the resilient energy that Haring and his community sought when they danced together. The overall tone and brightness of Untitled remains extraordinarily upbeat and joyful despite the omnipresence of loss that was constantly lurking in the background.
Untitled solely is not only a record of the all-encompassing dance energy that filled the clubs and, in many ways, defined the 80s, but also shows how drug use influenced the artist. Haring’s friends have openly accredited the artist’s first time on the drug LSD as one of the most important moments to affect him. In lieu of such information, Haring’s consistent use of imagery that is often described as dreamlike resonates with the artist’s personal interpretation of the club scene as a “tribe of people who have shared many a collective spiritual experience there” (K. Haring, Keith Haring Journals, p. 105).
In Untitled, there is a strange ambiguity about the open-mouthed lizard figure which stands on its hind legs. It is unclear whether or not a serpent or the spiraling tail of the lizard is fixed opposite to the visible figure, and at once the subject matter of the work is both defined yet obscured. Haring explained his use of inexplicable figures such as those seen on the verge of complete absurdity as “rather straightforward, [though] the combinations of them the way they’re rearranged and juxtaposed, sometimes contradicts. It’s not a straight ‘point A to point B’…many thoughts [exist] at the same time, like a dream state” (Haring, quoted in Sylvie Couderc, “Keith Haring’s World,” in Keith Haring, exh. cat., Bordeaux, France: CAPC Musee d’Art Contemporain, 1985, p. 38). Such a “dream state” is achieved in Untitled as Haring employs the same bold yellow and red colors throughout the canvas, as well as, a thick and fortuitous black line so that the hieroglyphic creatures within the field of color seem increasingly abstracted and bizarre, perhaps not unlike the visions that he saw while trying substances.
The newly globalized and interracial scene also had a direct impact on Haring’s work. His stick figures tell their story of community, dance and energy, showing a hybrid aesthetic that is not simply a convergence of Eastern and Western aesthetics. In New York City during the 80s, a vibrant community of Puerto Rican and African Americans was the stylistic source of the music and dance that took over the culture Haring admired. The eclectic hybridity of this culture is depicted in his primitive yet civilized, old yet strikingly new aesthetic. Ultimately, the dynamic sensations of kinetics and absurdity combined with Haring’s use of line make Untitled an exceptional work that encapsulates his essence and sign of the times.