At just over 20 feet wide, Keith Haring’s Untitled serves as one of the most poignant works by the artist in his brief decade long career. Painted in the year Haring was diagnosed as HIV Positive, this mural-sized painting stands as a masterful rendering of the deeply personal struggle with the AIDS virus that would come to characterize a generation. Although Haring’s work was always centered on political struggles and social issues, the work created after his diagnosis in 1988 remains some of his most powerful to date. The canvas of Untitled is dominated by surreal horned sperm, which break forth from a large egg, reminiscent of the iconic motif of Salvador Dali’s The Metamorphosis of Narcissus, with a similarly strange flower emerging from a cracked egg. Dali explores those same themes of love, beauty, death and immortality seen in Untitled, through the famed story of Narcissus, who loved only himself at the cost of others. His ultimate punishment for his vanity was his transformation by the gods into the narcissus flower, a fate which Dali’s painting captures. Recognizing the formal traces of this mythological interpretation by the ultimate symbolist, we see that Haring may have looked back to this iconic image from the 20th century and adapted the message to his own personal struggle. In Untitled a large egg is strapped to the back of a man (just as much a self-portrait as a tribute to the millions who suffered at the hands of the merciless disease) as he climbs or falls down a flight of stairs. The egg/sperm imagery is particularly disturbing here as a harbinger of death, at one time used by Constantin Brancusi to embody the spirit of life in his emblematic work, Newborn. The horned sperm would appear in many of Haring’s paintings from this year, and came to symbolize the inherent contradictions of death coming from life, pain from pleasure and the threat of sexuality at the time. The burden of guilt and shame was undeniable, as the cowering figure in the left register struggles to stand under the weight of the symbolic origin of the disease.
At once deeply personal, the poignant imagery and moving theme behind the present work also serve as a sort of history painting for the time. One immediately recalls Pablo Picasso’s monumental and prevailing masterwork, Guernica, for both the formal similarities of composition and palette, but also the important political messaging. The stark, black, gray and white palette, stripped of all formal elements of color and shading leaves us with the graphic representation of the tragic bombing of Guernica and subsequent suffering of its people. Just as much anti-war as a petition for peace, Guernica was shown around the world to bring visibility and awareness to the carnage induced by Nationalist forces during the Spanish Civil war and its ties with Germany. Although both Untitled and Guernica are specific to one point in history, their iconography remains as timeless and enduring as the time in which each work was painted. Both signs of the time, they serve as art historical markers of en era, and both artists come to define not only their own personal viewpoints, but also the time in which they lived, the struggles which they faced and the potency of art to immortalize the human story. In 1987, before he was diagnosed, Haring wrote “I know in my heart that it is only divine intervention that has kept me alive this long. I don’t know if I have five months or five years, but I know my days are numbered. This is why my activities and projects are so important now. To do as much as possible as quickly as possible” (K. Haring, Keith Haring Journals, New York, 1996).
Keith Haring was long associated with his signature, loose graphic style first manifested as subway tags—underground markers of social activism which would come to characterize the visual landscape of a decade. Early symbols which would come to be synonymous with the artist’s own identity, such as the radiant baby, began popping up all over the city in chalk, spray paint and marker on subway posters, billboards, doors and walls. Often working in black and white early in his career, Haring had begun to introduce color into his formal painting, but returned at the end of his life to the monochrome purity of his early subway drawings. The stark graphic style here is noteworthy, as Haring chose to paint the black, “negative” space on white ground. Just as in the most iconic paintings of Franz Kline and the expressive black-and-white paintings of Willem de Kooning, the potent graphic appeal of using stark black and white paint to draw focus to the artist’s gesture and execution of line is undeniable in this instance.
Haring’s associations with artists and musicians of his day including Jean-Michel Basquiat, Andy Warhol, Kenny Scharf and Madonna would propel him to his current position as a permanent figure in the artistic lexicon of the 1980s. Until his untimely death in 1989, he would go on to complete public commissions all over the world from New York to Australia, Brazil, even painting the Berlin wall, although this was quickly painted over. Through these highly visible murals which championed social issues from anti-war protest, drug abuse, anti-apartheid, homosexuality to the AIDS epidemic, Haring was primarily motivated by his desire to reach as many people from all socio-economic backgrounds through his art, as exemplified with the founding of the Pop Shop in cities across the world, selling souvenirs adorned with his graphic emblems. He explained, “Here’s the philosophy behind the Pop Shop: I wanted to continue the same sort of communication as with the subway drawings. I wanted to attract the same wide range of people and I wanted it to be a place where, yes, not only collectors could come, but also kids from the Bronx … this was still an art statement” (K. Haring, quoted in B. Chenevert, “Greats of LGBT History: Keith Haring and the restoration of his treasured ‘We The Youth’ mural,” Philadelphia Weekly, 25 October 2013). Today, his imagery remains as iconic and recognizable as when it first appeared over thirty years ago, carried on and emulated across the globe in popular culture as well as in fine art institutions. The recent retrospective at the de Young focused primarily on his political messaging, demonstrating that his influence over his own generation carries on seamlessly today, just as resonant and enduring as the renown he attained at only 31 years of age.