The unparalleled virtuosity of Keith Haring’s draftsmanship is unfurled across the monumental expanse of Untitled. In Untitled, Haring creates a towering, totemic figure that presides over the monolithic stretch of its ten-foot tarpaulin surface. Rendered in the undulating curves, zigzags, and diagonals of Haring’s electric blue line, Untitled pulsates with the raucous energy and joyous sense of life that permeates the paintings of this formative period. Painted in 1983, Untitled demonstrates the crystallization of Haring’s mature style, infused with the syncopated hiphop rhythm of New York City streets and its underground graffiti culture. A brilliant emblem brimming with youthful exuberance and demonstrating the mastery of Haring’s unrivaled economy of line, Untitled stands as a lasting monument to the artist’s talent and quick-witted intellect.
A prodigious artist whose unique visual lexicon is remarkable given the brevity of his tragically short career, Keith Haring’s talent lies in his ability to pare down humanity’s essentials into a succinct, abstract language. Love and lust, joy and fear, birth, death, and creation are all joined together in exuberant displays imbued with a simplicity that manages to evoke ancient tribal ceremonies while tinged with futuristic utopia. Barking dogs, radiant babies, and dancing figures are united in an endless dance party that pulses and vibrates with a percussive, beatbox rhythm. In Untitled, one of Haring’s largest and most innovative tarp paintings of 1983, a figure strikes a rhythmic pose, merging aspects of Egyptian hieroglyphics with ‘80s vogue and breakdance style. In curving and diagonal strokes of the brush, Haring delineates the figure with blue paint, tracing its contours in swift and efficient outlines set against a jet-black surface. The inventiveness, skill, and ease with which Haring deftly creates not just one central image, but a secondary “hidden” creation, is remarkable given his youth and relative newness on the art scene. While foreground and background wrestle for dominance in the viewer’s eye, the figure’s hands become its eyes, the curvature of its legs becomes a smile, and the female gender symbol of its torso become its nose. The same blue line simultaneously forms two halves of a broken heart that waits to be reconnected by the “key” conveyed by the female symbol. In Untitled, the simplicity and grace of Haring’s perfectly symmetrical composition are matched only by his skillful inventiveness as a
draftsman and his precocious wit.
After signing with dealer Tony Shafrazi in 1982, Haring began to seek out new methods for creating large-scale paintings. Having developed a reputation for the drawings he rendered in white chalk upon the walls of New York City subway platforms, Haring searched for materials with which to create his signature iconography while still retaining the “street cred” of his earlier work. Reluctant to go the traditional route of oil on canvas, which he felt embodied an unwanted amount of affluence and prestige, Haring continued searching for unusual materials to execute his ever more sophisticated creations. In 1982, Haring noticed that a Con Edison construction crew had covered their equipment with a large piece of industrial tarpaulin. The large-scale machine-made quality of the tarp material intrigued Haring: it embodied the gritty, antiart aesthetic he was looking for on a scale large enough to fit his needs. He discovered a tarp manufacturer in Brooklyn, and in the fall of 1982, he purchased various sizes and colors, many of which were shown at his inaugural show at Tony Shafrazi’s Gallery later that year. These tarps, some measuring as much as 12-feet square, demonstrate the bravado with which Haring considered this seminal body of work. In Untitled, the monolithic scale of its electric imagery grabs the viewer with a jolt, while the precision and inventiveness Haring’s line demonstrates the gravitas of a mature artist poised on the verge of greatness.
For Haring, hip-hop music, dance, and art fed into one another, so that his paintings became infused with the lifeblood of the intoxicating 1980s. “1982 to 1984 was the peak of rap music and breakdancing,” Haring explained, “breaking and spinning on the floor and doing these athletic, gymnastic dances on the floor. It included spray graffiti because there was a graffiti scene. Part of the hip-hop scene at the time was the visual equivalent, so you had the music—which was scratching and rapping—and the dance, from breakdancing to electric boogie…. Graffiti was the visual tie-in. I incorporated things that I saw in breakdancing, electric boogie, and deejays into my drawings...A lot of my inspiration was coming out of watching break-dancers, so my drawings started spinning on their heads and twisting and turning all around. The work directly referenced hip-hop culture” (K. Haring, quoted in J. Gruen, et. al., Keith Haring, New York, 2008, p. 236).
In Untitled, one of Haring’s dancing figures has been enlarged to monolithic scale, imbued with a power conveyed by its majestic presentation and the vibrating energy of its electric blue contours and vibrant red skin that stands in brilliant contrast to the black tarp’s slick surface. The monumental presentation of this enigmatic figure—undoubtedly female given its stylized breasts and gender sign—materialized in several of Haring’s creations,including a suite of prints based on the theme of fertility. Inevitably invoking the female fertility symbols of primitive cultures such as the Venus of Willendorf, this archetypal symbol is related to Haring’s radiant baby, which has been described as his most important visual motif. As an artist compelled to illustrate the joyous essence of life, but whose own life was cut tragically short, the inherent symbolism of the radiant baby and its all-powerful earth mother remain particularly poignant. Having featured in several important exhibitions of the artist’s work, Untitled is a masterful embodiment of Haring’s most significant themes and lifelong concerns.