This work is accompanied by a certificate of authenticity issued by the The Estate of Keith Haring.
One of the most celebrated artists of his generation, Keith Haring had a boldly original style that combined a deft hand and poignant subject matter to make him a lasting influence on countless generations of artists the world over. Intimately connected with the thriving New York art world of the 1970s and 80s, as well as the vibrant club scene, Haring was at the forefront of cultural innovation during that era. He was a friend and colleague to such luminaries as Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat, and became an icon in his own right before his untimely death in 1990. Silence = Death (1988) is an especially moving work in Haring’s oeuvre, as it uses his instantly recognizable motifs to broach the topic of the AIDS epidemic in the latter part of the 20th century. Barry Blinderman noted about Haring’s timeless nature, saying, “It is as though his pulsating images have already danced their way into the atavistic chambers of the collective mind, as if his characters are now somehow imprinted on ribbons of DNA to be transmitted genetically to future generations” (B. Blinderman, “And We All Shine On,” in G. Celant (ed.), Keith Haring, Munich, 1992, p. 27). Though tragically short, Haring’s career continues to spread a sincere message by way of his near-universal visual language.
Depicted on a shocking pink canvas in the shape of an inverted triangle, Silence = Death is packed with a writhing mass of Haring’s signature figures. Their fingerless hands cover the areas on their faces where eyes or ears would exist in a manner similar to the three wise monkeys who ‘see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.’ Rendered in even silver strokes, the rowdy mass tumbles down the canvas but is hemmed in by a silver border that keeps them from approaching the edge of the stretcher. The sheer chaos of the scene is in line with the feeling of the time, and is only tamed and controlled by Haring’s precision and attention to color and detail. Jeffrey Deitch, speaking about the artist’s work, noted, “[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. [...] 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, p. 220-221). The triangle and its silver denizens are attractive visually, but this attraction serves to further hold the viewer’s attention and make them come to grips with the solemnity of the subject matter.
Silence = Death is one of two triangular canvases that Haring completed in the fall of 1988. The other is a work titled Pile of Crowns (1988) which the artist created in memoriam of his friend and colleague, the painter Jean-Michel Basquiat. Basquiat had risen to fame as a street artist turned gallery sensation in much the same way as Haring, and the two had worked together during the 1970s and 80s in the electrified art scene of New York City. Both had strong ties to Andy Warhol and his milieu, and each embraced the crossover between their graffiti roots and Warhol’s Pop sensationalism. Silence = Death and Pile of Crowns were finished roughly one month after Basquiat’s untimely death, and both show Haring’s innate ability to use his signature cartoony style to tackle serious topics. The latter addresses a prodigious talent and close friend lost to drugs, while Silence = Death deals with the AIDS epidemic and its devastating effects on the arts community.
The phrase “Silence = Death” was first used by a six-person collective of the same name in New York City in 1985. Combined with the pink triangle, a gay pride symbol that became increasingly adopted in the 1970s, the group created a poster that was distributed around the city to bring attention to the AIDS crisis. The imagery was subsequently used in 1987 by the then-newly-formed group ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) as a call to arms in the LGBTQ community to bring attention to AIDS, its effects and its prevention. Haring, aware of his risk for the illness, noted in 1987, “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). The artist was diagnosed with AIDS in 1988 and succumbed to the disease in 1990. By using the bold language of ACT UP and the Silence = Death collective, Haring was able to amplify the effects of their cause and use his popularity as a visual artist to further awareness. Silence = Death is a bold reminder of the AIDS crisis and the visionaries lost to the disease.
Though the formal characteristics of much of Haring’s works are simplified and uniform, the various subjects, symbols and signs he employed speak to a greater understanding of how human beings communicate. Within his compositions, the personal and universal coexist to form a global language that is understandable to a wide array of people from various backgrounds. Haring sought “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). By collapsing the distinction between street art, graffiti, Pop Art and the gallery realm, works like Silence = Death exist as artworks on an even playing field. No matter what language you speak, your background, or knowledge of art and art history, Haring’s pieces resonate on a plane that is both multilayered and complex as well as readily understandable.