Executed in 1981, Untitled (Smiling Face), is a superb example from Keith Haring’s early iconic years as an artist in New York City. Haring emblazons an all-seeing and totemic visage across his expansive four-foot tarpaulin surface that pulsates with boisterous energy and a jubilant sense of life. This chromatically striking composition originated from his famed graffiti chalk Subway Drawings that besieged the blank advertising spaces that lined underground station walls. Set against a vibrant red and white background, a graphic and bold smiling face memorializes the ephemeral imagery that launched Haring’s career. Produced with Haring’s signature trifecta of black, white and red, Untitled (Smiling Face) demonstrates his devotion to this combination of hues, equating the color red, specifically, to blood and power.
I don’t think art is propaganda; it should be something that liberates the soul, provokes the imagination and encourages people to go further. It celebrates humanity instead of manipulating it.”
Black drip marks sprawling down the composition reveal a courageous and self-assured young artist striving for immediacy over control and ruthless expression over pure figurative representation, and the inimitable virtuosity of his draftsmanship unfurls with each confident and gestural line. A grinning and anonymous emoticon with bulging eyes represents no specific race, gender or ethnicity, overturning traditional figurative painting through the representation of emotion, outside of social status, religion or sexuality: a universal face of the people. Looking back on his Subway Drawings, Haring poignantly proclaimed, “the subway is still my favorite place to draw… and perhaps there is not another place in the world where people of such diverse appearance, background, and lifestyle have intermingled for a common purpose” (K. Haring, Haring –Art in Transit, New York, 1984). His beginnings in the subway forged a path forward for Haring and built the foundation for his universally recognizable aesthetic that unabashedly declares to viewers of all walks of life the singular and urgent message of power and optimism. The iconography within Untitled (Smiling Face) propagated in infinite permutations ranging from prints to street wear to children’s notebooks further instills Haring’s lifelong commitment to share his message with all echelons of society.
In 1981, Haring began to execute large-format paintings in bright and bold palettes, upending standard techniques in fine art in favor of his preferred medium of vinyl tarpaulin as a support. The result was an avant-garde brand of commercially available industrial materials. Like many artists of his generation, including his friend Jean-Michael Basquiat, Haring opposed the status quo and eluded gallery representation in the early years of his career, treating the city walls as his studio. His inspiration came from his peers who transformed graffiti into poetry. Haring considered the canvas to be encoded with preconceptions and expectations that would ultimately limit his creative freedom, admitting, “I always felt I could be impeded by canvas, because canvas seemed to have a certain value before you even touched it. I felt I wouldn’t be free, the way I was working on paper [similar to subway drawings] – because paper was unpretentious and totally available and wasn’t all that expensive. Also, for me, canvas represented this whole historical thing – and it just psychologically blocked me” (K. Haring, quoted in J. Gruen, Keith Haring: The Authorized Biography, New York, 1991, p. 95). Haring’s arresting works on tarpaulin, known as “tarps,” rank supreme in his oeuvre and exemplify his career-long endeavor to express hope, beauty and equality in a world of oppression and struggle.
Like his predecessor and admitted influence, Jean Dubuffet, his unique visual vocabulary can be characterized by his effortless ability to pare down the essential emotions of humanity: love, lust, joy, fear, death and creation. He favored the commonplace over the rarified, and the raw over the refined, using unconventional materials and techniques. Through bold gesture and refined chromatic dedication, Haring produces a fantastically energetic, frenetic style with universal appeal.
Always intent on his message, Haring quickly came to understand the intricacies of being an unintentional spokesperson during the culturally fraught 1980s, declaring, “I think as much as possible, an artist, if he has any kind of social or political concern, has to try to cut through those things, and to expose as much as possible what he sees so that some people think about things that they don’t normally think about. Sometimes I do that by pushing things to the extreme; in the face of people who try to close their eyes I react the opposite, by trying to be more open and deal more openly with sexuality and violence for instance. An artist putting as many images into the world as I am should be aware or try to understand what that means and how those images are absorbed or how they affect the world. I don’t think art is propaganda; it should be something that liberates the soul, provokes the imagination and encourages people to go further. It celebrates humanity instead of manipulating it” (K. Haring, quoted in S. Couderc and S. Marchand, trans., The Ten Commandments, An Interview, 16 December 1985). Haring’s tragically short career, which ended after his struggle with AIDS at the age of thirty-one, is lauded for his prodigious output and immediate worldwide recognition. Untitled (Smiling Face) transcends cultural boundaries and epitomizes Haring’s kinetic creativity and positivity that became a visual icon for the vivacious and virtuous zeitgeist of the 1980s in New York.
Lot Essay Header Image: Present lot illustrated (detail).