Discover how Keith Haring used an Amiga computer to push the boundaries of art in the 1980s

Five digital drawings by Haring will be minted on the blockchain for the first time — revealing the artist's interest in digital art

‘Many people think they know Keith Haring. We know his activism, we know his generosity, we know he was prolific, we know he was sick and that he did a lot of advocacy for people with HIV,’ says Gil Vazquez, President of the Keith Haring Foundation and an old friend of the Pop artist known for his beloved public murals that arose out New York City street art culture in the 1980s. ‘We do not necessarily know him as a digital artist. Yet, that is an aspect of him that comes to light for the first time with this sale — he was a pioneer of digital art.’

He is referring to Keith Haring: Pixel Pioneer, an online auction of five unique digital drawings that the artist created on an Amiga computer in the mid-1980s. To preserve the natively digital material created on the now-vintage computer system, the Keith Haring Foundation has minted the Amiga drawings — previously only viewable via floppy discs — on the Ethereum blockchain. For the first time, these digital drawings can be purchased as NFTs.

The auction will be open for bidding from 12-20 September with an exhibition at Christie’s New York from 14-19 September and in Seoul from 7-8 September in collaboration with NFT Now. All proceeds from the sale will benefit the Keith Haring Foundation.

Keith Haring (1958-1990), Untitled, Feb 2, 1987, 1987. Non-fungible token (PICT, PNG and SVG). Executed in 1987 and minted in September 2023. Estimate: $220,000-320,000. Offered in Keith Haring: Pixel Pioneer from 12-20 September 2023 at Christie's online. © Keith Haring Foundation

The story of these NFTs begins in 1984, at a birthday party for the nine-year-old son of John Lennon, Sean. Steve Jobs, Andy Warhol, Kenny Scharf and Keith Haring were all in attendance. Jobs brought his Macintosh computer with him and gave the guests a demonstration of his new machine. Warhol soon took Sean’s place in front of it, and after having a go with the drawing tool, excitedly exclaimed to Haring, ‘Look! Keith! I drew a circle!’ From that point on, the two artists began to explore the frontiers of digital art.

Shortly after the party, the psychologist and author Timothy Leary, who was a close friend of Haring, acquired ten Amiga computers and distributed them to select artists. Warhol and Haring each received one. Warhol created multiple works on his Amiga, using familiar subjects like Marilyn Monroe and Campbell’s soup cans. Five of his digital drawings were minted by The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts and sold as NFTs in the Christie's auction Andy Warhol: Machine Made in 2021. The sale achieved $3.8 million.

Warhol was undeniably enthusiastic about digital art, but Haring felt the strongest affinity with the new medium. He integrated the Amiga computer into his work much more and drew these five digital images which will be offered in this sale as NFTs.

Keith Haring (1958-1990), Untitled #2, April 16, 1987. Non-fungible token (PICT, PNG and SVG). Executed in 1987 and minted in September 2023. Estimate: $300,000-500,000. Offered in Keith Haring: Pixel Pioneer from 12-20 September 2023 at Christie's online. © Keith Haring Foundation

The Amiga allowed him, on the one hand, to replicate his characteristic drawing style. He wrote in his journal on 8 July 1986, ‘My drawings were perfect for translation into computers because the drawing line was already very close to the idea of “pixels” (the dots, or squares, that comprise a computer-generated image).’

The digital images that he created on his Amiga computer mirror his distinctive painted and drawn visual language — from the mask, to the exuberant outlined figures, to the vivid primary colours. ‘There are endless possibilities to be investigated in this area’, he continued. ‘I know that it is true that I possess (because of the deductive, composite nature of my line) the ability to use computers very effectively.’

Keith Haring (1958-1990), Untitled #1, April 16, 1987. Non-fungible token (PICT, PNG and SVG). Executed in 1987 and minted in September 2023. Estimate: $300,000-500,000. Offered in Keith Haring: Pixel Pioneer from 12-20 September 2023 at Christie's online. © Keith Haring Foundation

On the Amiga, Haring applied his spontaneous creative method. Vazquez says, ‘Keith’s approach was never a plan. He usually just put brush to canvas, pen to paper, Sharpie to wall, and just went. His approach to the Amiga drawings was no different, he put his hand on the mouse and just went.’

The Amiga also allowed him to take the anti-establishment ethos underlying his work even further. ‘He was a disruptor’, Vazquez notes. ‘He wanted to use tools that were not considered proper by the established art world’, and that extended from the public walls he used for street art to his Amiga computer.

Keith Haring (1958-1990), Untitled, April 14, 1987. Non-fungible token (PICT, PNG and SVG). Executed in 1987 and minted in September 2023. Estimate: $300,000-500,000. Offered in Keith Haring: Pixel Pioneer from 12-20 September 2023 at Christie's online. © Keith Haring Foundation

Haring’s mantra was that ‘art is for everybody.’ Since his death [from AIDs related complications in 1990], technological innovations have greatly expanded how we interact with art. Web 3 in particular has removed barriers to the art establishment — anyone with a smartphone can access, enjoy, and collect works — without ever setting foot in a physical gallery. Digital artists are now able to use online platforms to take their art directly to the people, just as Haring intended.

‘Haring was ahead of his time, as all the greatest artists are, and now that Web 3 technology has caught up to his vision, these works can be shared and enjoyed by the world’, Vazquez says. ‘Web 3 allows these works to exist at their full potential, as they were intended.’

Keith Haring (1958-1990), Untitled, Feb 3, 1987. Non-fungible token (PICT, PNG and SVG). Executed in 1987 and minted in September 2023. Estimate: $200,000-300,000. Offered in Keith Haring: Pixel Pioneer from 12-20 September 2023 at Christie's online. © Keith Haring Foundation

These digital drawings highlight Haring’s characteristic style and creative process in full force, and they also underscore his anti-establishment ideas and his dedication to art public art in all forms. The computer was not a conventional tool accepted by the art world establishment, and yet he embraced it, and now with the help of Web 3, these works will reach a wider public and a new generation of art lovers.

Vazquez sums it up nicely, ‘In a sense Keith is still here, still affecting people, still inspiring people, still causing a stir.’

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