Originally owned by the celebrated German gallerist Paul Maenz—who unveiled the work in Cologne shortly after its creation—Keith Haring’s Untitled is an extraordinary masterpiece that prophesies the dawn of a new era. Dating from 1984, the year that the first Apple Macintosh was released, it stands among the earliest painterly depictions of a computer, heralding the birth of the digital age. Across four conjoined panels measuring nine square metres, a sci-fi bacchanal unfolds: flying saucers collide mid-air, while angels soar, monsters writhe and disembodied limbs pluck aeroplanes from their flight paths. At the centre, the computer reigns, mounted on a pyramid like an ancient deity. The structure assumes an anthropomorphic form, with the machine serving as the head; its outstretched arms, like scales, hold a spaceship and a human brain, as if triumphantly having superseded both as the world’s determining force. Tiny figures bow down before it, their arms raised in ecstatic worship. Loaned to the Neues Museum, Weimar, between 1993 and 2005, the work captures the clairvoyant power of Haring’s art: he could not have known that, nearly forty years later, it would be possible to buy the painting in cryptocurrency.
There’s something prophetic about that painting—when you think when it was painted, we didn’t even have cell phones, we didn’t have computers on everybody’s desks, laptops and iPads … Keith had a very good idea about the world we live in now … I think this painting is really packed with vision and that’s why I think it’s an important work of art”
Haring’s exhibition at Maenz’s gallery was his first in Germany, and a testament to the breadth of his international acclaim. Coinciding with the artist’s twenty-fifth birthday, it was a riotous affair: Haring drew snaking, improvised graphic patterns all over the gallery walls, as well as on the body of a naked male model who paraded around the exhibition and interacted with the works. It was a significant time for the artist, who—alongside Jean-Michel Basquiat and others—had come to prominence four years earlier in Colab’s seminal exhibition The Times Square Show. The present work marks his transition from tarpaulin to canvas, capturing the heightened scale and ambition of his studio practice during this period. 1984 also saw the growth of his friendship with the novelist William Burroughs, whose ‘cut up’ technique had an important influence on Haring’s chaotic distribution of characters and motifs. More broadly, however, the year marked the pinnacle of the artist’s celebrity on the New York underground scene: his legendary ‘Party of Life’ at Paradise Garage in SoHo was attended by the biggest names in art, music and fashion, including Madonna, who—dressed in a suit designed by Haring—gave an early performance of ‘Like a Virgin’.
If the painting pulsates with the rhythms of New York’s 1980s dance clubs, where Haring was a regular, it also demonstrates the diversity of his artistic sources. As a child, he would spend hours drawing with his father—an amateur cartoonist—developing a love of graphic characterisation that would later find expression in the crawling babies, barking dogs and UFOs that populated his early graffiti on New York’s subways. The intuitive, semi-automatic freedom with which he organised his linear motifs was nourished by his admiration for artists such as Pierre Alechinsky and Jean Dubuffet, who wove similarly fantastical worlds from the most economical of means. Haring’s fascination with Mayan, Aztec and other ancient cultures, fuelled by long hours spent in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, is evident in the present work’s imagery of ritualised worship, as well as its codified, pictographic narratives. The writhing ball of snakes to the right of the computer evokes the Medusa of Greek legend, whilst the composition as a whole conjures grand Old Masterly tableaux such as Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s The Fall of the Rebel Angels (1562), or Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights (1490-1500). It is a vivid testament to Haring’s wide-ranging referential compass, shifting seamlessly between worlds.
See, when I paint, it is an experience that, at its best, is transcending reality”
Haring’s various mythic allusions coincided with the birth of a new, contemporary legend: the rise of the home computer. Following the release of the IBM PC in 1981, Apple unveiled their iconic Macintosh model on 24 January 1984. The television advert, directed by Ridley Scott, was broadcast two days prior, during the third quarter of the Super Bowl. It riffed on George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, which—written in 1949—predicted a dystopian society set twenty-five years in the future. ‘On January 24th, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh’, concluded the advert. ‘And you’ll see why 1984 won’t be like “1984”.’ Ironically, Haring’s response to the Zeitgeist seemed to suggest quite the opposite, foretelling a veritable apocalypse in which technology would bend human, natural and supernatural forces to its will. Speaking of the painting twenty years later, Maenz hailed the artist’s foresight: ‘when you think when it was painted, we didn’t even have cell phones, we didn’t have computers on everybody’s desks, laptops and iPads’, he explained. ‘… Keith had a very good idea about the world we live in now. I think this painting is really packed with vision and that’s why I think it’s an important work of art’ (P. Maenz in conversation with Christie’s, September 2018).
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”
Haring’s depictions of spaceships and alien creatures similarly tapped into the spirit of his time: an era dominated by films such as Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Bladerunner (1982), ET (1982) and the Star Trek series. Though articulated with a graphic simplicity of Pop Art, the flying saucer in particular infused his paintings with a sense of philosophical contemplation: here, juxtaposed with the pyramid and the worshipping crowds below, it becomes part of a broader narrative about humankind’s capacity for faith. ‘I use a lot of contrasting symbols’, explained Haring in 1982. ‘… The pyramid is connected with an unknown force, mystery and magic; maybe people once thought they could store their own energy in that kind of building. The pyramid stands for an ancient civilisation, just as the flying saucer symbolises an unknown higher civilisation beyond our earth. A mysterious flying saucer relativises the fuss on earth and the seemingly unlimited power of religion and politics’ (K. Haring, quoted in interview with P. D. Duyvis, in Museumjournaal, 1982, Vol. 3). Today, the motif takes on new resonance in light of recent U.S. government reports, whose findings concluded that UFOs are more widespread than previously believed, and that the possibility of extraterrestrial activity should not be ruled out.
Haring, much like Maenz himself, saw art as a powerful vehicle for change. Though born of deep reading, observing and thinking, his paintings strove to connect with the public in bold, graphic terms, offering wordless narratives that spoke the truth to power. As Haring explained, he wanted to ‘incorporate [art] into every part of life .... 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). At the same time, for all their universality, his works envisioned a realm beyond the banalities of everyday existence: one of euphoric chaos, frenzy and colour. ‘See, when I paint,’ he explained, ‘it is an experience that, at its best, is transcending reality’ (K. Haring, quoted in D. Sheff, ‘Keith Haring: An Intimate Conversation,’ in Rolling Stone, August 1989). Like the computer itself, Haring’s art sought to enliven the quotidian, revealing new, terrifying and beautiful dimensions to life on earth. In the present work, the monstrous miracles of a brave new world are brought into focus, oscillating wildly between past, present, future and fantasy.
Lot Essay Header Image: The present lot illustrated (detail).