Drawing is a central component to Jean-Michel Basquiat’s practice, illustrating complex narratives that regard social discourses, flawed power structures and individuals deemed significant by the artist. Untitled (Keith Haring) demonstrates this exact sense of complexity, vacillating between an intimate and personal portrait of Haring and the rough, gritty style for which Basquiat is famous. Known for combining text with images, Basquiat offers what many of his predecessors lacked—a narrative, oftentimes reflective of his era yet frequently ambiguous or elusive. He embeds his text onto a stark background in a way that allows the viewer to focus on each component of the drawing individually and proffer various interpretations of the overall composition. In Untitled (Keith Haring), the incorporation of ‘SIDE VIEW,’ ‘FAMOUS,’ and ‘KEITH HARING IN MILAN OCT. 83’ provides clues to the narrative Basquiat is creating but does not give a completely coherent message to the viewer. In a similar approach to iconography, Basquiat’s appropriation of Haring’s The Radiant Baby harkens back to centuries of portraiture, in which objects were purposefully situated in the sitter’s realm to provide a sense of social and historical context to the viewer.
The drawing of Haring’s head in frontal and side views resembles anatomical studies in one of Basquiat’s biggest influences, the medical book and journal Gray’s Anatomy. This reference is further suggested by the accompanying text ‘SIDE VIEW,’ which reads like the labels found in the book. While inspired by the scientific aspect of human anatomy, Basquiat nonetheless effuses a sense of tenderness and innocence into his works. As the curator Richard Marshall points out, "In drawing, Basquiat discovered the ideal form of visual expression that was compatible with his inherent appreciation of the naive, childlike figures, cartoons, scribblings, cryptic signs, and letter printing." (R. Marshall, Jean-Michel Basquiat: Works on Paper, Paris, 1999, p. 45). In this sense, the dual incorporation of Haring’s The Radiant Baby adds an additional layer of personalization.
Basquiat and Haring were both recognizable artists in the 1980s New York art scene due to their distinct styles and often sociopolitical subject matter. In this particular work, Basquiat plays on these styles in order to legitimize both men as artists, as well as to legitimize them as intellectuals of social change. Haring’s figure is drawn in a rough yet controlled manner. The gestural coloring and prominent outlines of his body are emblematic of Basquiat’s signature style, as are the rigidly rendered arms and legs, which demonstrate Basquiat’s childlike approach to figuration. The halo that radiates above Haring’s head echoes similar imagery in works like Untitled (Boxer), and Untitled (Fallen Angel); however, what distinguishes this halo from the others is the word ‘FAMOUS’ centered in its core, which elevates Haring to a particularly revered status.
As can be seen throughout Basquiat’s oeuvre, he saw no discrepancies between his drawing and painting practices. He believed that no hierarchy existed between either medium, and he regarded his works on paper and his works on canvas with equal importance. As the critic Robert Storr states, “Drawing for him was something you did rather than something done, an activity rather than a medium.” (D. Buchhart, Basquiat, exh. cat., Fondation Beyeler, Basel, 2010, p. 10). Basquiat had an affinity for other draughtsman such as Cy Twombly and Leonardo da Vinci, the latter of whose anatomical studies provided much basis to Basquiat’s own anatomical proliferations as seen in this work. With Twombly, Basquiat admired his lyricism and the freedom of his drawings. He began to produce works that were expressionistic in style, combining da Vinci’s visual intensity and Twombly’s unrestricted conventions to create a unique genre unto himself. Artist and poet, Basquiat possessed the ability to capture the New York subculture in which he fostered and belonged. As Marc Meyer, the curator of the Basquiat retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum, states, “He papers over all other voices but his own, hallucinating total control of his proprietary information as if he were the author of all he transcribed, every diagram, every formula, every…character.” (M. Meyer, Basquiat in History, “Basquiat, exh. cat., Brooklyn Museum, New York, 2005, p. 48).
The early 1980s saw Basquiat beginning to gain a reputation as one of the most stimulating and innovative artists in New York, having been boosted from street artist to artistic wunderkind in fewer than two years. At the beginning of Basquiat’s career in 1981, the artist was painting on found objects such as discarded windows, doors, pieces of wood and metal—the detritus of New York City. Later that year, he was transformed into an incumbent art star, installed in a spacious studio in the basement of Annina Nosei's Prince Street gallery and exhibiting around the world. Untitled (Keith Haring) was created at the crux of this transformative period and displays the potent iconography and artistic energy that has captivated both critics and collectors alike. Drawn in 1983, four years after Basquiat met Haring, it references Haring’s time spent in Milan working on a special project for Elio Fiorucci alongside friend and protégé LA II. The work therefore reaffirms not only Basquiat and Haring’s friendship but also their similar story: two young men propelled from subversive street artists to world-renowned gallery artists in a matter of years.