In 1981, the young Keith Haring was a newcomer to the New York City art scene as having grown up in rural Pennsylvania, he moved to New York to study painting at the School of Visual Arts. During these early years, Haring became known for his cartoon-like images that were actually composed of carefully layered motifs dealing with themes of social activism.
This Untitled ink and water color on paper work from 1981 deals with one of Haring’s main themes, society’s attitudes towards sexuality. The religious overtones, detectable by the church spire and the sequence of figures that appear to be tumbling out of the church, are in a state of chaos. This chaotic feeling is underscored by the splattered red paint that is incongruous to the thick black lines in the rest of the image. An air of drama emanates from the work—perhaps visualizing his own personal struggle with his homosexual identity and the small town mentality he was in the midst of breaking away from at this early stage of his career.
The image not only demonstrates Haring’s iconic style that was in its infancy at this early point in his career, but also the image documents Haring’s early influences. The red splattering in the piece evokes the work of Abstract Expressionists such as Jackson Pollock or Willem de Kooning while also referencing scribbles of graffiti artists in Haring’s New York environment. In fact, the figures in the image are derived from Haring’s iconic “radiant baby” that became his graffiti signature when he began street tagging in 1980. Keith Haring, along with Jean-Michel Basquiat, was a meteoric star in American art during the 1980s, exhibiting and working on projects throughout the USA, Europe and Asia, and his work became a symbol of the tribal undercurrents that permeated metropolitan life during the period.