"My drawings don't try to imitate life; they try to create life, to invent life," Keith Haring proclaimed in 1980 (as cited by Julia Gruen, Keith Haring Graphics, exh. cat.). Forging a graffiti-influenced style that was distinctly his own, the artist experienced a meteoric rise to fame in the 80s, which was cut short too soon in 1990. This boldly painted tarpaulin that Haring created in 1983 features his signature motifs of the dog and crawling baby, and perfectly captures his dynamic, fluid, street-inflected style.
Arriving in New York to study at the School of Visual Arts in 1978, Haring quickly became entranced by the graffiti artists who spread their marks on the streets and in the subways. Finding their populist, renegade approach to art more thrilling than the confines of the class room and traditional art institutions, Haring started creating his own graffiti art in 1980 clandestinely on the subway. He then translated the personal visual language that he developed into a vast array of mediums. Haring's art flourished as an integral part of the downtown scene in New York that revolved around the East Village, where a heady range of alternative movements collided, such as hip-hop, punk and new wave.
Haring quickly developed an instantly recognizable style, using bold outlines and simplified silhouettes that he could apply with masterfully fluid ease either on the run or in the studio. Recognized for his prodigious talent, he was offered a solo exhibit at the Tony Shafrazi Gallery in 1982. As Haring recalled, "for the show I wanted to do some big paintings, which I had resisted to doing all along. The reason was that I had an aversion to canvas. I always felt I would 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-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" (Haring, as quoted in John Gruen, Keith Haring, the Authorized Biography, New York, Prentice Hall Press, 1991, p. 85). Haring instead adopted an alternative medium that he discovered on the street, when he came across some Con Edison workers covering their work with vinyl tarpaulins. He located their supplier, and had custom tarpaulins made, specifying the colors he wanted and the spacing of the grommets. Haring worked with vinyl tarpaulin between 1982 and 1985, during which time he created some of his most vivid large-scale paintings.
One of the main elements of Haring's style is its pulsating, irrepressible energy, which he associated with the life-giving quality of art that unites the Aboriginal, Aztec, Egyptian styles that are inflected in his work. Yet Haring was also deeply committed to depicting the darker side of contemporary life, and his vision in the present work is exuberant but also apocalyptic. The central figure of the dog seems to have turned rabid and bites its tail as an atomic symbol hovers over its shoulder and a mushroom cloud billows below. Three crawling babies are victims of the fallout, their faces covered in red "x" marks. At the moment of its creation in 1983, the AIDS epidemic and fear of nuclear proliferation were seeping into the public consciousness, Haring responded to directly in his works such as his posters for public awareness campaigns. In 1982, Haring handed out 20,000 posters that he paid for himself in Central Park during a demonstration against nuclear proliferation, which included the same motifs of the mushroom cloud, victimized babies and atomic symbol seen here. Haring's colorful, large-scale composition on tarpaulin captures both the vibrancy of his style and the importance of social consciousness in his work.