Transcending the infinite stillness of the sculptural condition, in its animated, rhythmic composition and bold yellow hue, Keith Haring’s Julia joyfully recollects the artist’s participation in the vibrant dance culture of 1980s New York. On the floors of The Roxy and Paradise Garage, alongside famous DJs such as Larry Levan and Afrika Bambaataa, whom the artist counted as some of his closest friends, Haring and his generation fervently asserted their existence, dancing in the face of the looming threat of the AIDS epidemic. Executed in aluminium, standing over a metre in height, Julia is a schematic representation of the human body, devoid of any individual features, instantly evoking the recognizable, graffiti-art aesthetic that was the basis of Haring’s entire body of work. Yet in the expansive flight of its arms, in the latent energy contained in the bend of its knees, in the poise of its half-lifted foot, Julia seems to spin and turn, capturing the movements of the breakdancers, voguers and capoeira dancers which filled Haring’s frenetic nights, played on his mind and spilled over into his art.
Julia is also a deeply personal tribute to the energy and vitality of the artist’s confidante, Julia Gruen. Beginning as the artist’s assistant and studio manager in 1984, Julia’s professional relationship with Haring soon intensified into the powerful bond of genuine friendship. In 1989, a year before Haring’s premature death from AIDS, Julia was appointed director of the Keith Haring Foundation, a post she continues to hold today. With poignant, heartfelt longing, Julia recalled her time with Haring: ‘For six years I worked alongside him – at first in his studio and office at Broadway and Houston Streets, and then a few blocks north, in a larger space, where I still work today, fifteen years after his death, twenty-one years after we met… Every day I walk into his studio, where the ghosts of his paintings have bled onto the walls. This is where I work. It is the same place that used to reverberate with the bass-line of the relentless dance music he constantly listened to, a space that quivered with the kinetic energy he exuded and the unending flow of visitors he welcomed at all hours. It isn’t like that any more. It hasn’t been, not for a long, long time. Nevertheless, I’m still here. I’m here because he asked me to stay. I’m here because his life gave more meaning to mine’ (J. Gruen, ‘Untitled’ in The Keith Haring Show, exh. cat., La Triennale di Milano, Milan, 2005, pp. 29-30).
Infused with energy and dynamism, friendship and trust, Julia is an exceptional work, which both exemplifies Haring’s signature aesthetic, so iconic of his time, and reveals the artist’s vivid, vulnerable humanity. In Haring’s own words, ‘once you cut this thing out of steel and put it up, it’s a real thing. It has a kind of power that a painting doesn’t have. It has this permanent, real feeling that will exist much, much, much longer than I will ever exist, so it’s a kind of immortality.’ (K. Haring, quoted in D. Drenger, ‘Art and Life: An Interview with Keith Haring’, in Columbia Art Review, spring, 1988, p. 49).