‘[Sculpture] has a kind of power that a painting doesn't have. You can't burn it. It would survive a nuclear blast probably. It has this permanent, real feeling that will exist much much longer than I will ever exist, so it's a kind of immortality. All of it I guess, to a degree, is like that... All of the things that you make are a kind of quest for immortality' (K. Haring, quoted in Flash Art, March 1984, p. 22).
Untitled (Two Dancing Figures) is a jubilant sculpture by Keith Haring, in which the distinctive silhouettes that brought him widespread popularity have been joyously brought to life. Painted in day-glo yellow and red, the two figures no longer look like metal. Arm in arm and starting their own ‘can-can’, they are exquisitely counterpoised and counterbalanced in perfect Haring style. Very few artists could achieve such structural harmony. Executed in 1989, just one year before the artist’s untimely death, Untitled (Two Dancing Figures) is a particularly poignant sculpture that reaffirms Haring’s belief that ‘the contemporary artist has a responsibility to continue celebrating humanity’ (D. Drenger, ‘Art and Life: An Interview with Keith Haring,’ in Columbia Art Review, Spring 1988, p. 63).
Haring’s venture into sculpture came relatively late in his short but meteoric career. In 1985, prompted by the gallerist Tony Shafrazi, who suggested to him ‘Put your alphabet in the landscape, out there in the real world’, he produced a series of free-standing and brightly coloured figures that children were encouraged to play on so that the installation had ‘the atmosphere of a wild playground’ (T. Shafrazi, quoted in Keith Haring: Sculptures, Paintings and Works on Paper, exh., cat., Ben Brown Fine Arts, London, 2005, p. 22). Such a playful note is consistent throughout his work and clearly resonates in Two Dancing Figures. The medium was radically different from his paintings and early chalk drawings, and this translation into cut metal added a further dimension of reality to his work. The fabricated sculptures, employing recognisable human forms, contain an essence of inner life: a concern with stress, repose, substance and void, balance, arrested motion, horizontal versus vertical thrust. He was deeply influenced by Alexander Calder, admiring the ‘simple, clear, poetic quality to which anyone can respond. Kids like him, too, because his work has spirit, comes from the spirit’ (K. Haring, quoted in G. Celant (ed.), Keith Haring, New York 1997, p. 23). This works preserves that purity of line, and the spontaneous, childlike freshness united with a highly formalised sense of design, which he associated with Calder.
Like many of his motifs, Untitled (Two Dancing Figures) employs a universally recognised dance move that gives the feeling of vigorous motion frozen by a strobe light. Dance played a huge part in Haring’s life, working as a busboy at the famed Danceteria for some time in the 1980s. Kenny Scharf, Haring’s roommate in the early 80s remembers ‘dancing for hours. We danced space-age go-go, the jerk, the pony’ (K. Scharf, quoted in Keith Haring, exh. cat., Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1997, p. 214). He found constant stimulus in nightclubs, where he often staged exhibitions and performances and breakdancing was also a frequent inspiration. It comes as no surprise that roughly half of the artist’s sculptures employ dance motifs; his own self-portrait could be considered as one of these ebullient figures.
Haring’s sculptures owe much to the graphic lines of his paintings and drawings, but also to his broad-ranging interest in public art and performance, to his plunge into Hip-Hop culture, and to his admiration for Alexander Calder. The art historian Robert Farris Thompson described his work as a homage ‘to the downrockers, the electric boogie dancers, the capoeiristas, thanking them for proving to us that we were still alive’(op. cit., p.223). As Haring himself said: ‘art should be something that liberates the soul, provokes the imagination, and encourages people to go further’ (K. Haring, quoted in J. Deitch, J. Gruen, Keith Haring, New York 2008, p. 19).