Elisabeth Sussman in Exh. Cat., New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, Keith Haring, 1997, p. 18
An electrifying composition of yellow, red, and black, Keith Haring’s Untitled from 1983 reveals the artist's remarkable application of Pop imagery and tabulated symbolic language as a mode of capturing the booming social culture of the downtown New York scene in the early eighties. Saturated in Haring's most iconic symbols, including the television, the barking dog and red Xs, Untitled bears witness to Haring’s belief in the power of art to not only reflect culture but also transform it. Having long considered himself a part of a radical new era in America, Haring harnessed art as a vehicle through which he could speak of and for his fellow generation. In Untitled, Haring relishes the electric culture of nightclubs, free love, and television while also hinting at or warning against the underlying menace of explosive culture and technologies—an underbelly that consisted of sex, drugs, and nuclear power. The brazen painterly abandon of the present work indeed elicits a sense of climatic convergence, as if we are transported to the dark basement of the East Village Mudd Club, where the kinetic energy of bodies accelerates in tandem with the pulsating beat of the percussion.
This vibrant work is notable for its exceptionally sumptuous yellow drips cascading and defining the red linear outlines. While Haring here deploys similar forms as in his famous subway chalk drawings, the nuanced balance between the expressiveness of his drips juxtaposed against the hard-edge linearity of his shapes exemplifies Haring’s mastery over the painterly medium, bridging his kitschy Pop iconography with the critical gravitas of Abstract Expressionism. At the epicenter of the present work, a centipede-like creature dominates a man on his knees, arms outstretched. Boasting a UFO as its head and a television in place of its hand, this monstrous creature upon further reflection is an anthropomorphized version of mass media. The large X on its body is Haring’s way of “tagging” this creature as a threat. Below the central altercation, Haring’s trademark barking dog emerges from the bottom left corner as another symbol of warning or imminent danger. Lines radiate from the dog’s mouth and multiply across the expanse of the picture plane in an effort to reinforce the movement, dancing, and raw vigor of the scene. These various symbols embedded in the present work portray an image of mass media physically taking dominion over humanity, leading towards a cultural explosion fueled by the thunderous growth of 1980s computer and television culture. Though Untitled is seeped in Haring’s thoughtful concern and reflection upon the radical socio-political and technological consciousness of his generation, it is nevertheless a fundamentally celebratory image that echoes his own proclamation: “I don’t think art is propaganda; it should be something that liberates the soul, provokes the imagination and encourages people to go further. It celebrates humanity” (the artist in Keith Haring Journals, New York 2010, p. xiii).
Untitled epitomizes Haring’s brilliant ability to convey movement through forms distilled to their most basic, essential components. Here, Haring’s confident hand draws bold, self-assured strokes, eschewing a premeditated schematic plan for spontaneous genius. Never erasing or reworking, Haring’s gestural ingenuity flows directly through his brush onto the tarpaulin. Just as we can visualize Pollock vigorously taking paint to canvas, revealing his heroic genius with every gestural flair, Untitled analogously conjures Haring’s performance of painting—the ineluctable motion of the image parallels Haring’s own instinctive, primal dance with brush and canvas. Describing Haring’s painterly process as an outgrowth of his unstoppable passion for dancing, Robert Farris Thompson eloquently comments: “Bent over, barefoot and bare chested, [Haring] let his patterns take him where they would. He worked in a tight combination of order… and ecstasy, letting interlocking abstract patterns push, pull and jostle one another like excited dancers on a ballroom floor” (Robert Farris Thompson, “Notes in the Art and Life of Keith Haring,” in Exh. Cat., Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, Keith Haring: The Political Line, 2014, p. 47).
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