Untitled is painted black and within its body are bold, contrasting crimson lines, which embody Haring’s archetypal mode in their fluidity and dynamism. Untitled was executed in collaboration with Kermit Oswald, the artist’s close childhood friend from his hometown in Pennsylvania. Oswald provided the wood, while Haring shaped the base and incised his vision onto its surface to form the present unique, sculptural relief. Haring’s artistic energy and painterly assuredness, particularly his confident draftsmanship, are translated into carving, evoking the unmistakable sense of vitality and authenticity found in the artist’s sculptural practice.
The composition within Haring’s figure is filled to the brim with action; anchored by a central circular cavity, the artist’s iconic symbols and characters populate the surface in a flurry of activity. Organized with a playful symmetry, Haring’s radiant babies, dancing figures, sphinxes and vibrating, aura-like line work fill every space. More than just a collection of playful imagery, Haring’s composition relies on a highly considered symbolism that reflects his view of society. The radiant babies crawling toward the center of the figure communicate a sense of youthful innocence, while the center is dominated by a circular void, referencing death and violence. In this way, Untitled is a consummate example of Haring’s ability to forge meaning from a visually accessible lexicon. In Haring’s own words: “the symbols are self-explanatory and straightforward but the combinations of them the way they’re rearranged and juxtaposed, sometimes contradicts. It’s not a straight ‘point A to point B,’ where everything always means the same thing” (Keith Haring in Sylvie Courderc, “Keith Haring’s World,” in Keith Haring, Exh. Cat., Bordeaux, CAPC Musée d'art contemporain, 1985, p. 38).
Haring was both a keen observer of, and a significant participant in, shifts in contemporary street culture, and strove to find new ways to integrate the spirit and vitality of hip-hop into his artistic practice. As the artist explained: “1982 to 1984 was the peak of rap music and breakdancing…breaking and spinning on the floor and doing these athletic, gymnastic dances on the floor…I incorporated things that I saw in breakdancing, electric boogie, and deejays into my drawings...A lot of my inspiration was coming out of watching break-dancers, so my drawings started spinning on their heads and twisting and turning all around. The work directly referenced hip-hop culture” (Keith Haring in John Gruen et al., Keith Haring, New York, 2008, p. 236). Untitled is borne of this influence, elegantly compressing the vibrancy and movement of breakdancing into a solid stationary form. Not content with making overly literal references, Haring complicated this influence, flattening his form to recall Egyptian hieroglyphs and including sphinxes to draw parallels between ancient cultural achievements and contemporary modes of expression.
Bringing together these disparate influences, Haring implores his viewer to engage in greater observation of the world, to make connections between examples of high and mass culture, and to take action. The vibrancy and sense of joy in Untitled are problematized by the ambiguity of its imagery, reflecting, in Haring’s view, the role the privilege inherent to an often cloistered and elite art world can have in masking social hardship. In the words of Tony Shafrazi, Haring’s gallerist at the time the work was executed, “to understand and appreciate Keith Haring, it is important to recognize what was central to his driving force: the absolutely fearless and unabashedly shameless desire to run out and embrace the real world, while transgressing and crossing over boundaries and barriers of race and culture, and while experiencing and transporting the simples truths of innocence, love, friendship” (Tony Shafrazi, “Keith Haring. A Great Artist, A True Friend,” in Exh. Cat., The Keith Haring Show, Milan 2005, p. 72). The present work concretizes that artistic ethos, projecting out beyond the bounds of the wall and into the real world.
"When I paint, it is an experience that, at its best, is transcending reality. When it is working, you completely go to another place, you're tapping into things that are totally universal, of the total consciousness, completely beyond your ego and your own self."
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