Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Fall of the Rebel Angels, 1562
Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels
Image: © Bridgeman Images

Against a backdrop of acid yellow, a teaming expanse of fantastical beasts and hybrid creatures inhabit Keith Haring’s Untitled from 1984. Intertwined and tessellating, each motif is inextricably linked: from a six-legged caterpillar to a winged donkey and skeleton with a fully animated brain, each creature is certainly more bizarre and surreal than the next. Amidst the chaos, Haring’s inimitable dancing figures populate the scene: running amok in the upper register of the composition, they form a crimson ocean of jumping, waving, and summersaulting forms in the lower half of the canvas. Eschewing conventional depth and pictorial perspective, Haring’s composition coveys an urgent immediacy. The result is a consummately engaging painting: at once amusing and engrossing, beautiful and terrifying. Part of the respected Friedrich E. Rentschler Collection (FER Collection) until 2004, this painting comes to auction from a distinguished private collection.

“At this time, in ’84, I had started doing these really detailed, almost surreal, scary monster paintings that had all these weird configurations. They were combinations of science fiction and this strange nuclear aftermath.”
Keith Haring quoted in: Jeffrey Deitch, Suzanne Geiss, and Julia Gruen, 'Keith Haring', New York 2008, p. 306.

1984 ushered in a new phase of greater pictorial complexity and emotional engagement in Haring’s ouevre. At the centre of a generation and a community devastated by the tragic onset of the AIDS crisis, a fatalistic quality emerged in the artist’s work. In the years prior to his own HIV diagnosis in 1988, Haring delved into darker themes of mortality, myth, and transformation. In his own words: “things have seriously changed in New York, and in my life, because the horror of AIDS had come to light. It totally changed people’s lives” (Keith Haring cited in: John Gruen, Keith Haring: The Authorized Biography, New York 1991, pp. 131-32). It is not only the centrality of the skeletal figure in Untitled that points to Haring’s growing awareness of the temporality of life. There is a nightmarish, apocalyptic quality to the scene; figures thrashing and writhing across a landscape resolutely divided into two distinct worlds: the mortal realm and a fiery underworld. Indeed, the distinction between good and evil is undoubtedly at play in Untitled. Raised in a church-going protestant family, Haring was a member of the Jesus Saves movement as a teenager, and as a result became fixated with the concept of the second coming. It was the Book of Revelation that most captivated the young artist, offering “a veritable storehouse of trenchant visual imagery” that would play a significant role in his mature oeuvre (David Galloway, ‘The Marriage of Heaven and Hell’, The Keith Haring Foundation, online).

With its moralising tone, Untitled sits within in a long and rich artistic tradition of great masters grappling with themes of apocalyptic doom, righteousness and mortality. Taking his cue from art historical predecessors, Untitled invites comparisons with a great variety of apocalyptic masterpieces in the tradition of the horror vacui. Perhaps most directly, Untitled speaks to the peculiar and impossible creatures that tumble and sprawl across Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s compositions, as famously evident in The Fall of the Rebel Angels of 1562. Haring riffs not only on Bruegel’s grotesque corporeal forms, but also the strict compositional divide that sends figures cascading and plummeting downwards towards a hellish abyss. Furthermore, Haring’s nightmarish landscape of fantastic beasts invites comparisons to Heironymus Bosch’s notorious depictions of heaven and hell, most famously The Garden of Earthly Delights, circa 1500. Indeed, Haring’s grotesque capricious creatures, and strong compositional structure also touches upon Bosch’s masterpiece, all the while maintaining the artist’s idiosyncratic and contemporaneous electrified tone – one that is indelibly tied to the dancing B-boys and nascent hip-hop scene of downtown New York in the 1980s.

Keith Haring in his New York City studio, 1983
Image: © Paulo Fridman/ Corbis via Getty Images
Artwork: ©The Keith Haring Foundation, 2020
Hieronymus Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights, 1490-1500
Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid
Image: © Bridgeman Images

Beyond these Northern European masters, Haring conducts a symphony of artistic references, from William Blake’s images of the Last Judgement, to the interconnected line of Jean Dubuffet, and the frenzied automative compositions of Mark Tobey. Untitled offers a supreme example of Haring’s idiosyncratic style, amalgamating art historical influences with Pop culture references from the worlds of graffiti and hip hop. Quoting from the biblical, the folklorish and the contemporary in Untitled, Haring firmly positions himself within a lineage of the great figures of art history, newly interpreting the apocalypse for his own atomic age.