Contemporary Art

Discoveries: Keith Haring Contemporary Highlight Consigned Online

By Mark Stephen

T his large painting on paper by Keith Haring was consigned to Sotheby’s from the online request an estimate service. It was one of the star lots of the June 2018 Contemporary Art Evening Auction, where it sold for just under £2 million, making it the highest value painting consigned online to date.

The painting, executed in 1983, was shown in the travelling 1984 exhibition Arte di frontiera: New York Graffiti. It was then purchased from the Salvatore Ala gallery in Milan by the client’s mother in 1987 and has been in the same family ever since.

Haring in the mid-1980s was recognised as an important up-and-coming artist but was certainly not the household name he is today. His first one man show at the Tony Shafrazi gallery in 1982 was a great success and helped to elevate him from his status as a radical subway graffiti artist to a mainstream artist. The two highest value auction art records for Haring in 1987 were $13,200 and $11,000, so the rise in financial terms since then is nothing short of staggering.

What was striking about Haring was his energy, not only in his constant work and projects throughout the 1980s all over the United States and Europe, but also in his painting. One can see in August 15 the streaks of ink dripping down the canvas and sense the confidence and speed of his brushwork.

Haring had found his unique style by now, having developed a range of almost cartoon like figures to populate his art from his days of painting on the New York subway. The subway became, as Haring said, a “laboratory” for working out his ideas and experimenting with his simple lines.

He was influenced by Dubuffet’s primitive art, the paintings of Pierre Alechinsky "that blew him away" and the writings of William Burroughs, whose themes on the difference between human power and the power of animal instinct struck a chord with Haring. Haring’s own art was unique. His legacy is that his invented vocabulary is so easily identified and caught the imagination of his generation in the eighties. As he said himself: “I became associated with New York and the hip-hop scene, which was all about graffiti and rap music and break dancing.

It had existed for five years or more, but it hadn't really started to cross over into the general population. It was incredibly interesting to me that it was reaching all kinds of people in different levels from different backgrounds” and: “[It surprised me] that the work, as early as 1982, which was before I had any exhibitions…had already spread throughout the world. People saw it as something that wasn’t really by one artist but was a vocabulary open to anyone. T-shirts appeared in Japan and sneakers in Brazil and dresses in Australia, way before I ever made any commercial object like that…”

However his work was deeper than just this vocabulary of strange figures, barking dogs and half man-half Egyptian jackal figures, for it conveyed the themes of liberty and freedom against authoritarian government, the fight of the gay community against prejudice and hostility, and a preoccupation with life and death, heaven and hell.

In this painting divided into two registers, yet perfectly harmonised, the top register with a figure spinning discs shows Haring’s embrace for life and hope for the future, while the lower register shows his apprehension for the present, with snarling dogs each side of the human figures representing oppression and hostility. The two registers with a pattern of figures harmonise perfectly into a stunning work.

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