Tony Shafrazi, “Keith Haring. A Great Artist, A True Friend,” in Exh. Cat., The Keith Haring Show, Milan 2005, p. 72
Executed in the most intensely political period in Keith Haring’s meteoric career, Healing Hand is a consummate example of the artist’s trademark blend of a playful, graphic style with a commitment to addressing societal ills and matters of inequity. Featuring the artist’s most recognizable symbol, the dynamic human figure, this monumental painting endures as a symbol of Haring’s belief in the transformative potential for art to confront real-world issues.
Measuring 120 inches in diameter, Healing Hand is of a scale akin to Haring’s widely celebrated major public works from the same period. The canvas is vibrant, featuring a full chromatic range dominated by a hand delineated in a jolting orange standing against a soothing purple ground, inflected with passages of yellow, blue, and crimson. The composition is anchored by this hand, palm extended out and bleeding from the wrist, dually recalling the foreshortened palm known as the mudra in Buddhist iconography, as well as the Christian iconography of the stigmata.
While recalling these religious images, Haring makes the form all his own. He numbers each finger, morphing them into simplified anthropomorphic figures, and inflecting a playful linguistic duality between “fingers” and “figures.” Haring further complicates the composition through the thumb, which holds a flap of skin, beneath which blood flows from the eye shaped wound. All around this dynamic scene, there are radiating bars as well as the rhythmic, automatic line drawings which fill the negative space in the composition, and reference Haring’s infamous tags in the New York City subway.
Haring’s artistic prowess is on full display in Healing Hand. The work is exemplary of Haring’s painterly assuredness and confident line. The negative space is resplendent with Haring’s linear markings, and the work vibrates with his frenetic energy. Each line is evenly spaced from the other, implying a trancelike rapidity and accuracy in their execution, as well as a sense that nothing was left untouched by the artist. This assuredness and mastery over the canvas also translates to Haring’s bold use of color, which pulsates and grabs the eye.
Much of Haring’s genius lay in his ability to take simple compositional ingredients and forge from them a complex and multifaceted narrative that touches on global themes. Raised in Pennsylvania by an engineer father and homemaker mother, Haring had an early fascination with Disney cartoons and the work of Dr. Seuss, as well as an overwhelming artistic drive to master these popular artistic modes. Haring’s complete control over this highly legible artistic vocabulary is evidenced by the endurance of his human figures, dogs, rays, and other symbols as proxies for his signature to the present day. Despite the accessibility of these symbols, Haring was adept at forging unexpected combinations to create new meaning. In his 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., Bourdeaux 1985, p. 38).
Healing Hand revels in these contradictions. Through his numbering system, which situates the middle finger as “1,” Haring brings to mind the expletive and the act. When considered in tandem with the diametrically opposed wound, the composition functions as a visual manifestation of the tension between pleasure and pain. Healing Hand was executed one year after Haring’s AIDS diagnosis, and addresses notions of healing and helplessness, and can be seen as confronting a negligent healthcare system and a community struggling to heal itself. A singular master of a universal visual language, Haring took the most basic ingredients and made them potent symbols, crafting Healing Hand as a lasting call for empathy and support.
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