Painted using boldly stylised lines in Sumi ink, a nod to the East Asian calligraphic techniques that Haring admired, the present work straddles the divide of American Abstract Expressionism and Pop art in an immensely inventive fashion. Playful drips of ink running down the surface of the work are contrasted with the hard lines that delineate the composition, the gravitas of the tortured Abstract Expressionist diminished by the cartoonish subject matter; however the action of painting itself bears comparison. Just as Jackson Pollock’s rhythmic assault on the canvas has been canonised, so too has the primal dance of Haring’s own process; a balletic exchange between brush and canvas. Moreover, the all-over composition of the work nods not only to Abstract Expressionism but to Jean Dubuffet and Pierre Alechinsky, both of whom were cited by Haring as major influences. In reference to the latter, whose show at the Museum of Art at the Carnegie Institute Haring said he went to “I don’t know how many times”, he commented that Alechinsky’s work “totally blew me away… it changed everything for me” (Keith Haring cited in: Exh. Cat., Milan, Fondazione Triennale di Milano, The Keith Haring Show, 2005-06, pp. 133 and 135). However, despite his own admission of the influence of both Alechinsky and Dubuffet, Haring was in truth a unique talent. As Peter Halley commented in reference to his contemporary: “I would say that he was one of few artists around 1980 that did not seem to be appropriating or referencing another style… that’s the strength of the work… he looks ahead” (Peter Halley cited in: Ibid., p. 89).
The two sections of the canvas proffer differing visions. The upper register presents a scene of joyful abandon, with a DJ presiding over an ecstatic group of dancers, raising a vinyl in the air like a totemic idol. Two gyrating figures to his right lift their arms in adulation, and to his left we see two iconic figures, the four handed robot DJ – his technological advances rendered redundant by the musical invention of the dog – and the happy penis, representing sexual liberation. In contrast, the lower register, for all its frank depiction of homoerotic lust, carries a sense of threat, notably in the two barking dogs that surround the central couple. These recurring figures are contemporary re-imaginings of the half-human half-jackal Egyptian deity Anubis, the god of the dead. Traditionally representing the forces of authoritarian government and the abuse of power, the dogs’ positions on either side of the duo – dominating the subservient figure and snarling at the other – reference discrimination against the gay community. In contrast, to the right, a single figure joyfully throws his hands in the air, as the dog to his right faces out of the picture plane. Left in peace by the authoritarian powers, the figure is as free from oppression as the couple is subjugated, their tormentors’ complicity in the sexual acts they abhor provides an affirmation of the hypocrisy of their stance.
The existence of these two registers, one underscoring Haring’s joyous embrace of life and hope for the future, the other his apprehension about what was to come and discontent with the present, forms part of a vital vernacular within Haring’s work – his ceaseless preoccupation with life and death, and the corresponding symbols of heaven and hell. As Ralph Melcher noted in his text for an exhibition dedicated to precisely this symbolic thrust, so evident in August 15, there was for Haring an underlying “background of questions about the meaning of life in the face of power, fear, misery, illness, and in the end the absurdity of death. Fluctuation between hope and hopelessness did not allow his creative energy to flag, but spurred him on, as far as it was possible, to paint not only against the hell of others but also against his own decline” (Ralph Melcher, Exh. Cat., Freiburg and Rotterdam, Keith Haring: Heaven and Hell, 2001, p. 20).
Hugely inventive in its iconographic composition and symbolic weight, August 15 is an immensely elegant and accomplished work from a pivotal stage of Haring’s career. Epitomising his conscientious approach to art, confronting issues of homophobia, government and technological advancement, this work presents two divergent visions of the future, one where the autocratic government persecutes minorities, and the other where they preside over a joyful utopia. Heaven and hell, life and death, August 15 exemplifies the symbolic power of Haring’s art while typifying his beloved and deeply idiosyncratic style.
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