The exuberant figures that sprung from the mind and hand of Keith Haring in the 1970s and ’80s are among the most enduring images to emerge from the heyday of New York’s East Village scene. The artist created his exuberant visual style directly on the city streets and subway platforms, tapping into the energy all around him as he performed for the people rushing around him. Now, the graphic, nearly hieroglyphic figures that made the pioneering graffiti artist famous are on display in a new exhibition at Paris’s Galerie Laurent Strouk.
Among the works in the exhibition is a black-and-blue interpretation of one of Haring’s most iconic figures: the radiant child. Featuring the form of a crawling baby reduced to a few simple gestures, the image is filled with wriggling lines that form a vibrant pattern over the entirety of the surface. This same energy carries through the rest of the works in the show, many of them untitled: one trio of figures appears to radiate joy as squiggles shoot out from them; another group of bodies merges into and out of one another, their limbs seemingly in upbeat motion as if they were dancing.
Haring’s interest in this type of diagrammatic all-over decoration stems in part from his interest in the Art Brut and artists like Jean Dubuffet, whose public art installation Group of Four Trees was a part of the scenery of lower Manhattan by the time Haring arrived in the city from Pennsylvania in 1978. While the crisp black lines of Dubuffet’s sculpture are reflected throughout Haring’s oeuvre, the artist pulled inspiration from other sources as well. There is a clear legacy of Pop Art—and comics in particular—present in his work, from the way he evokes motion and emotion through line to the squares with which he framed his work. The experimental, anything-goes ethos of William S. Burroughs and Brion Gysin, Haring’s Bowery neighbors, surely inspired a bit of the artist’s devil-may-care attitude toward using the city as his canvas.
Now, nearly 25 years after Haring’s untimely death at age 31 from an AIDS-related illness, the Paris show resurrects some of the artist’s signature symbols, like spaceships and dollar signs. Paired with stark backgrounds in high-contrast colors like orange and white—a visual echo of the white chalk on black paper he developed in the subway system—the images feel as bold and fresh as when they were during the artist’s brief life. “There are places you can stop drawing and call it finished,” Haring once wrote. “But it is never really finished until time and space itself are finished.”