Keith Haring, ‘Untitled’, 1990, Sotheby's: Contemporary Art Day Auction

From the Catalogue

Keith Haring’s Untitled from 1983 showcases the artist’s propensity for conveying pulsating movement through forms distilled to their most basic, essential components. Evoking cave painting in its vigorous immediacy and exceptionally poised economy of form, the present work also energetically invokes the unrivaled creative dynamism of New York City graffiti culture of the 1980s. As scholar and curator Gianni Mercurio writes, “Haring pursued the objectives he had set himself with resolve; on the artistic plane, he worked towards the reduction of forms and concepts to the primary elements of line and aspired to a hybrid of painting and writing. Adopting a system of expression inspired in part by Egyptian hieroglyphics and Japanese, Chinese, or Mayan pictograms, he developed a means of formal communication” (Gianni Mercurio and Julia Gruen, The Keith Haring Show, Milan 2006, pp. 26-27). The present work evidences a graphic symmetry and kinetic gestural motion that has clearly been influenced by these aforementioned pictograms.

In Untitled the artist employed his instantly recognizable, culturally pervasive pictorial language of bold contoured lines and exuberantly peripatetic stick figures. Two alien arms extend from the central figure, pushing away two of the characters. An itineration of the same, smaller figures pull at the half empty alien head at the center of the canvas—seemingly trying to tear it apart. These figures seem to be fighting against the more human figures, a narrative that is conveyed forcefully with limited color and absolutely no shading. Haring was influenced by graffiti art; however he boldly departs from the egotistical tag-culture employing a very clean, organized composition in the present work. A viewer experiences Haring’s desire to remove his work from the mundaneness of everyday life and add fantastical elements into his practice: “For Haring, painting was an experience that at its best allowed him to transcend reality, to go somewhere else, completely outside his own ego and self. This was a radically different experience from the one that lay behind the culture of the tag, which entailed a monotonous affirmation of writer’s ego, traced in clearly visible letters in every corner of the metropolis” (ibid., p. 19).

In Untitled, Haring depicts two extraterrestrial figures with eyes marked with bright red X’s in place of eyes. The red-crosses in the canvas rematerializes in Haring’s quintessential social advocacy graphics, from his anti-apartheid “Free South Africa” poster to the epochal “Act Up” AIDS activism images that are seared into the communal memory—one of the most potent symbols of Haring’s unrelenting public iconicity. As storied gallerist and unwavering proponent of the artist, Tony Shafrazi noted, “To understand and appreciate Keith Haring, it is important to recognize what was central to his driving force: the absolutely fearless and unabashedly shameless desire to run out and embrace the real world, while transgressing and crossing over boundaries and barriers of race and culture, and while experiencing and transporting the simple truths of innocence, love and friendship, upholding and expressing values and ethics that live forever in the heart of youth.” One of the most celebrated artists working in New York during the 1980s, Keith Haring tapped into the zeitgeist of this vibrant decade, a period in which music and art flourished within a culture of conspicuous consumption, yet which was also overshadowed by the horrors of AIDS and drug abuse. Executed in a pared-down palette within a perfect square, the iconicity of Untitled reinforces the energy within the scene. Untitled is at once lyrical and balanced, and is reflective of Haring’ most beloved compositions.

Courtesy of Sotheby's

Signature: signed and dated Jan-90 Paris on the overlap; signed and dated Jan-90 Paris on the stretcher

Paris, Centre Wallonie-Bruxelles; Le Crac de Valence, Les Premiers et Les Derniers: Confrontations d'art Africain et Océanien à l'art Contemporain dans les Collections Belges, July 2000 - January 2001

Danièle Gillemon, "Faux ou vrais frères?," Le Soir, 19 July 2000, illustrated
"Premiers d'Avant-Garde," France TGV, July 2000, illustrated

Collection Groenige, Belgium
Private Collection, Brussels (acquired from the above)
Thence by decent to the present owner

About Keith Haring

Bridging the gap between the art world and the street, Keith Haring rose to prominence in the early 1980s with his graffiti drawings made in the subways and on the sidewalks of New York City. Combining the appeal of cartoons with the raw energy of Art Brut artists like Jean DuBuffet, Haring developed a distinct pop-graffiti aesthetic centered on fluid, bold outlines against a dense, rhythmic overspread of imagery like that of babies, barking dogs, flying saucers, hearts, and Mickey Mouse. In his subway drawings and murals, Haring explored themes of exploitation, subjugation, drug abuse, and rising fears of nuclear holocaust, which became increasingly apocalyptic after his AIDS diagnosis. Alongside Jean-Michel Basquiat, Kenny Scharf, and Jenny Holzer, Haring is regarded as a leading figure in New York East Village Art scene in the 1970s and '80s.

American, 1958-1990, Reading, Pennsylvania, based in New York, New York