Keith Haring images and biography
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Keith Haring
(1958-1990)

See also: Pop Art; Contemporary Art

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Keith Haring: Labyrinths of Life and Death

By Germano Celant

"For Keith Haring, painting was a crucible - a site of transformation, of birth and death, a place where objects, lines, colors, and forms went through a creative catharsis and were then transmuted in order to experience a tempest of personal and social, erotic and mystical impulses. This alchemy produced labyrinthal images filled with dreamlike flashes that absorbed the flow of figures and representations - some of them cruel and tragic, some of them playful and happy. Haring's physicalized language and his environmental and material poetry brought forth a network of interweaving signs that could act on the nervous system of a city such as New York, profoundly challenging the encoded and elitist system of art.

"Haring's visual tempests emerged from the boundless energy of gestures and movements externalized on city walls, the unceasing vitality of New York's everyday domestic decor, whereby his efforts altered the cityscape with its fantastic lifeblood and its libidinal power, its exciting colors and scenes of desire and collective drama. These teeming, overflowing mosaics of animal and human creatures, giants and monsters copulating, crossbreeding bizarrely, depict infernal scenes, in which the hero, black and homosexual, undergoes torture or submits to the deliriums of a society possessed by the demon of money and TV consumption. It is a wholeness, a fullness that Haring accepted unreservedly, with a kind of mystical participation, as if wanting to take on the job of "representing" a universe in which everything is excrement, sperm, sex, anarchy, cruelty, blood, and death. Resorting to a legacy of symbols and archetypes that lurk in the collective unconscious, Haring introduced a vortex of tremendous disorder, a spasmodic agglomerate of seething images. Latent things awoke, to reveal the authentic matrix of life and existence in a city such as that of New York, which revolves around frenzy, abnormality, and gratuitousness.

"Haring's paintings were feverish; they flouted economic laws and became a "gratuitous" energy that defied boundaries. They were conceived elsewhere, in the meanderings of the subway and on the flaking walls of Manhattan as well as on the lithe bodies of performers, from Grace Jones to Bill T Jones. These paintings were pulverized and then petrified as gadgets, or else turned into cartoons and children's stories. Everything was sacrificed to the maelstrom of an existence that burned airy and volatile images capable of leaving disquieting imprints in the shadowy world of publicity, television, billboards, theater, and dance.

"But what is the visual and subjective matrix of these tangles of highly condensed and feverish signs, these vortices of data figures that can pierce the minds of spectators who, conditioned by the emptiness and mediocrity of everyday images, are fascinated by the existential and erotic fullness of Haring's work? Why do his paintings and sculptures overflow with forms and colors, lines and tissues, and what obsession informs their density and passion? What is Haring's linguistic strategy, a strategy that recruits in an ardent organic atmosphere in which bodies mingle confusedly in an extremely intense and pullulating genital delirium of masturbation and copulation? What hallucinatory and oneiric universe has spawned his demons and angels? What vivifying breath has inspired a continuous formal and iconic creation that spills onto the stage of the world?

"Above all, the direct gesture and the fascination with live action were linked to Haring's earliest experiences as a live video and theatrical performer: from 1978 to 1980, he studied at New York's School of Visual Arts and performed at Club 57, identifying physically with his language. In verse and prose, in images and figures, he thereby reintegrated the vital force that circulated in the magma of his drives. Thus were born the tangles of poetry and music rea d or improvised in the basement on St. Mark's Place or videotaped, when Haring almost pierced the monitor surface with his face and mouth. Then, in 1981, it was with the real time of the video that Haring was "reflected" as if in an opaque mirror, discharging his liberating energy on the black, obstructed surfaces of subway billboards. Indeed, it was by means of video or theatrical action or performance - for instance, at the "Acts of Life Art Show" in June 1980 - that Haring managed to implement a creative ceremony aimed at the public and to sketch out a mise-en-scene of the artistic gesture - in verbal form or as a painting or a piece of sculpture.

"By abandoning himself to the TV camera or the Club 57 audience, Haring modified the usual artistic pose in order to externalize unconditionally. He succeeded in furnishing instantaneous information about his own existential and introspective condition, virtually displaying his own processes and creative data as they materialized. This helps us to understand his "live" drawings and paintings of his sensual and sexual, his political and social visions for all kinds of spectators - from subway riders to graffiti artists, from children to other artists. And we can likewise comprehend his chameleonlike adaptation to any type of object or environment -from an amusement park to his Pop Shop, from a theatrical backdrop to a clock, from a vase to a bicycle, from a T-shirt to a screen. Such an ability is typical of the aesthetics of TV and other kinds of spectacle, which aim more at the continuous flow of real time than at a selectivity of subjects.

"Furthermore, Haring never seems to stop- he never congeals in a fixed identity drawn from the fluidity of lines and images: he projects himself into an unbroken fullness that swarms with figurative ramifications and carnal hieroglyphics. He virtually yields to a "nuclear" reaction that develops a chain of libidinal and oneiric material or else loads it with its own spatiality and slakes off a new theater of operations without limits or frontiers, times or intervals.

"In Haring's paintings and drawings, the continuity is tied to the incessant motion of the line, which runs without caesuras, following its flow of awareness and fancy, developing bends and folds, lending weight and concreteness to labyrinthal conflicts, in eros, with its penetrations and couplings, filling all the gaps, joining and uniting all bodies. It was as if the line were striving to form a Pompeian mosaic of lecherous scenes triggered by a technological consciousness that tends to suggest the telematic constellation of the TV monitor or computer screen.

"It is no coincidence that many of Haring's works evoke the iconography of an atomic reaction and the mirror/screen of a TV set, whose neutrality twists and distorts the world. Frequently, this is inserted into, or superimposed upon, the head or bust of a barking dog or a human figure, and the depiction involves maximum information in minimum extension. Haring applies the same concentrative power to his flows of lines and images: with the exuberance of signs, they move from point to point, producing a "flux of visual awareness," which is inscribed in some other flux, such as the New York City subway, or in some other line, such as the Berlin Wall.

"In this sense, the turbine of his art seems to run uninterruptedly, devoid of memory and planning. Haring entrusts himself to technology, whereby, like a Zen monk, he becomes an instrument and filter of seeing and feeling. His is an open practice capable of mimicking the world. Mimesis is a search for complicity between art and society, and to this end, Haring, like Andy Warhol, moved through the media like a fish through water. He furnished a sufficiently clear image of himself through the repetition of several icons that circulated in the mass media: the radiant child, the barking dog, the dolphin, the pregnant woman, the flying saucer, Debbie Dick, the pyramid, and so forth. Each became a logo, a title, a slogan ("Crack Is Wack,"). Here, art was lost, turning into something else through transit - Art in Transit.

"This principle of transit implies the maximum experience of the present, an identification with the daily process of history. In fact, Haring sided with reality by distributing twenty thousand posters for an anti-nuclear rally in 1982 and for a "Free South Africa" campaign in 1985. He also participated in "Art Against AIDS," painting a mural, Together We Can Stop AIDS, in Barcelona; and he created an on-site work at the 1985 "Live Aid" concert benefiting African Famine Relief. At the same time, Haring got involved in the open system of the world; he focused on the present, not a future plan or utopia, and opened the Pop Shop in New York and Tokyo. Beginning in 1984, he collaborated with a variety of stars from the worlds of film, art, fashion, dance, and videomusic, including Brooke Shields, Andy Warhol, Jenny Holzer, Bill T Jones, Grace Jones, and Madonna.

"Haring served a public energy that amplified the news, giving it greater resonance. He became a mass-media event, a popular phenomenon of youth culture. His paintings eliminated distinctions between black and white, heterosexual and homosexual, human and animal, natural and artificial. He fed off any subject, immersing himself in its linear and figural universe, devouring it, and then expelling it. The exuberance of his spectacles revealed a certain situationist spirit, which moved him to give without wanting to receive. He drew thousands of images and stories in subways, and he did hundreds of yards of paintings in New York, Chicago, Pisa, Sydney, Berlin, Tama City, Atlanta, Barcelona - on the walls of schools, hospitals, and abandoned buildings - without receiving monetary payment. In this way, his discourse was socialized and mediated by children and all social strata. His challenge was a sacrificial one, a self-spectacle, as a moral and mystical alternative to an existence that tends to blur its own subjectivity in favor of a social and collective identity.

"Haring transformed his paintings into events, manifesting artistic life, artistic vitality in its pure state - whereby "life" meant nonrepetition and live creation. This led to his religious formation and culture (the adolescent Haring became a Boy Scout, almost a Jesus freak) and to a secret alliance with the notion that history is based on a precise design - that of the godly and the sacred.

"These tendencies explain Haring's rhetorical figures of the cross and the radiant aureola, the creature with the hole/soul, the Ten Commandments installation at Bordeaux's Mus6e d'Art Contemporain, the monstrous Saint Sebastian pierced not by arrows but by tiny airplanes. Then there was the symbolic force of diabolical numbers, such as 666, and of "maternity," reiterated in the figure of the pregnant woman," there was also the value of love in its associations and/or dialogue, as expressed in the two human figures holding a big, red heart; and finally, the theme of ascent, relating to the symbolism of stairs and the climb to a higher, ethereal and celestial condition.

"Observers have talked about the decorativeness of Haring's approach. In the pleasure of decorating is a vital wandering that cannot stop in any projetion on a surface or an object; it is a fruitful power that converts into any situation or condition, from a mobile to a mask, from a vase to bicycle wheels. For this reason, Haring's journey was also chaotic, for chaos is life, in which every element of creation opposes and contradicts stasis and definition. The same may be said of Haring's humor, which he applied to the deformities of bodies; his humor was meant to reactivate buried energies and to explode the serious fixity and compression of art.

"Haring's fluid and situational language passed through the elastic and flexible character of the line and the disarticulation or situational power of the representation. Self-liquefaction and interweaving were transfused into his iconography. Thus, as of 1981 he painted fantastic figures and creatures, such as a computer with a human head or a face with two eyes and three noses, or an extendible penis and tongue, or a nose transformed into a trunk. And in the animal realm, a dog, a centipede, a snake, a pig are hybrids with multiple faces and monstrous genitals. The result is a contemporary bestiary; unlike the medieval bestiary with its sirens and unicorns, its insect knights and locust warriors, which were also typical of Oriental frescoes and the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Brueghel, Haring's visions introduced new grotesque motifs relating to our present age. His bestiary is tied to the dollar and to the consumerism of gadgets - TVs, radios, microcomputers, clocks, cameras - which, as in Untitled (1983), form a mountain between two Michelangelesque monsters or, in Untitled (1984), create an inflow feeding the Great Mother, whose numerous teats nourish many human beings. In Untitled of 1986 the Great Mother becomes a great whore with a green crocodile head (green is the color of the dollar); immersed in an infernal fire, she devours the crucified Christ. Elsewhere, we see a black figure being strangled and chained by "white" giants and a skeleton, handcuffs used on behalf of a phony peace dove and a Christian cross. The torture takes place on a river of blood disgorged by our planet and inundating other figures, white, black, red, and yellow, whose desperate hands lunge out of the bloody wave.

"At times, Haring drew the multiple heads of the beast of the Apocalypse, its torso sprouting branches that become animals with monstrous maws. At other times, the animal or human transformation personifies our present-day vices, producing living fruits; or else the evolution of the figurations brings forth a landscape: Untitled of 1984 is invaded by a legion of demons and dragons with ramified bodies in the shape of bats or serpents, with the claws or tails of reptiles - half-beast, half-human animals with twofold bodies that devour or copulate, killing and castrating other hybrid creatures.

"The themes of the double and of eros are mirror-like. Sex is intermediate between two complementary entities; it guarantees interhuman relationships. Hence, it is a transit, a union, a reconciliation and a harmony between different identities. It participates in the unbroken, unrelenting circular movement that unites the linear routes in Haring's paintings. The penis, for "him," is another intermediary line that closes and concludes, tracing a "life path" and an itinerary for the slaking of desires as well as an allegory of feeling "high," being surrounded by an aureola. The erotic figuration is a further thrust toward unity and the loss of one's own individuality; it is a transmission of insistent and lasting gestures and actions that represent a mystical, cosmic, and orgasmic communication, a uniting through emptiness. It can be a lunge toward sin, evil, profanation; however, it always goes further, expressing a passage of information between two transmitters. It occupies the gaps; it is not a point of arrival so much as an index of movement: love in transit. Haring uses sex as the ultimate metaphor of a flow or transmission between demon and human, beauty and ugliness, nature and artifice. And if the genital organ is a technological instrument for connecting two "terminals," it establishes a coming and going, a toand-fro in his paintings; the transmission of information and its visualization on a screen becomes erotic. The graffiti in subways or on the wall of the Casino Knokke (1987), the robots and the machines are frequently linked to one another and undergo corporal exchanges, establishing incestuous networks or performing a cannibalistic gesture, thereby approaching creatures and monsters dominated by sex and television, consumerism and religion. In an untitled work of 1985 the anus dentatus of the hybrid figure with the five eyes and the framed monitor mouth emits bifurcated tongues/hollows that castrate, imprison, and condition the human being, while at the side a Bible releases snakes and a cross pierces a cerebral mass.

"The identification of eros and mass media ultimately reinforces Haring's desire to guarantee worldwide circulation for his art. It is based on the faith that its distribution, duplication, and dislocation seduce and inform an enormous number of people. In these terms, the erotic and telematic relationship is similar to a political relationship - that is, it relates to its own kind. It reveals a desire for a dialogue and for an amorous relationship based on the free circulation of minds and bodies, faiths and beliefs, perversions and corruptions. It is a highly ecumenical process that never demands, asks, claims, or challenges - rather, it favors, fosters, transports - on the supposition that in good or evil, in pleasure or torture, in the marvelous or the horrible, the desire of lover and beloved, of artist and public, are secretly one and the same."

- From "Keith Haring"

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Keith Haring Images

1980 Untitled
1981 Untitled
1981 Keith Haring drawing in the New York City subway
1981 Untitled fiberglass vase
1982 Untitled
1982 Untitled
1983 Drawing in New York City subway
1984 Untitled
1985 Untitled
1985 Untitled aluminum sculpture
1988 Untitled (for Cy Twombly)
1989 Untitled




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