Keith Haring - 20th C. & Contemporary Art Evening Sale New York Thursday, November 14, 2019 | Phillips

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  • Video

    Keith Haring, 'Untitled', Lot 29

    20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale, 14 October

  • Provenance

    Keith Haring Foundation, New York
    Deitch Projects, New York
    Acquired from the above by the present owner

  • Exhibited

    Seoul, Arario Gallery, Keith Haring: The Public Artist, December 11, 2002 - February 16, 2003, pp. 14-15 (illustrated)
    Seoul, Arario Gallery, 20th Anniversary Exhibition, November 10, 2009 - January 24, 2010

  • Catalogue Essay

    Uniting the immediacy of cartoons with the raw dynamism of Art Brut, Jean Dubuffet, and Pierre Alechinsky, Untitled, 1984 evinces the precocity of Keith Haring’s pioneering approach from when he was only 26 years old. First and foremost a storyteller, the artist furnishes in the work a world of corporeal distortion à la Salvador Dalí, in which one of Haring’s trademark feature-less figures imprisons a much larger one using a rope that then metamorphoses into a snake and turns on its master. Executed on an enormous scale redolent of his cherished murals, Untitled was created after Haring’s rise to prominence for his graffiti drawings in the early 1980s and when he was already a leading figure in New York’s East Village cultural scene, hobnobbing with art world superstars such as Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat. Within this community, however, the artist dared to push the boundaries of Pop Art, using idiosyncratic materials such as the vibrant, golden Day-Glo in the present work and circumventing the Manhattan art society by spontaneously drawing in public places such as subway stations. Embodying Haring’s assertion that “living in 1984, the role of the artist has to be different from what it was fifty, or even twenty years ago,” Untitled blurs the line between high art and street culture using a distinctive visual language that is the artist’s alone (Keith Haring, “Untitled Statement”, Flash Art, no. 116, March 1984, p. 24).

    Haring publicly protested the injustices of the world he lived in, including racism, war, and the AIDS crisis—the disease from which he died at 31—and even criticized then President Ronald Reagan in Reagan: Ready to Kill, 1980, Collection of the Keith Haring Foundation. Created the year that Haring joined the international resistance to apartheid in South Africa, Untitled’s disturbing narrative, in which a smaller figure enslaves a larger one with a noose before the balance of power shifts, appears in another one of his works from 1984, Untitled (Apartheid), Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam. Haring then utilized the image in a poster and three sets of lithographs in 1985, one of which includes the rope-serpent and another which includes two numbered panels, such as in the present work. Despite evoking the slapstick violence of cartoon, Untitled was in fact a crucial element of the development of the artist’s anti-apartheid imagery and is a manifestation of Haring’s political engagement in 1984.

    By way of his interest in transmitting messages directly to the public, Haring was struck by the communicative power of animated television and comics, relentlessly using cartoon imagery throughout his oeuvre. In this sense, while Haring’s iconography may have also been a nod to his childhood or father, an amateur cartoonist, it was “Disney's genius for making imagery that was comprehensible to a huge international cross-section of people [that] served as a role model to Haring” (Bruce D. Kurtz, Keith Haring, Andy Warhol, and Walt Disney, Munich, 1992, p. 18). The impact of mass media on Haring’s work is incredibly conspicuous in Untitled: the two compositions that comprise it read chronologically, like two side-by-side panels on a comic book page, and feature his signature figures composed of a single black line in states of farcical violence. The short, energetic strokes that emphasize action operate as motion lines do in comics, but also achieve the same static effect of movement captured in Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2, 1912, Philadelphia Museum of Art. The work’s affinity with the French modernist’s chef-d’oeuvre also hints at Haring’s robust knowledge of art history that he cultivated by beginning frequent trips to Europe two years earlier; in fact, his jet black outlines are reminiscent of those of one of his favorite artists, Fernand Léger. The marrying of cartoon motifs with the Western canon in Untitled epitomizes Haring’s virtuoso fusion of “high” and “low” culture, creating an image that resonates among the art world and general public alike.

    Haring’s oeuvre coalesces distinct eras, geographies, and cultures—from the “primitive” art of the Americas to the High Renaissance—and Untitled betrays his preoccupation with the semiotics of Egyptian hieroglyphics and Aztec signs. Reading as two logographs instead of as a single picture, the compositions of Untitled function almost as pictograms and depict figures with no specifying characteristics such as hair, facial features, or attire, thus portraying explicit narratives that are able to be universally and immediately understood. Indeed, Haring wrote in 1979 that "I am intrigued with the shapes people choose as their symbols to create a language. There is within all forms a basic structure, an indication of the entire object with a minimum of lines that becomes a symbol. This is common to all languages, all people, all times" (Keith Haring, quoted on January 12, 1979 in Keith Haring Journals, New York, 2010, p. 48). Striving to speak to and for his generation, Haring created an iconography unique to his time and displayed these symbols anywhere and everywhere they could be viewed, whether that be in an art gallery or in a subway station.

    The influence of Aztec imagery in Untitled is further denoted by the snake in the second scene, which is likely derived from the serpentine Quetzalcoatl, a Central American deity. The good nature of the Quetzalcoatl is the counterpoint to the biblical serpent, which persuaded Eve to eat the forbidden fruit and was the incarnation of temptation and evil. This chasm no doubt appealed to Haring’s predilection for nuance and ambiguity, as the snake in Untitled is both the savior of the figure trapped in the noose and murderer of the smaller character. “Good and Evil are very hard to explain or understand,” Haring wrote. “I’m sure that evil exists, but it is hard to isolate. Good and evil are intertwined and impossible to separate. They are not completely opposite and in fact are often one and the same” (Keith Haring, quoted on July 7, 1986 in Keith Haring Journals, New York, 2010, p. 134-135). Haring similarly subverted the ostensibly fixed dichotomy between good and evil in his masterpiece, Untitled, 1982, Museum of Modern Art, New York, in which the same snake seems to threaten both virtuous and wicked characters in a chaotic, Bosch-esque world.

    Untitled alludes to the painter’s diverse interests in mass media, sociopolitical issues, and the evocative capacity of the line, resulting in a superb portrait of his artistic concerns just six years before his death. The difficulty to perfectly assign any one exclusive attribute to the painting—cartoonishly humorous or gravely sincere, ardently political or art-historically referential—is a testament to Haring’s ability to imbue his works with a layer of complexity and subjectivity in homage to the pictorial systems of ancient cultures. “I think the greatest feature of a lot of the images is that they’re not completely explainable and they can have different meaning for different people,” Haring wrote in his journal the day before he executed Untitled. “That’s something that man seems to have less and less patience for, but in earlier civilizations symbols were much more versatile” (Keith Haring, quoted on October 30, 1984 in Keith Haring Journals, New York, 2010, p. 118). Despite its creation surrounding political and artistic matters 35 years ago, the underlying themes of injustice, ambiguity, and semiotics in Untitled still resonate today.

  • Artist Biography

    Keith Haring

    American • 1958 - 1990

    Haring's art and life typified youthful exuberance and fearlessness. While seemingly playful and transparent, Haring dealt with weighty subjects such as death, sex and war, enabling subtle and multiple interpretations. 

    Throughout his tragically brief career, Haring refined a visual language of symbols, which he called icons, the origins of which began with his trademark linear style scrawled in white chalk on the black unused advertising spaces in subway stations. Haring developed and disseminated these icons far and wide, in his vibrant and dynamic style, from public murals and paintings to t-shirts and Swatch watches. His art bridged high and low, erasing the distinctions between rarefied art, political activism and popular culture. 

    View More Works

Property from an Important Asian Collection



signed and dated "K. Haring OCT. 31- 1984 ⨁ ©" on the reverse
acrylic, enamel and Day-Glo on muslin
77 1/2 x 190 5/8 in. (196.9 x 484.2 cm.)
Executed on October 31, 1984.

$3,000,000 - 4,000,000 

Sold for $2,960,000

Contact Specialist

Amanda Lo Iacono
Head of Evening Sale
New York
+1 212 940 1278

20th C. & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

New York Auction 14 November 2019