Untitled

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  • Provenance

    Tony Shafrazi Gallery, New York
    Acquired from the above by the present owner in 1982

  • Exhibited

    New York, Tony Shafrazi Gallery, Keith Haring, Fall 1982, p. 30 (illustrated, p. 47)
    New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, Keith Haring, 25 June - 21 September 1997, p. 292 (illustrated, p. 105)
    Musée d'art contemporain de Lyon, Keith Haring, 22 February - 29 June 2008, no. 4, p. 144 (illustrated)
    Musée d'Art moderne de la Ville de Paris, Keith Haring. The Political Line, 19 April - 18 August 2013, no. 58, pp. 144 and 310 (illustrated, p. 145)

  • Video

    Keith Haring, 'Untitled', Lot 10

    20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale, 13 February

  • Catalogue Essay

    ‘See, when I paint, it is an experience that, at its best, is transcending reality. When it is working, you completely go into another place, you’re tapping into things that are totally universal, of the total consciousness, completely beyond your ego and your own self. That’s what it’s all about’ – Keith Haring

    A visceral, larger-than-life masterpiece executed at the dawn of Keith Haring’s oeuvre, residing in the same collection since 1982, Untitled, 1981, portrays two human figures mid-movement, outlined in black and red on a yellow background. To the left, a cross-faced man raises his arms far enough to reach the extremity of the vinyl support, as if hanging from the real world and into the painting. Next to him, an anonymous counterpart vindictively shoots into the hole that punctures his body, betraying a possibly violent gesture. These characters perfectly embody the ambivalence that Haring sought to capture in his art, coalescing two apparently contradicting atmospheres within a single image: one replete with gloom and danger, the other brimming with buoyant energy. The work’s grandiloquent dynamism is only emphasised by its all-consuming format, reminiscent of the subway setting from which Haring’s art originated when he began painting in the late 1970s. Executed at the outset of his fame in the city of New York – which would soon take over the entire world – Untitled was included in the artist’s seminal Tony Shafrazi show in the fall of 1982, as well as highlighted in both the artist's watershed retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, in 1997, and his first-ever retrospective to focus on the political aspect of his work: Keith Haring: The Political Line at the Musée d'Art moderne de la Ville de Paris, in 2013. As such, it is a paradigmatic example of the artist’s practice, which was tragically shortened by AIDS-related complications less than a decade later.

    Recently the subject of a number of major institutional exhibitions, Keith Haring’s work is at the forefront of the public’s attention and has been celebrated to an unprecedented calibre, at a time when the subjects he addressed in his art – the necessity for love, inclusion and protection – seem more relevant than ever. His oeuvre was shown at Tate Liverpool in 2019 – marking his first major exhibition in the United Kingdom – and is currently at the heart of two simultaneous shows: one at the BOZAR, Brussels, the other at the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. Signifying the ever-intensifying interest vested in his work, growing with time and bleeding beyond borders, Haring will once again be the subject of a solo exhibition at Museum Folkwang, Essen, from May to September 2020.

    Like many artists of his generation – including his friend Jean-Michel Basquiat – Haring eluded traditional gallery representation in the early years of his career, taking instead the streets of Manhattan as his exhibition space, and the social context of 1980s New York as his subject matter. With inimitable tonal vigour, the early Untitled boasts visual elements that would later be deemed inextricable from Haring’s oeuvre: the figure with a hole in its stomach, the black-ochre-red colour combination and the interaction between two visibly animated parties on an otherwise abstract, monochromatic background. It is a pristine example of his vision and intention, which remained intact throughout his career.

    In a method akin to that of Pablo Picasso, Haring worked on his drawings and paintings in single, uninterrupted lines. In this way, the figures designed across his surfaces became themselves lively, spontaneous, unobstructed by the constraints of painterly pause. As a result, the two protagonists in the present work are as essential as they are evocative; despite being rendered with thick black lines devoid of angular subtleties, they demonstrate visible actions, recognisable to all. The scene’s ambivalent urgency is made evident by their movement, but also by the heated colours in which they are drenched. The drips of paint tumbling down their outlines impart the image with further urgency – it is as if the fiery colours within and around the two figures had caused them to melt before our eyes.

    Yet it is not just the visual novelty brought by Haring’s paintings and graffiti that distinguished his output from that of others. It is the purpose that animates it, the meaning located within the continuous lines, and the subtle formal interaction that takes place between that meaning and the painted matter itself. Untitled exemplifies the political line that Haring imparts in his work with an imperious subject matter – a figure hitting another figure right inside the circular hole that punctures his body – but also in its choice of rendition, which here only emphasises the composition’s urgent tone, akin to Picasso's Guernica scene. At once vindictive and playful, Untitled demonstrates Haring’s ability to straddle the seriousness of subjects including violence and death, and the humour deriving from absurd aggressions – spurred by politics, history, and at times people themselves. It also testifies to his talent in fusing form and content, not only showing violence but embodying it in precise, strongly vivified lines.

    Reflecting the political intentions Haring discreetly weaves into his compositions, the form of a man with a gaping hole in his torso is particularly striking. It forms part of the artist’s cosmos of political signs, first appearing in his work in the early 1980s, following a vision that had occurred to him after the murder of John Lennon. At the time, Haring had recorded the event in his diary and began using it as a pattern within his painterly scenes. Not only does the hole here refer to the murder of a musical legend that marked his whole generation, it furthermore signifies the sense of emptiness that dawns on the whole of humanity, right at its core.

    Paired with historical context, the image in Untitled assumes increased symbolic meaning. Indeed, the painting was executed in 1981, at the dawn of the AIDS crisis in New York. At this time, rumours regarding a ‘gay-related immunodeficiency disease’ began to consume the thoughts of many Americans, who feared that the emerging sickness would spread like the plague. An unpredictable assault on the body, both absurd and fatal, Untitled shows two viscerally active protagonists visibly consumed by an uncontrollable, intangible energy – allegorical perhaps, of the tragic fatefulness of AIDS, which intruded bodies, unannounced, and ravaged thousands of lives.

    Haring’s idiosyncratic dripping aesthetic, in this sense, brings to mind a variety of symbolisms – movement, the melt entailed by fire, and the general collapse of the human body. Yet, on a formal level, it equally recalls the stylistic tendencies that pervaded the art historical canon throughout the 20th century. Notably, a particularity of Untitled is its unequivocal iconographic similitude to Abstract Expressionist canvases – in its sheer size, but also in its attention to colour and space. Embodying the painted matter’s irrepressible autonomy, the drips within Untitled more specifically evoke the eponymous method carried out by Jackson Pollock. His Blue Poles, 1952, equally displaying sizzling colours scattered across a strong chromatic ground in a riotous splash, conjures a new lens through which to envision the present work. At the same time, the study of colour in Mark Rothko’s No. 5/No. 22, 1950, seems an interesting source for comparison. Ceaselessly shifting focus from form and subject matter in his creative process, Haring ultimately marries the two, imparting energetic content with similarly energetic hues.

    It is furthermore evident that the performative aspect entailed by Untitled’s creation process was replicated in the dance shared by the two portrayed figures. One can imagine Haring moving from place to place, waltzing from one quadrant of the vinyl to the other to design his characters in a single, free-flowing motion. The result is what the viewer sees before his eyes; a dancing scene between two anonymous figures who, despite displaying alarming signs and consequences of violence – a kick, a hole – remain whimsical on the surface, somehow playful with one another. Regarding Haring’s tendency to pair aggression with love, violence with dance, Robert Farris Thompson once noted, ‘Parallel to Haring’s sadness, and his social conscience, ran something else: an allegiance to the dance in all its powers of transcendence’ (Robert Farris Thompson, ‘Notes on the Art and Life of Keith Haring’, Keith Haring: The Political Line, exh. cat., Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, 2014, p. 47). It is perhaps in this sense that Untitled is a chef-d'oeuvre beyond compare; it infiltrates all the masterful elements that have hailed Keith Haring as one of the foremost artists of his time.

  • Artist Bio

    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. 

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Ο ◆10

Property from a Distinguished Private Collection

Untitled

signed and dated 'NOV. 1981 K. Haring ⨁' on the reverse
vinyl paint on vinyl tarpaulin with metal grommets
245 x 244.8 cm (96 1/2 x 96 3/8 in.)
Painted in November 1981.

Estimate
£3,000,000 - 4,000,000 

sold for £3,206,000

Contact Specialist

Olivia Thornton
Head of 20th Century & Contemporary Art, Europe
+44 20 7318 4099
OThornton@phillips.com

 

Rosanna Widén
Senior Specialist, Head of Evening Sale
+44 20 7318 4060
rwiden@phillips.com

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

London Auction 13 February 2020