Untitled

Basquiat Haring

'Jean-Michel was at the apartment in the afternoon. Keith had his studio there and they were hanging out. Keith had been asked to do a summer school in Brooklyn drawing with kids. He was thinking about what to do, how to engage the kids together; a piece of paper each, or drawing together, swapping pieces of paper, passing paper round. So they were chatting about it and Keith said let’s try it. He got out some big sheets and pieces of paper and they tried it out.
The Tar Roof drawing was the first one. They worked on it together swapping the pens. At the end, Jean-Michel pulled the nib off the red marker and tipped the remaining ink onto the page. Then they tried swapping two pieces of paper, so they were pushing the paper across to each other, timing it. They gave me the picture with the writing.

It was all about drawing at the time. Drawing in the street was always about who else was drawing there. That wall, that door, who was there first, who got the best space. Drawing together on paper was so unusual - just a kind of chance moment.
' Samantha McEwen, 2021

Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat are two of the most influential artists of the second half of the 20th Century and synonymous with the creative explosion in New York in the 1980s. In Untitled, (1980), this pair of titans joined forces to create an exuberant composition full of each artist's distinct visual language and socio-political commentary. Untitled is one of the very few works created by these two giants of contemporary art together.

Born just two and a half years apart, the similarities in the lives of Haring and Basquiat cannot be overstated. Both men began their careers on the gritty streets of lower Manhattan in the 1970s and 80s. The walls of the city and subway stations became the canvases by which they explored overtly political messages, the latter home to Haring's early iconic chalk drawings. It was here that Haring developed his best-known characters, such as the 'Barking Dog' and the 'Radiant Baby', while Basquiat honed his complex layering of text, motifs and symbols. The pair had a mutual admiration for each other, which would develop into a friendly rivalry and eventual collaboration. The present work is an incredibly rare visual conversation between Basquiat and Haring. Whilst both artists collaborated with many creative figures, not least Basquiat's famous works with Andy Warhol and Haring's long-time partnership with LA II, only a small handful of works by this pair are in existence. 

In the alphabet of symbols Haring developed, each recurring image carries its own set of meanings, with many of his most recognisable found in Untitled. In this scene, three classic Haring figures run up flights of stairs to meet each other at a cross, mounted on the apex of a church roof. In Haring's oeuvre, stairs and stepped pyramids often lead to places of fear or terror, and this could be interpreted as a nod to the Christian upbringing that Haring vehemently rejected in his adult life, not only as an openly gay man but as an active member of the LGBT rights movement. Haring often added radiating lines around his figures to indicate movement, but in this case they could also represent a spiritual and physical energy. The red figure falls backwards down the stairs, away from the cross, rejected by the energy emanating from it.

Inscribed across the top of the work in Basquiat's instantly recognisable handwriting are the words "OK: SO WE DID SUPPRESS THIER TAR ROOF TAR ROOF TARROOF". The meaning of Basquiat's phrase is complex. The word 'TARROOF' plays on certain regional American accents that draw out the word 'truth', simultaneously creating Biblical associations. Alternatively, 'TAR ROOF' could also suggest connotations of an urban environment and the social and racial constructions inherent within them. Icons of Basquiat's oeuvre also include the crown in the upper left corner and the 'Sacred Heart' dominating the centre of the composition. The 'Three-Peak Crown' is Basquiat's signature recurring motif, which recognises the majesty of his heroes - ground-breaking athletes, musicians and writers - as kings. He used the symbol in his early days as a graffiti artist and it became a common icon within many of his most highly regarded works.

Untitled was recently exhibited in Keith Haring | Jean-Michel Basquiat: Crossing Lines, at Melbourne's National Gallery of Victoria: an unprecedented exhibition that included upwards of two hundred works by the two artists. The unique symbolic language of Haring and Basquiat, laid bare in Untitled, was closely examined in dialogue with each other for the first time. The curator of the exhibition, Dieter Buchhart, opined "while Basquiat anticipated today's 'always-on' culture of communication and contemporary knowledge spaces, Haring foreshadowed emojis with his image-word alphabet. This universal system of communication remains a positive, humanistic meme in the collective struggle against ignorance, fear and silence" ('World premiere exhibition of works by Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat opens', www.artdaily.cc).

Tragically, Haring and Basquiat both died incredibly young from two of the major afflictions of the time: Haring of Aids-related complications, and Basquiat of a drug overdose. Despite their short lives, their artistic legacies and fame skyrocketed over the ensuing decades. Haring and Basquiat's rich production endures through graffiti, painting, sculpture, drawings, photographs, notebooks, and the astounding collaboration of the present lot. The significance of their art, which so pointedly criticised racism, commodification and oppression, remains as sought after and relevant as ever.

Artist
Keith Haring (1958-1990) and Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988)
Title
Untitled
Medium
Ink on paper
Date
1980
Size
38 x 50 in : 96.5 x 127.0 cm
Provenance
Samantha McEwen, New York, acquired directly from Keith Haring (1980)
Exhibited
Paris, Galerie Laurent Strouk, Keith Haring, 2014
Melbourne, National Gallery of Victoria, Keith Haring | Jean-Michel Basquiat: Crossing Lines, 2019-2020
Literature
Paris, Galerie Laurent Strouk, Keith Haring, 2014, p. 7
Melbourne, National Gallery of Victoria, Keith Haring | Jean-Michel Basquiat: Crossing Lines, 2019-2020, p. 14 (col. Illus.)
Reference
AC21-27
Status
Reserved
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