Untitled (USA 1981)

Keith Haring

By January 1981, Keith Haring began creating his chalk on black paper drawings in subways throughout the New York City, but had also begun to be recognised for works created in his Times Square studio. That same year, he noticed Con Edison men working on the street with vinyl tarpaulin material and realised the opportunity for painting on a non-canvas surface. Thus began a series of 'tarp' paintings ranging from around six to twelve square feet from September 1981, a year before his first solo exhibition at Tony Shafrazi gallery.

Much of Haring’s output in 1981 was fast, aggressive and minimal, influenced in part by the need to draw quickly enough to avoid arrest when creating his public work. The tarp paintings provided large, affordable, coloured surfaces that he could work freely upon without time or spatial constraint. These works maintained a raw quality, with dripping paint, both an homage to the graffiti art he admired, and a reference to Jackson Pollock and Jean Dubuffet’s art brut.

Iconography and sign systems were key aspects of Haring’s oeuvre, reflected in the videos he made while studying semiotics at School of Visual Arts with Bill Beckley and Keith Sonnier. This painting from December 1981 is a classic early example, centering on a motif that appeared frequently in his subway drawings, works on paper, and in one further tarp painting. A figure concealing a glowing cross behind his back stabs and kicks another figure who leans back as if falling. This dramatic scene is backgrounded by a red cross nearly reaching the edges of the composition, with large text below reading “USA 1981.” The text is important to consider, as the first recognised cases of AIDS had been reported in Los Angeles only six months prior to the execution of the painting. The cross-bearing figure most likely represents a hypercritical religious figure, alluding to the far right’s persecution of the LGBTQ community. The figures may also represent Haring’s continuing anxieties about nuclear disaster, particularly as the U.S. and the Soviet Union had failed to negotiate nuclear weapon reductions in Europe in late November 1981 in an inconclusive series of meetings.

Although the imagery is bold and the line-making is aggressive, Haring’s overarching message is one of countering the powers that be with peace and open-mindedness. He went on to become one of the greatest advocates for AIDS awareness, safe sex, addiction prevention and peace.

The tarp paintings also marked a transition: shortly after the tarp paintings came to be, Haring had his first solo show with Tony Shafrazi in October 1982. This exhibition was an incredible success, placing Haring firmly into the international art arena, disassociating him from his subway work (although he continued these until 1985), and propelling his art into more ambitious spaces that allowed him to share his message on a grander scale. Public murals, poster campaigns, and affordable commercial products at the Pop Shop allowed Haring to reach millions of people all over the world with his message of global awareness and the struggle for world peace.

Keith Haring (1958-1990)
Untitled (USA 1981)
Vinyl ink on tarpaulin
72 x 72 in : 182.9 x 182.9 cm
Signed and dated verso
Rene Ricard, New York
Private Collection, London
Skarstedt Gallery
Private collection, New York
Keith Haring, Tony Shafrazi Gallery, New York, New York, Fall 1982
Future Primeval, Queens Museum, New York, September - November 1990, travelling to Tampa Museum of Art, Tampa, FL, June – August 1991 and University Galleries, Illinois State University, Normal, IL, January - February 1991
Keith Haring: The Political Line, Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, April – August 2013, travelling to de Young Museum, San Francisco, CA, November 2014 – February 2015
Keith Haring: Bombs and Dogs, Deitch, New York, NY, November 7 – December 21, 2015
Keith Haring A New Humanism, curated by Gianni Mercurio, Zidoun Bossuyt, Luxembourg, January 25 – March 9, 2019
Keith Haring, Curated by Darren Pih, Tate Liverpool, June 14 – November 10, 2019, travelling to Folkwang Museum, Essen, August 21 – November 29, 2020
Keith Haring | Jean-Michel Basquiat: Crossing Lines, Curated by Dieter Buchhart, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, December 1, 2019 – March 15, 2020
Keith Haring, New York, Tony Shafrazi Gallery, Fall 1982, p. 54 (illus.)
Keith Haring, Future Primeval, Normal, Illinois, University Galleries, Illinois State University, 1991, p. 56 (illus.)
Mercurio, Gianni, and Demetrio Paparoni, eds. The Keith Haring Show, Milan, Italy, Skira Editore, 2005, p. 165 (illus.)
Buchhart, Dieter (ed.), Keith Haring - The Political Line, Paris-Musées, les musée de la Ville de Paris, 2013, p.199 (illus.)
Buchhart, Dieter (ed.), Keith Haring - The Political Line, San Francisco, Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco in conjunction with DelMonic Books and Prestel, 2014, p.191 (illus.)
Buchhart, Dieter (ed.), Keith Haring The Alphabet, Vienna, The Albertina Museum, 2018, p.27 (illus.)
Keith Haring A New Humanism, Luxembourg, Zidoun Bossuyt Gallery, 2019, p. 31 (illus.)
Keith Haring | Jean-Michel Basquiat: Crossing Lines. National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 2019, p. 83 (illus.)
Pih, Darren (ed.), Keith Haring. Liverpool, Tate Liverpool, 2019, p. 87 (illus.)
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