February 16, 2012  |  Artists, Collection & Exhibitions
A Few More Ways of Looking at a Keith Haring

Keith Haring. Untitled. 1982. Ink on two sheets of paper, sheet: 72 x 671 1/2" (182.9 x 1705.6 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of the Estate of Keith Haring, Inc. © 2012 The Keith Haring Foundation

The monumental 1982 Keith Haring drawing Untitled is not often on view, so its inclusion in the Museum’s current installation Contemporary Galleries: 1980–Now seems like an ideal opportunity to think about how this artist’s iconic visual language fits into the larger story of 20th-century art.

Resolutely horizontal, this ink drawing on two sheets of paper stretches out to over 50 feet in length. Its frieze-like composition relates to the public aspect of Haring’s project, evoking the graffiti drawings he contributed to New York City’s subways and sidewalks in the 1980s. At first glance, the intricate web of marks overwhelms with its graphic totality; looking closer, Haring’s trademark icons emerge from the overall design.  Winged men and dancing dogs, three-eyed aliens and hovering spaceships, wriggling snakes and epic phalluses, lightbulbs and nuclear symbols, all populate the drawing.

The work is pinned across three walls on MoMA’s 2nd floor in a truly immersive presentation. Shown alongside work by Haring’s contemporaries such as Jeff Koons, Martin Wong, and artist-run collectives like ABC No Rio and COLAB, the drawing can be appreciated in its art-historical and social contexts. Important to understanding any art, these frameworks are especially crucial for Haring, whose aesthetics turned increasingly toward activism after he was diagnosed with AIDS in 1988.

It’s also worthwhile, I think, to consider Haring alongside other brethren—artists whom he might not have (or couldn’t have) known chronologically, but with whom he shares something formally. Walking out of the 2nd-floor galleries, for example, I couldn’t help but reconsider the Brice Marden mural hung high in the Agnes Gund Garden Lobby in relation to the Haring I’d just seen. Though emphatically abstract, Marden’s The Propitious Garden of Plane Image, Third Version (2000-06) shares not only the Haring drawing’s scale and format, but also its all-over, calligraphic sense of line.

Another horizontal work often hung in the lobby is Joan Miró’s Mural Painting (1950-51). If any other artist has as personal and recognizable an iconographic language as Haring, it’s this Catalan Surrealist. Miró’s dual interest in automatism and anatomy aligns strikingly with Haring’s own use of line to render the body in shorthand. Miró’s simplified, even cartoonish, personages with their priapic protuberances anticipate Haring’s own recurrent characters.

In the audio guide for Haring’s drawing, Julia Gruen, once the artist’s friend and studio manager and now the Executive Director of the Keith Haring Foundation, remarks that when Haring “put the brush to the paper, it simply flowed down his body, out the brush in this extraordinary continuous movement.” This description evokes the language regularly used to describe Jackson Pollock’s kinetic application of paint in canvases like One: Number 31, 1950 (1950; currently on view on the 4th floor). But perhaps the earlier Pollock drawing Sheet of Studies (c. 1939-42), in which he fills the sheet with icons ranging from Jungian archetypes to Picassoid quotations to purely graphical marks, is an even more fitting forerunner.