New York

Keith Haring

Tony Shafrazi Gallery

A new mythology is possible in the Space Age. where we will again have heroes and villains, as regards intentions towards this planet. I feel that the future of writing is in Space, not Time.
—William S. Burroughs

Keith Haring's creatures, human and not, are basically units, quanta in a pictographic language. After his radiant baby and barking dog images appeared all over the city, Haring began to evolve more complex compositions, scenes with tiers of massed, animated outline figures brandishing, grappling, metamorphosing. Human and animal figures and alien epiphanies joined with snakes who, like an uroboros, come full circle in excited motion to eat their own tails. These works are saturated, nearly overpopulated with motifs and figures engaged in a variety of militaristic ritual interactions. The stelelike pictures seem tv show a science-fiction empire whose inhabitants venerate communications symbols glistening with radiating lines, symbols that turn into sexual emblems, conflating inspiration and sexual potency. This streamlined teenage Metropolis has evolved through repetition. Each self-contained episode has taken place (has been depicted) in a different part of the city, most often on the black paper rectangles that cover expired advertisements in subway stations, sometimes in more random or picaresque locations such as a freestanding wall on the corner of East Houston Street and the Bowery. These episodes have added up, increased in magnitude, to form what amounts to and looks like the storyboards for a cinematic urban epic.

A graffitist who picks the rectangles of poster spaces as found frames reveals a picture-frame mentality and art training. By the end of the summer of 1981, when Haring began to show often in galleries and museums, he responded to the new context not only by evolving more motifs, but by putting the scenes he continued to collect onto other surfaces and rendering them in other media. There is a mnemonic of materials in succeeding architectural traditions: the memory of wood construction survives in monuments hewn from stone. So Haring has worked out formal retranslations of his work, interpreting the contour quality of felt-marker lines into brush works, working scale shifts using prefabricated tarpaulins, which relate to the found scale of the urban environment, and Formica tiles, which relate to the small size ot a quick-wristed tag. The graffitist's oft-repeated motifs have become second nature, a portable art hardware, a glyphic vocabulary. The artist becomes a repeating machine, evolving a fast, hard-edged clarity of line which communicates instantly. The character of habitual strength, speed, and readability in Haring 's work has already been an important contribution to contemporary graphics and the art of drawing.

This show was Haring's epic, Part One, with all scenes, fragments, motifs, and media assembled, structured graphically and architectonically. What Haring described is a Sparta for the coming millennium, a society of youth impelled by continual action at peak adrenaline. Telekinetic wars are waged with psychically endowed implements on a current of energy transmitted by and to male creatures ever-readily recharging themselves or one another. In Sparta, the act of recharging appears to be both praxis and erotic principle. Females are seen at birth or as icons—in states of morphogenesis. The emotional climate is euphoric, totally unmediated. The enemy' is at all moments absolute and unmistakable: in graphic terms as well as moral ones, the enemy is, of course, the Void.

In addition to giving this world its motives and mores, Haring has set its diurnal rhythms. The gallery's two levels accommodated the ambience of day and night. The walls of the upper floor were bordered with an interrupted frieze of crawling babies and running figures which loosely delineated one enormous wraparound rectangle filled with framed and unframed drawings in many sizes, episodes of struggle and jubilation in varying shapes and media. There were square drawings in baked enamel on metal, and round ones with scenes arranged in donut formation, and smaller rectangular ones lined up in a neo-Attic fucking sequence, and others of creatures getting zapped or suspended in midair by the depicted aura of a sombrero-shaped UFO. There was a Mickey Mouse with an erection apparently caused by the energy two figures rushing to each other under a red, pulsing heart are generating elsewhere in the drawing. There were figures with holes in their middle through which dogs sometimes jump, and winged creatures, and snakes like electrical cords. There were drawings on tarpaulins and drip-drawings on tarpaulins, and some that seem to be undergoing a kind of fission wherein figures can be discerned as particles of pattern. There were drawings of TV screens, telephones, dollar signs, and drawings with the caption “USA 1982.” There was a lot of free graphic literature in the gallery—and more.

The work (all Day-Glo) in the music-pulsed blacklit basement was intimate, improvisational, non-narrative, and almost entirely the result of Haring's collaboration with a teenage graffitist known as LA2 (for Little Angel Two), but whose tag is sometimes LA Rock. On a wall painted in pink and orange awning stripes was an array of tiny compositions and cartoons on wood, a few larger, framed drawings, and assorted, decorated, semifunctional oddball objects. Large adorned plaster models of the Statue of Liberty, the Venus de Milo,and the Little Mermaid presided as chaperones to license in Sparta's club—an environment completed by two densely patterned, Greek-pastiche plaster pilasters and an urn. The collaboration itself worked wonderfully. Haring's style is virtually classical-constructed, rectilinear, and very neat. LA2's touch is calligraphic, deconstructed, liquid, even messy. Their lines relate as surfboard to surf, snare drum to saxophone, with Haring providing the limits (literally the object to work on), and sometimes an infrastructure or finishing linear snap. LA2 brings to these collaborations an organically urban, contemporary funk. In many of the pieces, especially the small drawings on wood and the freestanding objects, LA2's sensibility dominates. It is one that could be described as the received vision of layers and layers of subway-car interiors—tagged in, scratched out, painted over, tagged in again, tagged over. While distinct, his signograph suggests a cacophony of random identities. Often, Haring just signs or surfs in with little, different-colored lines. He punctuates.

The wonderment of this show was not invention, but a sense of completeness. The satisfaction it produced was not that of, say, learning a new word, but of reading a pictorial sentence so compact as to contain the potential beginning of its sequel. Certain of Haring's more overtly sexual episodes seem to propose that to defeat the enemy, it is necessary to plug into it, that to overcome a void, you simply fill it.

Good clean funk.

Edit deAk and Lisa Liebmann