Chalk on paper mounted on canvas
47 x 32 In
Untitled (Whale and Aliens) by Keith Haring
One day while riding the F train, Keith Haring discovered empty subway advertising spaces covered with black paper. Taking note of the soft matted quality of the paper, Haring instinctively concluded that white chalk would be the perfect medium for this surface. Not only was the chalk easy to conceal, but it also produced a crisp, tactile effect against the paper.
Untitled Whale and Aliens by Keith Haring
Haring’s interest in art marketization and the commercialization of his signature icons. Between 1980-1985, Haring worked on his Subway series chalk drawing. often creating 40 drawings per day, Haring used the public space to interact with locals, therefore creating a dialogue inherent within his work.
The endeavor began serendipitously when Haring noticed one of these blank panels in the station at Times Square and immediately went above ground to buy some chalk. The resulting process of drawing on these panels, a hobby that Haring later called a responsibility fueled his early work. Cultivating the project remained an important activity for him until 1985, long after he had achieved international critical and commercial success.
Often produced before an audience of commuters, which might include police who could ticket him for vandalism, the drawings emerged at a rate of sometimes 40 a day. When not torn or cut from their locations by admirers, they would eventually be covered with new ads. The routine disappearance of these works, in fact, became an incentive for their replenishment and a catalyst for constant reinvention. While many were documented by photographer Tseng Kwong Chi (whom Haring would phone upon returning to his studio to provide their locations) most of the drawings went unrecorded, thus creating one of the most epic and ephemeral projects in the history of the city.
Haring became captivated by the commitment to drawing worthy of risk that for him was one of the many attributes of the work of graffiti artists gaining acceptance at the time. Not wanting to imitate their efforts, and mindful of the science of semiotics to which he had been recently introduced, Haring started to regard the subway as a laboratory for communication and engagement. Motivated by the contact with a diverse (non-art) audience the Manhattan Transit Authority enabled, Haring regarded the MTA as an ideal platform for experimenting with a vocabulary of readily identifiable figures, such as the radiant baby, the barking dog, the hovering angel, and the flying saucer, among many others. Constructed entirely from outlines, each of these characters are staged within a frame lining the perimeter of every black sheet, a unifying trope of Haring’s work that could reference the television screen, the proscenium, or box from a comic strip. Due to prolific repetition and inexhaustible permutation, these characters assumed the identity of potent signs that could address a range of themes, both topical and universal, in a manner ideally suited to the pace and viewing conditions of commuters.
Manifesting a return to expressive figuration in the art world of the late 1970s (as well as in Haring’s own practice), the subway drawings also represented a unique conflation of studio practice and public art, cartoons and graffiti. Although Haring never identified himself as a graffiti artist, he was arrested many times for defacing public property.
Ultimately, Haring’s subway drawings were a synthesis of performative process, automatic writing, and democratic access. Critical to understanding Haring’s overall career and his efforts to connect street culture, fine art, and commercial practices (manifest most boldly by the 1986 opening of his “Pop Shop”), they have proved to be influential to subsequent generations of artists—from merchandise-savvy Takashi Murakami to street artists such as FAILE, Banksy, Shepard Fairey, and Swoon, among many others. While all of these artists fuse idiosyncratic, graphic style with iconic characters using forms of prodigious public address, Haring’s work remains distinctive in its celebration of the primacy of unmediated, spontaneous drawing.