Keith Haring: The Diamond, the Elephant, and Marcel Duchamp

‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty’, that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
-John Keats

Keith Haring’s Journals1 reveal a poet and a humanist who happens also to be an avant-garde artist, viz. a person who has mastered completely his art, who widens our mental and visual horizons, who follows the advice given by Polonius to his son: “This above all, to thine own self be true, and it follows, as the night follows the day, thou canst then not be false to any man” (Shakespeare, Hamlet). It is not useless to remind ourselves of the qualities which characterize any exponent of the avant-garde at a time when self-defined artists think that, to be an innovator means simply to scandalize the viewer, to épater Ie bourgeois. These neo-academics forget that to be an artist also means to master one’s expressive medium-as mentioned to me by Man Ray: “If an artist wishes to break the rules, he must first fully master them.”

Reading Haring’s Journals has been the source of a constant flow of emotions. Time and again, I have encountered the thoughts of many of my favorite thinkers, artists, and poets. I wish to conclude these reflections on Keith Haring looking into the archetypal sources of his iconology, but before doing so, I believe that I should dwell on Haring’s Journals: nothing can better reveal the essence of his vision of life and art – the precondition for his activity – than his own writings. A word about Haring being a poet, not only in his paintings and sculptures, but also in his world-vision. In the second year of his Journals, he noted: “I have been enlightened. I have fallen into poetry and it has swallowed me up” (September 1979, p. 45). Only a poet can understand that poetry is an instrument of knowledge – just as powerful as love – and it comes as no surprise if, in the same note, he cites, among his favorite poets, two great visionary ones – Rimbaud and Keats – whose influence in his life and work is blatant.

In the last three months of a particularly eventful year, 1978, Haring recorded in his Journals the guiding principles of his logos (or world-view, and poetics) and of his praxis (or technique). Haring, unwittingly, shared the views confirmed by modern thought – quantum physics – as well as the wisdom of an ancient one, alchemy: 1) nothing is permanent, the essence of everything, including art, is movement; 2) there are no absolute truths, no immutable categories, no art, only artists; 3) reality has more than one aspect; 4) rather than conflicting, the poles of an antinomy are complementary; 5) we are part of a whole; 6) the unconscious is of paramount importance, not only in the creative process; 7) each work is the development of the previous one and anticipates the following one.

Thus, in his Journals, and concerning the first of the above-mentioned concepts, Keith Haring, had to say: “The physical reality of the world, as we know it, is motion.” Stepping down from the cosmological to the human dimension, Haring elaborated: “Everything changes, everything is always different… we are constantly changing” (October 1978, pp. 7, 8). Quantum physics has indeed confirmed that the ultimate reality of the universe is energy, that is to say, motion. By laying down that “motion is matter’s mode of existence” (Dialectics of Nature), Friedrich Engels exploded the deistic argument concerning the existence of God by pointing out that it was unnecessary to presume the existence of a “First Motor” (God) to animate the supposed, static status of matter, since matter and motion are interdependent. Concerning change, Heraclitus, in turn, clarified: “One never steps twice into the same river” (The Cosmic Fragments, Diels 12).

In the same entry dated October 14, 1978 – one of Haring’s longest and most important ones – the artist elaborated on the theme that “we are constantly changing,” making a crucial observation: “If I stand in front of my mirror and gaze at my image, I see an endless number of different conceptions of how I look… I am different at different times” (pp. 8, 10). A feeling expressed in lapidary style by Arthur Rimbaud: Je est un autre (“I is anothe,” Illuminations). Who is this “other one” can be easily deduced – not only by the simplicity and directness of his pictorial handwriting, but also by his own notes, viz. “I always want to stay 12 years old,” adding, “children are the bearers of life in its simplest and most joyous form” (July 1986, p. 98). The following year, reverting to this topic, he confessed: “The gift of life I was given has created a silent bond between me and children” (March 1987, p. 123). Arp and Brancusi, among others, had pointed out that to be really creative requires becoming again a child and regaining his innocence, his purity, his simplicity.

For an artist, it is natural to apply the foregoing concepts to one’s own field. Haring fully understood the momentous importance assumed in a painting, not only by the factors of movement, space, and time, but also by their relationship and inter-action: “My paintings are a record of a given space of time… My art defines the space and experiences the space. It changes space and can be part of any given space (October 1978, pp. 10, 14). A few months later he elaborated: “My paintings and my recent sculptures deal more with space than with pictorial concerns. The images are the results of movements, manipulations within a given space” (December 1978, pp. 26-27). Concerning the paramount importance of space, not only in a work of art, Haring also remarked: “Funny how important ‘space’ is” (April 1987, p. 127). More than a couple of millennia earlier, Lao-Tzu confirmed: “Pots are made of clay / But the empty space inside / is the essence of the pot” (Tao Te Ching, par. 11). And, about “movement” Haring was even more explicit: “I believe the very essence of my work rests in the concept of ‘gesture'” (July 1988, p. 220).

Against the current mania to pigeon-hole everybody and everything, Haring also noted: “Although much art history is composed of ‘movements’ and style unique to a group of artists, art always was and always will be the product of the individual […] individuality is still the base of it all.” Furthermore, “No artists are parts of a movement, unless they are followers […] As soon as they declare themselves followers or accept the truths they have not explored as truths, they are defeating the purpose of art as an individual expression – Art as Art” (October 1978, p. 11, the italics are Haring’s). Ernst Gombrich, among others, did not think differently; the opening words of his History of Art (1950) are: “There is really no such thing as Art. There are only artists.”

In contrast to dogmatic thinking, which tries to elaborate theories without taking into account that “facts are stubborn things,” Haring had to say that this exercise was “like superimposing a grid on top of a patch of grass that is alive and constantly changing, and then trying to make the grass fit the predetermined design of the grid” (October 1978, p. 9). Similarly, Engels, criticizing Eugen Dühring’s theories, observed that the latter was “trying to impose upon nature a frame instead of deducing the frame from nature” (Anti-Dühring, 1878).

The last paragraph of Haring’s November 1978 entry: “Life is not only definable in human terms. It is time that we realize this” (p. 19) echoed the latest theories concerning the holistic vision of the universe – of which we are an active-passive element. Quantum physics as well as the latest anthropological studies have indeed confirmed that we are part of an undivided totality, the universe being, in the words of David Bohm, “a unified whole… less extraneous to man than earlier mechanistic approaches seemed to indicate.”2

Freud observed that the relationship between the conscious and the unconscious can be figuratively expressed by the image of an iceberg of which we see only one-tenth – its emerging part (which he compared to the conscious), while nine-tenths (the unconscious) is hidden from our view. Haring was well aware of the fact that when he painted he was actually driven by an impulse he could not control, and the logic of which was unknown to him. We may say – what can be said for every concerned artist – that, rather than painting, Haring is being painted. Realizing this fact prompted him to note: “My concerns in all of my work may be more complex than I am aware of” (December 1978, p. 27).

It is therefore not surprising if Keith Haring has been a paradigmatic exponent of the surrealist technique of psychic automatism which allows the individual “to express verbally, by means of the written word, or in any other manner – the actual functioning of thought… in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern,”3 Knowingly or not, Keith Haring appears to have been guided by the same intent. Explaining his technique, he wrote: “You draw fast… It goes quickly and there is no time to worry about it… It is possible to reach the highest levels of instantaneous response recorded in spontaneous method and representative of purest thought when you are working with the knowledge that the work you create is temporary, insignificant in a broader sense, significant in an immediate sense, a perfect representation of time passing, time existing… Primal response” (November 1978, pp. 22-23, the italics are mine).

The unconscious is the most arcane element of our psyche. In some individuals, its premonitory quality is astounding. To wit, in 1925, André Breton wrote: “There are people who claim that the war taught them something; even so, they aren’t as far along as I am, since I know what the year 1939 has in store for me.”4 On November 7, 1978, Keith Haring noted: “It seems that artists are never ready to die. Their lives are stopped before their ideas are completed:’ Concluding: “I am a link in a chain. The strength of which depends on my own contribution, as well as the contributions of those before and after me… I am a necessary part of an important search to which there is no end” (pp. 20, 21). Three years before dying he wrote: “I always knew, since I was young, that I would die young” (March 1987, p. 123). On February 16, 1990, Keith Haring died at the age of thirty-one, depriving the world of the many contributions this rare artist could have bestowed on mankind.

I mentioned above that among Haring’s sources, alchemy is to be reckoned. In fact, the dynamics of the alchemical opus which leads to the conquest of the Philosopher’s Stone, i.e. to the golden awareness (aurea apprehensio: the discovery of the Self), dictates that every stage of the psychic evolutionary process contains the previous one and anticipates the following. In turn, Haring realized that “each painting builds upon the previous accomplishments” (November 1978, p. 21).

As far as art is concerned, Haring firmly believed that: 1) there exists no hiatus between art and life, that art may be discovered everywhere; 2) everyone is an artist; 3) the work must be the expression of an emotion; 4) the role of the viewer is primary; and, most importantly, 5) art must be lived before being practiced. Let us shortly dwell on each of these concepts.

“If I live my life my way… I can build an even higher awareness” (April 1977, p. 1). Unknowingly, perhaps, Haring was obeying the injunction of Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha, i.e. the enlightened one, in Sanskrit): “Be your own lamp.” I am not alone in believing that the first quality of a human being is to refuse the Authority Principle and obey instead the dictates of the Pleasure Principle, bearing in mind Spinoza’s definition of the term: “Pleasure (Jaetitia) is the passion by means of which the Mind passes to a higher perfection” (Ethics, III, “De affectibus,” pr. 11). What greater pleasure is there than being creative in any field, be it in life, in love, or in art?

“Life is art and art is life” (p. 12) and, as a natural consequence, “Art is for everybody” (October 1978, p. 13). These two statements which express also Marcel Duchamp’s view of life, and of art and its role, denote Haring’s equally audacious vision. A vision anticipated by Lautréamont: “Poetry is not to be written only by ‘poets’ but by everyone.”5 Haring’s subway drawings of the early eighties, as well as all his subsequent works, are the clearest materialization of this thinking, as well as denoting our artist’s constant commitment in ethical and social issues.

A painting – to survive as a work of art – in addition to being the expression of an emotion, must also achieve the miracle of being able to translate feeling into words, words into thoughts, and thoughts into images. Haring’s constant ambition has been no other: he has pursued no other goal. In his own words, paintings, for him, were always “recorded patterns of thought” (October 1978, p. 10), just as for Duchamp who mentioned: “I was interested in ideas – not merely in visual products, I wanted to put painting once again at the service of the mind.”6

When Haring observed: “The viewer creates the reality, the meaning, the conception of the piece,” adding, “I have created a reality that is not complete until it is met with the ideas of another human being” (October 1978, p. 13), he again echoes Duchamp, who, when interviewed by Jean Schuster, said: “It is the viewers who make the painting.”7

For Haring, the fact that art is life, and vice versa, was not an academic statement; he really lived up to these expectations, so much so that he believed “reality is not complete until it is experienced” (October 1978, p. 13), which was just another way to enjoin, with Breton: “May you onIy take the trouble to practice poetry.”8

Concerning Duchamp, the foregoing remarks have affinity with the father of modern art. This syntony was not limited to some methodological aspects of the creative activity, it extended even to secondary elements, to wit, echoing Duchamp’s disparaging remark concerning painters “who need to smell the odor of turpentine.”9 Haring confessed: “Canvas and oil paint repulse me” (October 1978, p. 15).

Two features, which characterize a great number of Keith Haring’s compositions, can be traced back to two archetypal patterns of thought. The first motif is “movement,” and it is Haring who was to emphasize that in his work: “Movement [can be taken] as painting. Painting as movement” (October 1978, p. 15). Movement, in turn, leads to the second archetypal drive, “the immortality quest” discussed next. The fact that Haring’s personages are always on the move is therefore highly significant. His creatures seem to be endowed with a restless activity, they appear to be an artistic expression of Friedrich Engels afore-quoted axiom: “Motion is matter’s mode of existence.”

The symbolism of movement is extremely rich; it may however be summed up in the quest for what the alchemists termed the Philosopher’s Stone (lapis philosopho rum) viz. the afore-mentioned aurea apprehensio, that is to say, the golden awareness of one’s self, which, in obedience to Heraclitus’ dictum, “Know thyself,” will illuminate the path to immortality. The early alchemists, in fact, did not seek immortality by changing lead into gold (aurum vulgi): lead was a metaphor for ignorance just as philosophical gold (aurum philosophorum) stood for awareness. It is only at a much later period, in the Middle Ages, that the Christian and Muslim alchemists interpreted literally the metaphor. The alchemist’s goal – it is worth repeating it, to do away with a very common misconception – can be summed up in the two words which were also inscribed on the wall of Apollo’s temple in Delphi: gnothi seaton (know thyself).

Immortality is what every artist seeks to obtain through his activity, the ultimate purpose of which is to create an opus that will survive him; in Haring’s words: “I won’t really die, because I live in many people” (March 1987, p. 123). Freud and Jung underscored that being immortal is the individual’s deepest-rooted and most universal aspiration. Anthropological studies have also confirmed that our unconscious believes it is immortal, and Otto Rank has singled out the yearning for immortality as the fundamental driving force of the creative process.

While humanity’s first yearning is awareness, the second one is immortality, which is expressed through the graphic motif of the man-with-upraised-arms. Mircea Eliade tells us that when the shaman assumes this position during the rituals, he exclaims: “I have reached the sky, I am immortal.”1O This motif, as universal as that of movement, runs through all ages, all latitudes, all myths, and all religions. It is found in prehistoric rock-inscriptions, in one of the earliest alphabets, in the divinities of archaic religions, in the figures of ancestors, in that of the shaman, and in praying figures.

The key to the symbolic significance of the man-withupraised-arms is given by the hieroglyph Kha. This ideogram stands for the double androgynous personality that expresses the perfection of the divinity of which the human being is the terrestrial projection. In fact, perfection entails immortality, but to be perfect also means to be whole, namely, to be endowed with the qualities of both the female and male principles. This explains why all divinities are androgynous or else have a double (paredrum) of the opposite sex.

The letter Y is the stenographic image of the man-withupraised-arms, and hence of the Primeval Androgyne – as seen, for instance, in an alchemical illustration for Michael Maier’s treatise where the Androgyne is holding a big capital Y. This Androgyne – the anthropomorphic expression of the Philosopher’s Stone – is the outcome of the union (coniunctio oppositorum) of the male and female principles. In turn, this union is expressed by the incestuous nuptials of the brother-sister pair. Finally, the marriage is a metaphor of the psyche’s wholeness, reconstituted through the healing of the personality, normally split into its female and male components.

It is now time to clarify the title of this essay. The diamond may be taken as a symbol of matter, and, in its transcendental aspect, of the work of art. The elephant, in virtue of its powerful and intelligent energy, may stand for motion. Motion, which is, not only for Haring, the driving element of art. While a diamond and an elephant have physically nothing in common, considered from a different point of view, they might reflect the apparent contradiction between the essential simplicity of Haring’s graphic images and the depth of the thinking that motivated his art. An art whose ultimate role is to bridge the gap between art and life, and thus donate, to the concerned viewer, a glimpse of the Philosopher’s Stone.


  1. K. Haring, Journals, Penguin Books, New York 1996, hereafter referred to only as: month, year, page.
  2. On Creativity (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1998), P. 32
  3. André Breton, “Manifesto of Surrealism” (1924), in Manifestoes of Surrealism, trans. Richard Seaver and Helen R. Lane (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1969), p.26
  4. “A Letter to Seers” (1925) Idem. p. 202
  5. Lautréamont, Oeuvres complètes (1896), GLM, Paris 1938, p.237
  6. Duchamp quoted by J.J. Sweeney, “Eleven Europeans in America” in The Museum of Modern Art Bulletin (New York) 13, nos. 4-5 (1946), p.20
  7. “Marcel Duchamp vite” in Le Surréalisme, même (Paris), no. 2 (spring 1957, pp. 28-29)
  8. Breton, op. cit., p.18
  9. Duchamp quoted by Alain Jouffrey, “Conversations avec Marcel Duchamp” in Une Révolution du régard (Paris: Gallimard, 1964), p. 116
  10. M. Eliade, Shamanism. Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy (New York: Bollingen Series, 1974

This essay is published in The Keith Haring Show
(Milan, Italy: Skira), 2005. P. 47 – 59.
Catalog edited by Gianni Mercurio, Demetrio Paparoni
Exhibition curated by Gianni Mercurio, Julia Gruen.

Fondazione Triennale di Milano
September 27, 2005 – January 29, 2006
View Installation Shots from the Exhibition