Heaven and Hell

“Pure Art exists only on the level of instant response to pure life.”
-Keith Haring, October 1978

Keith Haring is always identified first and foremost with the early icons with which he made his public debut: the radiant baby, the barking dog and his unmistakable outline men tangled up in various, partly “comic” or abstruse actions. Moreover, his icons and symbol-like figures are so easily remembered for their similarity to a signature that they automatically became symbols characterizing his drawing, thus making them an ideal link with the commercialization of Haring’s pictures and the world of painting beyond the classical art market. From this they inevitably received positive energy which is inscribed like a quasi definition, even fatefully, on the commercial product. This fatefulness, however, also possesses in this connection a tragic component which had to be endured both in Haring’s art and in his life. Whilst the tragedy of the early end of Haring’s life, which up to this point had been driven by martyr-like stylization, had been capable of being perfectly integrated both in idealization and popularization for the art (market) elite. This did not correspond at all to the peculiarity of his personal fate, nor to the actual character of Haring’s world of pictures which on closer inspection has nothing in common with the generally accepted image of an American artist.

This is also a problem for the reception of Keith Haring’s work, since he was accused of consciously commercializing his art from the beginning of his career, particularly, of course, in connection with the opening of the Pop Shop in 1986. This must obviously have been interpreted as the Fall of Man in critical and artistic circles, which only regarded commercialization as acceptable when ennobled at the hand of the gallery owners and kept at a distance from the inner circle of art. Haring himself had also flirted with criticism when he had tried to give himself the veneer of a guerrilla on the art scene; at the same time he had suffered from being obstinately ignored by institutions. However, it would be a mistake to accuse Haring of having made his “will to art” conform to the “will of the market,” or even of having subordinated it. There was also a tendency to look at it from the perspective that popular picture themes in concrete artistic production never gained the upper hand, which was only to be expected given the market economy law of supply and demand.

A brief overview of the painter’s work immediately shows that cheerful, happy, optimistic themes by no means predominate, and that even many of the pictures of a basically or at least apparently positive mood possess an undercurrent of a darker nature, since they definitely contain elements of potential power or threat in their iconographic details and pictorial language. The numerous scenes of perforation, in the concrete bodily sense as well as the figurative sexual sense, the monsters, absurd creatures, skeletons, snakes and beasts of prey which populate Haring’s pictures, in particular almost always add a more or less tangible, nightmarish or violent character to his multi-figured, pattern-like works. This antagonism between the figures, the figures which combine these good and evil attributes and characteristics of each one of Haring’s figures, and what is stylistically typical, even inspired, from the artistic point of view, is that this variety of content does not complicated the dark iconography further. Nevertheless, there is also stylistic diversification in Haring’s extremely memorable and immediately recognizable pictorial language which ranges from the graffiti-like, rudimentary, icon-like figures, reduced to a few brushstrokes by strong contrast backed up by an appropriated use of color, to a ubiquitous and not easily or instantly comprehensible all-over pattern. The fascinating aspect of Haring’s painting lies in the fact that he was able to create the whole range of pictures between these two extremes and to use every format from the comparatively small canvas up to the enormous tarpaulin or wall painting, according to his subjects and artistic intention. This extreme variation in forms, which can only be summarized here, is confirmed by a glance at Haring’s themes where his fundamental style brought together quite conflicting positions in his pictures which acted contrapuntally on their superficial, strongly dominant and positive-seeming affirmation. One can also see a roughly chronological division of the formal appearance of Haring’s pictures which is almost analogous to their thematic development and grouping. Four phases or groups can also be distinguished, though we must never forget the arbitrariness of such divisions, particularly in the case of Keith Haring’s works, view. In this way we will avoid from the start a rigid formalistic view of essential knowledge in the consideration of his complete works. An additional chronological restriction could also be more or less conceivable, but would hardly be meaningful. In addition, certain technical changes such as colors, application of color and support play a role here, but should be disregarded at this point.

The first clearly recognizable group is a series of sometimes rather clumsy-looking, comic-strip-like narrative pictures which provide a stage for the protagonists. It includes works like Ten Commandments, Prophets of Rage and Untitled from 1985 (cat. nos. 21, 29, 20). Then there are some pictures which teem with iconography but which are comprehensible at a glance, for instance, the hellish crowd scene in Untitled, 1985 (cat. no. 17) or over patterns (such as Walking in the Rain, cat. no. 37) also form a distinctively typical group, as do those with strong “dripping” patterns, which are thus difficult to read, like Rebirth or Assassination (cat. nos. 34, 31). Painting for Francesca Alinovi (cat. no. 3) can also be included here.

If we now consider the main iconographic and thematic focus and groups in Haring’s pictures, it is clear that those with a “darker,” rather than a cheerful, topic predominate as do those which are somewhat ambiguous in their effect of formulation. The fundamental topics dealt with are power and threat, death and deliverance, religion, sexuality, heaven and hell. These subjects do not appear in isolation from each other, but interact and almost inevitably overlap one another. Misery and anxiety, struggle and injury are in no way excised or denied in Haring’s apparently intact universe. Quite the revers: pictures of pleasure and enjoyment of life with which Haring’s name is always unfairly linked, are unthinkable without the visions of horror and death. Haring’s emphatic commitment to a free and happy life is only understandable at all against the background of “Heaven and Hell.” Heaven and Hell provides the title of a – rare – thematic exhibition of Keith Haring’s works especially in the discussion of this aspect of his work. In this way his pictures can show the biographical association between art and life, stimulated by the picture’s topic, as well as the principal iconographic lines. So in the end it is clear why Haring has to paint what he does and exactly how he paints it – without reference to any fashions or commercially controlled external influences. The themes and the energy generated by the opposition of heaven and hell also determine the tension and effectiveness of Haring’s work: it is, quite simply, essential.

The exhibition also tries to continue the thematic grouping. The tarpaulin with his portrayal of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Haring’s eponymous and largest work, in terms of its dimensions dominates the exhibition hall (cat. no. 12). Haring received the commission for this monumental work in 1984, and completed it on December 16, 1984 in Marseille. The choreographer Roland Petit based his production of the ballet Le mariage du ciel et de l’enfer, in the opera house in Marseille, on the 1790-1793 prose version by the English painter and graphic artist William Blake. Haring created the painting as a stage set, so that the picture was never exhibited in the context of a museum, let alone with other artists’ works. Haring’s actualization of the theme formed a striking connection between the enormous picture surfaces. The exchange of rings by the two hands in the middle of the picture translates the title literally and at the same time divides the composition vertically. Haring places the “comical” incidents with the elemental layers of heaven and hell and their “inhabitants” horizontally. In the eventful “crisis area” in the middle, just where all the events accumulate in the hands of heavenly and hellish powers, the really exciting overlaps of the two extremes take place on top of each other, as so often in Haring’s work. In this work Haring used the clear, strong outline drawings which were typical of him in the mid-Eighties. The picture field is confined within the border of a double red and black line, while the individual drawings are in strongly contrasting black on white. The hand from heaven slips the ring onto the hand from hell, so that approval and sanctioning of hell’s deeds appear in the organization of the action. The hand from hell gestures to it with the sign of the devil, in which the index finger and the little finger are extended beyond the otherwise closed fist. In this way the hand from hell is the central, dominating motif and becomes rather triumphant. The hell zone in the lower third of the picture is filled with blazing flames in which human bodies are piled up on top of each other, though each of them is marked with a cross – Keith Haring’s shorthand symbol for individuality. Here too the formally, extremely reduced portrayal gets its tension from the contrast between the clearly articulated “egos” and their enforced facelessness in the crowds of those damned to roast in hell. Above them winged and horned devil or demon forms from fires of hell soar in the direction of heaven. Haring has also marked them with crosses, but on their chests, not on their heads. This clearly distinguishes them from the others as individuals who may be interpreted as negatively connotated. It is thus apparent that Haring uses the simple-seeming vocabulary of his picture language quite obviously in accordance with a clear grammar. This results in something rather like the “cryptography” which is frequently to be found in his diaries. The desire to use a secret language, which is or could also be a universal language had interested Haring early on, and the “tags” of graffiti writers were nothing but signatures, in the language of the initiated. Using words as signs and signs as words had been a constant theme for Haring ever since he had studied Kandinsky.1 Haring constantly reused particular sings and symbols, which did not relate to any notation, within an established context and with a meaning which the signs would not have had before and outside the picture system.

This can be understood right from the beginning from the rays seen surrounding Haring’s figures: whilst the demons from hell are wreathed in jagged-angled rays, the haloes of the angel figures in the top half of the picture have wavy, bendy rays, which reiterate the continual antagonism between the powers. Thus it is remarkable that the ethereal angelic creatures are not marked out as individuals at all by crosses. The list of characters in the picture is completed by two figures in the middle section which are typical for Haring, but conspicuous in the context of the picture because they are confusing. In the top right-hand quarter of the picture Haring varies the theme of the exchange of rings by inserting a pair linked together by their ring-shaped heads like two links in a chain, something that is frequently found in his work. In the middle of the left-hand half of the picture there is a human figure which floats astride a horizontal Latin cross. The reiteration of Christian symbols emphasizes not just the content of the background of the picture’s subject, but also refers to the origin of Haring’s cross or X-sign as a symbol of individuals, since this is derived from the Latin cross which Haring inscribed in the same way in his early work and, in all probability, with the same association of meaning for his figures. The Latin cross is used not just as a mark on the body, but also as a physical characteristic or even as a weapon, with which other figures were spellbound or injured. This separates not just the obviously good intentions from the bad, but does it without always getting the same evaluation. This is most clearly seen in Keith Haring’s drawing with the same title The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, which he did in the same year, 1984, before the creation of the large tarpaulin (cat. no. 41).

Here the hand pointing down from heaven is marked with a five-pointed star and the Latin cross, whilst the hand from hell bears the X-shaped cross. No marriage takes place between the two powers and the figures which accompany them, but confrontation and tension are noticeable in the position of the hands and the many rays of light. Again the damned in hellfire bear the X-cross on their bodies, one skeleton rising out of hell bears a cross like this on its forehead, and a long-legged figure with two such marks on its upper body appears to establish a link between the zones, because it too holds a Latin cross in its left hand to ward off or command a ghost-shaped demon. On the opposite side of the picture, and corresponding to this protagonist, is the upper body of a torn figure which holds a Christian cross and a heart in its hands, whilst underneath the torn-off half of its body there appears a further X-cross. The iconographic repertoire of the large Heaven and Hell tarpaulin – the angel, the bat-demons and the now famous man riding a Christian cross – is also found there. The form of a man with a gaping hole in the upper part of his body, riding through the air on a winged dog, is particularly interesting. This figure, which looks like an apocalyptic rider according to the rules of Keith Haring’s universe, links both works once more with Haring’s cosmos of symbols. Haring had used this formulation since the early Eighties in a curiously ambiguous sense. He had experienced a vision which had appeared to him after the murder of John Lennon, and which he had recorded in his diary.2 This is interesting in this context since not only does the vividness of his apocalyptic rider gain a sharp focus through it. both semantically and with respect to content, but also the close link between personal experience and feeling, particularly that between threat and death, directly left its picture-generating mark on Haring’s work – and it did so permanently. The picture vocabulary, which in this way increased continually, inevitably became a separate grammar which Haring used in his paintings and drawings. UFOs and snakes, which had been present in his works from the beginning, also appear in the Heaven and Hell drawing. If one follows the cross symbol further, one easily falls into the whirlpool of interpretative possibilities which inevitably results from the endless combinations in which Haring arranged his motifs.

An extremely impressive group of paintings, which belong together in terms of both subject and style, can be put together on the theme of hell. In these paintings Haring in part very graphically outlined every circle of hell, so that they form the nucleus of the exhibition. The portrayal of the apocalyptic animal, marked with the stigma-like number 666, in a blue-green hell-tree full of impaled figures (incidentally, they are marked with an X) (cat. no. 10) and the picture of a nuclear hell-monster on a purple background surrounded by UFOs, flying pyramids and anatomically monstrous creatures, second only to the gloomy visions of Hieronymus Bosch (cat. no. 5), both belong here. In a series of pictures one meets, on a yellow ground, a flight of stairs leading to the maw of a monster which is devouring people and vermin, whilst next to it a skeleton with its brains leaking out protrudes from a mass of red bodies (cat. no. 2), one stands facing a magnificent picture of an absurd, slimy monster put together from many corpses, which is accompanied by ghosts of the dead and carries a large red X on a shield around its neck (cat. no. 19), and one could add further examples. But the most impressive of the hell pictures must surely be the large red and black inferno from 1985, in which Haring brought together everything that his iconography of devilish agony could invent (cat. no. 17).3 This picture, in whose blazing red hell-fires writhe demons, monsters and the damned, is dominated by a reincarnation of the whore of Babylon as this appears on medieval altar retables. The biblical metaphor for evil and hell on earth appears in yet another picture from 1984, which uses Christian iconography in the same way (cat. no. 11).

An alternative plan for hell scenarios can perhaps be seen in the playful scenes of babies, dogs, dancing people, etc., full of the joys of life, to which reference has already been made. But there are also the real Paradise sketches to which belongs, amongst others, the Tree of Life from 1984, and in particular the enormous tarpaulin of the so-called Palladium Backdrop (cat. nos. 18, 15). Haring had painted this large-scale painting in 1985 for the New York discotheque, The Palladium, to decorate the dance floor for his second “Party of Life.”4 A variety of dancing, copulating, grotesque shapes are to be seen merging together in front of a multi-colored, mosaic-like background, in the manner of his allover figure patterns, generating the dynamism and rhythm of the large areas. Closer inspection shows that Keith Haring had seen something like a vision of paradise in the throng of living beings intertwining and interacting with each other. The dissolving of separate individuals in the mass, and thus the disappearance of individual destinies, is one of the main constants in Haring’s portrayal of human groups, in both the positive and negative sense. The strength of character which is absent from so many of his pictures filled with masses of the most colorful types of people, likewise stems from the combination of different characters, worlds and philosophies of life. The best, and best-known, example of this is the large mural painted in 1989 on an exterior wall of the cloister complex of San Antonio in Pisa. Haring himself repeatedly stressed that the “Progetto di Pisa” was perhaps his most important work in a public place,5 and the creative phase, which lasted for several days, had already been publicized as an event, so that Keith Haring may be credited with the invention of the contemporary cutting-edge art-event. Actually in those days in June 1989 in Pisa so many people came together from such different backgrounds to see Haring at work and to meet with like-minded people that the art-event turned into a multi-cultural get-together, which Haring portrayed in parallel with his mural.6 And so it is not surprising that the programmatic title which Haring gave to the picture of the state of the paradisiacal community was Tuttomondo – all the world.

The same spirit is noticeable in the large tarpaulin for the Palladium – though the signs are slightly changed. The positive dissolving within the crowd, which the figuration of the pictures allowed to merge from human into amorphous forms, and the kaleidoscope-like color-splintering constantly combined and separated, even letting them dance together, translates into color and form Haring’s own feeling of being alive while dancing in the discotheque. It is hardly surprising that his preferred discotheques have appropriate names: Haring visited the “Paradise Garage” in New York and “Heaven” in London. There is a wonderful entry about them in his diaries: “We take taxi to heaven. It is almost the same as I remember it, big and gay.”7

His diary-notebooks clearly show how important the nights of physical overexertion and spiritual weightlessness were to him: work on European projects was interrupted in good time so that he had enough time for the trans-Atlantic flight and was able to spend Saturday night dancing in New York.8 This way of life was also, metaphorically speaking, a form of marriage between heaven and hell.

To what extent the at least Christian-inspired symbolism of his work over long periods of time could actually be described as religious, can only be determined with difficulty, though its influence on Haring is easy to substantiate biographically. But it is certain that, all his life, Haring occupied himself with the last things, life and death, and in an eschatological way, too, against the background of questions about the meaning of life in the face of power, fear, misery, illness and in the end the absurdity of death. Conversion through confrontation with death, as understood from his diary notes, is remarkable, if not surprising. The rebellious fearlessness and self-confidence with which Haring defied the abstract thoughts of death in the pleasure of real, beautiful life, changed to deeper fear, as the possibility of his own death through his AIDS-related illness became only all too concrete. From this time on many of his pictures increased in sharpness and hardness. And fluctuation between hope and hopelessness did not allow his creative energy to flag, but spurred him on, as far as it was possible, to paint not only against the hell of others but also against his own decline. Certainly this corresponded to a common theme of artistic life and also of martyrdom which was conferred on Haring by his early death. But it also corresponded to Haring’s artistic way of seeing himself, since from the beginning he wanted to know that his pictures were not based on anything without a message: he soon rebelled against Marshall McLuhan’s famous dictum about the medium as the real message, said Haring, “the message is the message.”9

But even this position can be subject to formal and artistic requirements, as Haring’s panels of the Ten Commandments indicate. Haring’s iconographic and formal solution, a perfect linking of all “dark,” existential themes in content, remains amazing, even though its well-documented genesis offered a profound insight into his artistic creative process.10 For the idea of illustrating the ten commandments led to a restriction in form: Haring himself described how he had to be able to fit ten canvases into the five round arches of the Museum for Contemporary Art in Bordeaux without actually knowing what pictures he was going to paint on them. Only the number ten gave him the solution then, and it is a lovely anecdote, how after arriving in France he first got hold of a Bible in order to refresh his knowledge of the commandments.11 Then the architectural order and the painting process gave the pictures a sequence, which could not be read from its iconography. At first glance the themes of the individual commandments are, at best, ordered associatively, and presumably Haring also went about producing the pictures in exactly the same way.

A large-format sequence of actual commandment panels was produced, which the iconographic repertoire of the hell and threat pictures increased to monumental proportions. Haring paraphrased the individual points or themes of the commandments not quite legibly, but he posed the question about the nature and being of the commandments, while allowing them be present at atrocities. The commandments should have been, and were, commemorated through and with evil deeds, they were recalled against them and are thus a metaphor for morals in general. Pure thoughts, the possibility of commandments – being wrongly treated like a child, an ideological rule which both conjured up here in so conflicting a way – this possibility also proves the possibility of morals and consequently the hidden existence of good, in spite of the overwhelming and obvious presence of evil. That the portrayal of the ten commandments concerns the establishment of form and content in the tradition of art history is inevitably more than just a coincidence, but also a result of Haring’s pictorial intuition, stemming from his genius for empathy in addition to his previous art-historical experience. Since the first portrayal of the Decalogue, the individual commandments have typically not been illustrated with words, but evoked through a picture of clear action. Thus frequently well-known episodes of sinful deeds from the Old Testament were brought in as place-markers for the respective commandments. With time a stronger picture resource came about, which could be combined effortlessly with the respective statements of the commandments, since the typological reference of the “individual case” to “its” commandment was self-evident. Through translation into Haring’s picture language the canon of archetypal behavior combined with the remaining symbol and motif vocabulary from which Haring had formulated his pictures and revealed their story. In form the huge commandment panels are closely linked with an enormous oblong format which was also produced in France, whose theme is, as it were, the “effect of evil” (cat. no. 26),12 Keith Haring used three typical figures or motifs here to fill the gigantic format of the picture and to convey the message. Conspicuous in this special picture are the ease and simultaneous subversiveness of the portrayal, which only upon closer examination loses its apparent comic-like, playful, funny tone and reveals the gravity of the message.

Works like this perhaps allow us to understand best of all what an outrageous tightrope act Keith Haring permanently performed in his art. The sudden changes from positive to negative, the permanent presence, at least subliminally, of the remote, threatening and destructive elements in the grotesque and the playful are all too often evident. That is why it is astonishing that this dark side in Keith Haring’s creation is so rarely recognized, or is perhaps even deliberately overlooked. The martyr must remain a positive hero; a tragic, but consequently much more human ambiguity is rarely conferred on him, but the negative must also be uncompromisingly forgotten in the positive, since one is a requirement of the other. The three-eyed Face, another of Haring’s figures which appears repeatedly, and was on the cover of the catalogue for Keith Haring’s first one-man exhibition, which took place in 1982 in Tony Shafrazi’s New York gallery, in some way first establishes the uncompromising positive element, and carries it straight through to the unmentioned dark side (cat. no. 1). Haring had always followed this train of thought exactly and assimilated it, which is why his most commercial and apparently most characterless happy little figures never achieved the complete moral emptiness of Disney figures, for instance.

This was also true for the whole sphere of sexual portrayals which in addition can only with difficulty be separated from both the power and hell pictures, and the visions of heaven. In Haring’s pictures sexuality possesses threatening, violent and obsessive tensions as well as hedonistic and decidedly pleasurable connotations. As well as countless copulating couples, orgies involving humans, animals and monsters, and unattached male and female genitals which go through all the abstruse metamorphoses conceivable, one main theme remains discernible: that of sexual self-determination. Rape, sexual compulsion and castration are the fundamental forms in which individual self-determination is forcibly prevented. Scenes of castration were frequently combined with Christian symbols, particularly desecrated crosses and crucifixes, so that it only needed a little deductive effort to read into this here – and no doubt appropriately – criticism of repression based on religion or morals.

But in many cases the violent scenes became the opposite both by their frequency and because of the ambiguous attitudes of the protagonists in the spirit of the picture-puzzle character described above. All of a sudden, the brutal scenes of bestiality and limitless power gained the appearance of relish and thus defied a meaningful reading. It is a characteristic of Haring’s picture world that may have led the confusing ambiguities to give way to simpler consumable ambiguities, the pure zest for life of one-dimensional pictures and icons on posters. That this also lost its hold in this way does not need to be considered for the moment.

The combination of sexuality and death in art and literature is such a common theme that we would not have needed to look any further for a reason for Haring’s interest in this topic had it not become a real and threatening component on the basis of the threat from AIDS. Even here Haring found, in the overtly placard-like pictures such as Ignorance = Fear and Silence = Death, a series of easily remembered and, to some extent, more extreme pictorial metaphors. The most impressive of these is well illustrated in one large work from 1988 (cat. no. 27). Haring’s symbol for the deadly threat to sexuality appears there as the main figure outlined in white on a black background, in the form of a “devil sperm,” an enormous horned sperm. Haring repeated the “devil sperm” as a demoniacal embodiment of death in physical love in a series of vivid drawings and paintings. The egg from which the demon is hatching is like a deadly burden strapped to the back of a male figure struggling to climb up a flight of stairs. In Haring’s work this detail of the stairs, or the stepped pyramid, often represents the entrance or the vortex of a hell circle which can be seen in the hell pictures. Thus he linked once more the real contents of his picture, on the form and content level, to his earlier works, since in this way he referred to the aesthetic of the Subway Drawings and the other drawings from the early Eighties. But it is decisive for the appraisal of the painting that it incorporates in an almost mythological form actual burning questions, which in turn are very concerned with repression and prevention of personal development, and not just on the social level, but also and in particular through an irrational and brutal threat. In the end it also appears to be a form of solidarity for Haring, which makes it possible for individuals to merge into the joyful, happy crowd.

Pictures of sexual or political repression are therefore to be found throughout Haring’s oeuvre, without these spheres always being able to be separated. On the contrary they often go hand in hand. So The Great White Way makes available the whole pandemonium of the (white) phallocracy, in the external form of an enormous erect penis (cat. no. 32). Thus it is quite consistent that individual scenes do not at all appear to be always negatively intended, even though power and repression dominate numerically. The derogatory use of Christian symbols here should not be overlooked, but it is in no way dominant. Haring dissolves them much more frequently in a form which is at least as funny as it is critical, even when, as here, two men allow their penises to become erect in the form of a Latin cross. However, the pregnant women in chains, the figures impaled on crosses and the crowned dollar-monster in the middle all speak an unambiguous language.

Some of Haring’s pictures were concerned with concrete cases of murder, power and threat, and these works often moved between the genres of history painting and political placard. These include works which Haring called into the fight against AIDS or apartheid in South Africa. One well-known example, in which Haring took a concrete event as an occasion for a political statement, was the picture of the black graffiti spray painter, Michael Stewart, beaten to death by police officers (Michael Stewart – USA for Africa, October 5, 1985). A quite exceptional role, both in content and artistically, was taken in this group by the large six-part work which Keith Haring painted on April 21, 1984 as a result of the murder of Francesca Alinovi (cat. no. 3).

On June 15, 1983, Francesca Alinovi, a 35-year old art critic and lecturer at DAMS13 in Bologna, was found murdered in her apartment in mysterious circumstances,14 She was found, fully clothed, lying on the floor of the living room, with 47 stab wounds, of which a single one to the neck had injured her fatally, whilst the others were not very deep. In the bathroom the words “Your not alone, anyway” in bad English, were found written on the window in lipstick. Investigation into the case fixed the time of death as the evening of June 12, and Francesco Ciancabilla was quickly identified as the suspect: he was a student of Alinovi, unhappily in love with her and apparently the last person to see her alive. In 1986 Ciancabilla was convicted of murder in his absence, although doubts as to his guilt remain to this day, He fled to Spain, where he was arrested in 1996. Keith Haring had known Francesca Alinovi since 1979, when she was in New York preparing for a video exhibition. The Italian woman was one of the first critics to write about the New York artists involved in the graffiti scene, not just shrewdly but also passionately, and to make their art known in Europe.15 Francesca Alinovi had one interview with Keith Haring, which was, he said, the best interview he had ever done.16 He devoted his exhibition in Salvatore Ala’s Milan gallery to the Italian critic, and he painted a picture on the subject of her death. The Painting for Francesca Alinovi is in every respect out of the ordinary. Haring put it together from six equal-sized panels which carry a blue background for the picture. The frame and the drawings inside it are done in black on red lines and the shapes are filled in on top with hieroglyphic-like signs in white, yellow and black. In this way the work already stood out in a purely aesthetic way from Haring’s oeuvre. The picture field itself is without a main focus and covered with an all-over pattern of figures, heads, limbs and more rhythmical structures merging into one another, from which individual scenes only gradually emerge. Human figures are piled up and entwined just like the monsters and demons in a German Renaissance portrayal of the temptation of Saint Anthony. In the middle, however, the scenes which give it its title are played out: watched by a witness who puts both hands over his eyes in fright, a hand holding a knife comes down from above and stabs through the body of a figure stretched out diagonally across the middle of the picture, whose confused mane of hair, eyes, hand and wide-open mouth stand out from the rest of the events. This is undoubtedly the victim, Francesca Alinovi, whom Haring made identifiable in the whirl of events by her characteristic punk mop of hair. Crosses also appear in this picture and it is difficult not to read something into them, even though Haring often put these symbols in quite intuitively. The formal aspect of the picture is as fascinating as the iconography. The black and red lines have the effect of a knife-wound, and the unusual, almost gloomy and at the same time expressive coloring prove once more Haring’s masterly use of spaces and the instinctive certainty with which he meaningfully combined colors and networks of lines.

The Painting for Francesca Alinovi has a reputation as a key work in which Haring, whether consciously or unconsciously, made a happy choice of central topic from all the drama and tragedy of the real story, and this allowed him to create a kind of meta-picture of his view of the relationship between art and life. Keith Haring’s picture is just as confused and unclear as the murder of Francesca Alinovi. Here, too, there are many fragmentary details which seem to fit together and then lead to nothing, or whose conclusiveness is ruled out by other details. In both cases there are many things which appear not to fit in the picture, but which nevertheless exist and consequently cannot simply be ignored. The universality of the “Alinovi case” lies, in addition to these mutually negating fragments, in the suddenness and absurdity of death and in the combination of this death with elements of mysteriousness, brutality and the premonition of a bizarre love. Thus a latent threat results from the noticeable possibility of sudden changes in the situation, which also appears to have played a role in the murder of Francesca Alinovi. In Haring’s pictures these changes exist through the extremes of motif and form, and the combination of love and death must have exerted a similar fascination on him as it did on Francesca Alinovi. On December 20, 1981 she wrote this in her diary: “Faccio iI mio testamento di amore e di morte perche ho sempre sentito I’amore come morte (e la morte come amore?). Non voglio morire … non posso amare ….”17

Keith Haring’s pictures and subjects are thus authentic in the best sense, which is the basic finding of this overview. They are authentic because they convey a concrete feeling of being alive and express feelings created by a combination of that which is personal and felt with that which is universal and over-personal. Haring’s artistic achievement lies in the timelessness of his picture creation gained from his personal time. Several of his pictures are quasi diary entries and already possess their own topicality, based simply on the circumstances of their origin. They get their explosive force from the directness of the transmission of impressions and ideas in another medium, a quality which can only be achieved in pictorial art with the greatest difficulty. Nearly all Haring’s pictures were done in just one day, and he painted as many pictures in as many days, even just before his death. The need for records and full enjoyment of time, which is noticeable here, is shown in the detailed entries in the later diaries, which were often several pages long. This particular topicality in Keith Haring’s art was rescued through the universality of the subjects and the spontaneity of execution in the present. Nothing nostalgic or fuddy-duddy adheres to the pictures which are actually linked as strongly as possible with the spirit and the culture of the 1980s and the topical events of those years. Thus Keith Haring’s work could quite accurately be described years ago as “Art for the year 2001,” even without the revival of the Eighties having been foreseen at that time.18

The momentousness of life and its vicissitudes cause the dilemmas of anxiety and heroism, to name but the most extreme, experienced by individuals and portrayed by Haring. Moments of freedom from compulsion, on the other hand, are moments of happiness, contentedness and relaxation and also include the disintegration of the individual through the inherent futility of self-assertion. Haring knew only too well from his own life this kind of “combat situation” and the feeling of happiness at being able to escape from it. Haring himself knew the dilemma of being torn between a strong physical desire for sex and fulfillment and a desire for a spiritual relationship and intellectual exchange, and called it a fundamental problem and destructive pattern in his life. This is the explanation for the ambiguity and extremeness of his pictures.


  1. Keith Haring, unpublished notebook, January 23, 1979
  2. Keith Haring, in: John Gruen, Keith Haring, The Authorized Biography, London 1991, pp. 69f.
  3. A detailed and convincing interpretation of the iconography of the pictures by Liliane Weissberg, Erinnerung, Geschichte, Kommunikation: Gedanken zu einem Bild Keith Harings, in: Kunstforum International, vol. 128 (1994), pp. 202-212. Weissberg deciphers the iconography of the large figure in the middle of the picture known as .. Judensau” (Jew swine), but does not draw the obvious parallels between the lampoon-like slander of the Jews in the “Judensau” picture with those of homosexuals, black people, promiscuous people or even AIDS sufferers in Haring’s pictures of Hell, although the discussion about AIDS as “gay cancer” and a “divine punishment” for indecent living in the Eighties was the subject of heated debate and thus was also known to Haring. That such absurd and inhuman prejudices are not purely medieval phenomena and even after two decades of AIDS are anything but in the past, does not need to be specifically emphasized here.
  4. The “Party of Life” was a regular Haring birthday party. John Gruen (op. cit., n. 2), pp.141.
  5. Keith Haring, Journals, New York 1996, pp. 2631. (entry dated June 18, 1989).
  6. Keith Haring, in: Gruen, (op. cit., n.2), pp. 206f.; Journals lop. cit., n.5), pp. 263f. (entry dated June 18, 1989).
  7. Journals (op. cit., n.5), p. 165 (entry dated June 30, 1987).
  8. Journals (op. cit., n.51. pp. 173f. (entry dated October 2, 1987).
  9. Keith Haring, unpublished notebook from October 1978.
  10. Keith Haring, Die Zehn Gebote, exhib. cat. Museum Fridericianum Kassel, ed. Tilman Osterwold, Kassel 1996.
  11. Keith Haring, in: Gruen (op. cit., n.2), p.135.
  12. Keith Haring, Made in France, exhib. cat. Fondation Oina Vierny – Musee Maillol, Paris 1999.
  13. DAMS = Discipline delle Arte, delia Musica e dello Spellacolo, a doctoral course of studies in the Philosophical Faculty of the University of Bologna.
  14. All details from Carlo Lucarelli, Mistero in Blu, Turin 1999.
  15. Cf. Francesca AJinovi, L’arte mia, Bologna 1984.
  16. “I remember the best interview I’ve ever done in my life was with Francesca.”, Journals, (op. cit., n.5), p. 88.
  17. Quotation from Carlo Lucarelli (op. cit., n. 14): “I make my will of love and death, for I have found love as well as death (and death as love?). I do not want to die … I cannot love … “).
  18. Art Magazin, No.2 (1995). Keith Haring: Kunst fur das Jahr 2001, in which: Eva Karcher, Visionen yom Anfang und Ende der Menschen, pp. 12-17.