There really can’t be anymore anonymous sex.
Three years after organizing the exhibitions Keith Haring – Made in France at the Musee Maillol and Keith Haring – 12 sculptures at the gallery, Jerome de Noirmont is pleased to present a Keith Haring exhibition entitled sex Show, from September 19 to November 16, that through a dozen canvases and some forty drawings, will highlight the crucial importance of sex and sexuality in the artist’s life and work.
Thirty years have already gone by since the sexual liberation of the seventies. Boundaries have been breached, values have shattered and showing sex is increasingly permissible. Yet even today, Jeff Koons’s work, books and films by Virginie Despentes and Catherine Breillat, and the confessions of Catherine Millet continue to be on everyone’s lips. So sex is not always free from the taboos that hem it in.
Throughout his life, from when he began in the late seventies up to his death in 1990, Keith Haring produced work that was both intense and explicit around sex and sexuality.
In 1978, at the height of the sexual revolution, Keith Haring arrived in New York and attended the School of Visual Arts. Frequenting the backrooms and public baths where the gay community hung out, the sex that haunted his nights soon became the fruit and the main inspiration of his research. Strongly marked by the atmosphere that reigned in the city, full of teeming life, carefree sex, brilliant colors and communal effervescence, Keith Haring was quickly noticed for the realism of his perception of the body and sexuality. The erotic figures that he developed then resonated as the translation of the confidence necessary to any union acting on the loss, within that union, of the individuality of each of them. Throughout his entire career, the way he portrays the male genitals reveals both unceasing, voracious and submerging desire, and is an allegory for nirvana. Sex also appears in full realism as a guarantee of the durability of human relations and as the symbol of reconciliation, union and harmony between different entities.
But sex, symbol of the regeneration and transmission of life, soon becomes the vector of death when it appears in the early eighties as the specter of AIDS, that Keith Haring was to die of in 1990. This duality affects Keith Haring’s work and marks it deeply. So his works are denoted by a defiance, a warning, a certain violence sometimes that disturbs the onlooker and bears witness to the dichotomy the artist was in as regards his work.
Unlike many homosexual artists who have long sought to maintain the clandestine, invisible character of their sexuality, in his own artistic expression Keith Haring found the means of affirming his pride in being gay through the very explicit homo-erotic character of his works. Keith Haring’s determination to fully incorporate his homosexuality as one of the indissoluble facets of his art – in spite of the homophobia and oppression that many of his predecessors had suffered throughout history – was the component triggering a huge movement in which artists no longer held back from positively expressing their homosexuality in their art.
Painfully, Keith Haring, attacked by the AIDS virus, had in his own life to accept that sex and love could be associated with the idea of illness and death. Yet far from giving his artistic expression a fatalistic character, up to his death in 1990 Keith Haring redoubled his efforts to bear witness to the value and richness of life, love and sex, and become aware of the importance of time and the urgency of his work. Generations of kids growing up now have the advantage of knowing that it [AIDS] is out there. Before it existed, it is something you never would have though about, that you could associate love or blood, or sperm, with the carriers of death. […] The only good thing to come out is that it has put this real intensity to the time, that forces people to really rethink why they’re here and why they’re alive, and to appreciate every second‘.1 Illness then lead Keith Haring to become a militant in associations such as Act Up. In parallel, he devoted himself ever more actively, in his art, to AIDS prevention, as in his painting Safe Sex, to the need for information, fighting against silence and ignorance, and increasing performances throughout the world.
Each of Keith Haring’s works witnesses a new aestheticism reaffirming the pre-eminence of the dogmatic truths around which is based a universally intelligible statement radically upsetting prejudices all too comfortably established. This is because it sometimes means a rejection of any “unsuitable” representation, whose indecency goes beyond our own norms, perhaps through egotism or more likely due to fear of the unknown. This is precisely what Keith Haring wanted to highlight in some of the works being shown in this exhibition. While he was still a student at New York’s SVA, he rapidly developed work that he himself defined as totally phallic2.
From his first years in New York, Keith Haring in fact incorporated the universal language of sex into what he created through contact with the graffiti artists he mixed with: I at once felt at ease with this art-form. Graffiti was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen3. His artistic language soon took shape. From 1980, Keith Haring created an independent, universal vocabulary. I created non-verbal symbols, signs that could have different interpretations according to the moment. It was by playing tag that Keith Haring gave birth to the “Radiant Child” and to the “Dog” character already expressing the wealth of a language that could be universally understood, based on an exchange of energy, in which things, people and animals are irradiated and irradiate in their turn, thus surrounding themselves with a halo of energy.
Through that language, all of the works shown in this exhibition provide an account of the reaction against the hypocrisy that has long governed discussion on sex. In his imagination, establishing himself between popular art that had already highlighted soft and other pornography, and the more explicit nature of some graffiti, Keith Haring combined with the phallic representation all of the system of symbols that could be in his sphere. The generating power of sex would appear to be the place of origin where the life, warmth, energy, light and strength essential to the balance of human structures and to world order. But in these works he also painted a universe of perpetual dissatisfaction, unquenchable torment and carnal yearnings going well beyond the simple representation of the sexual act.
This was because for Keith Haring where there is no mystery, there is no propaganda. This phrase assumes its full weight through works presented in ,Sex Show. Keith Haring stages his visual appetite whose voracity can result in the use of bright colors in an architecture and execution with a baroque look, as in the painting Untitled (For Bobby), 1984, or in his drawings such as Untitled 10-Aug-83, by the frenzy and power of movement that gives the work its entire force, audacity and clarity. Every work seems to hold an instant and subjective truth that onlookers make their own the instant they immerse themselves in it. Keith Haring thus plunges us into the rediscovery of self and, paradoxically, into images sometimes threatening, in the rediscovery of sincere and pure truths.
From these works emerges in reality the frenzy of a submerged desire for discussion and the quest for a passionate relationship marked by a frenetic turbulence of mind and body. Uncontrollable urges with threatening aspects emerge from many pieces. Keith Haring builds a mystic, cosmic and orgasmic communication, a union through a nebulous disquiet projecting its representation of a universe where all is only excrement, sperm, sex, anarchy, bloody cruelty and where the one certainty will be the vanity of all and the value of nothing. But above and beyond that representation, the feeling of an infinite distress makes us treat the works as a real call holding the onlooker in concert with the love of life, as in Untitled 4-Apr-1984 where sex spurts out life.
Keith Haring’s work proffers both threats, calls for order, cries from the heart and calls for deliverance. Life and death, Eros and Thanatos, insouciance and warning are intermingled to bring forth all the complexity of human relations where relations of force, seduction, attraction, desire, degradation, self-destruction and self development run cheek by jowl. It is an unremitting fight for life and against all the threats that may harm and alter. A fight against illness and for the freedom of minds and bodies. A true Hymn to Life. And to Love.
- Keith Haring sic.
- Keith Haring in “Keith Haring – The Authorized Biography” by John Gruen
- Keith Haring in “Keith Haring – The Authorized Biography” by John Gruen