Throughout the 1980s, Keith Haring took to the New York City subway system to create graffiti-inspired works that were at once political, challenging, universal, and joyful. Freeman’s October 25 Modern and Contemporary Art auction offers two of these important works.
10/03/2022 Latest News, News and Film, Modern and Contemporary Art
Lot 64 I Subway Sign I Estimate: $15,000-20,000
Keith Haring, an internationally renowned artist who created some of the most instantly recognizable work of the 20th century, thought of the New York City subway system as his “laboratory.” After moving from his hometown of Kutztown, Pennsylvania to Pittsburgh, then to New York to study at the School of Visual Arts, Haring quickly took to the unruly, vibrant energy of the city’s underground in the late 1970s and 1980s.
Like Haring’s friends and peers within the New York City art scene of the 1980s—figures like Jean-Michel Basquiat and Jenny Holzer—Haring was deeply influenced by the energy, speed, marginal status, and public nature of graffiti, a form that was approaching its heyday by the time he arrived in New York in 1978. However, perhaps no other 20th-century artist played with, learned from, and celebrated graffiti more than Haring.
Throughout the 1980s, Haring used subway spaces not only as his laboratory, but as his literal canvas: wielding chalk, paint, or marker, Haring covered subway signs, as well as the matte black panels of paper left behind once advertisements were stripped, with his line drawings. Haring was not only quick in his execution (to avoid arrest), but incredibly prolific, completing over 5,000 chalk drawings from 1980 to 1985.
These quick, gestural, evocative drawings were where Haring fleshed out and proliferated many of the motifs viewers associate with his work today—one of which being the “radiant baby.” A streamlined, small figure crawling on all fours with lines emanating from its body, the radiant baby is perhaps the most ubiquitous and iconic figure within Haring’s work. A cheerful, hopeful vision of innocence, the radiant baby complemented and even figured in Haring’s anticapitalist and AIDS-awareness activist work.
Lot 63 I Subway Sign I Estimate I $25,000-40,000
Freeman’s October 25 Modern and Contemporary Art auction features two rare New York City subway signs covered in Haring’s drawing, including the radiant baby. The first, a subway exit sign leading riders to the intersection of 45th Street and 4th Avenue, features babies crawling around the contours of an arrow symbol, radiant babies on all fours, and pregnant, dancing, or gesticulating figures (Lot 63; estimate: $25,000-40,000). In the second (Lot 64; estimate: $15,000-20,000), a radiant baby crawls around beneath a flying saucer that beckons it upwards, while a train of babies proceeds above.
Throughout his short and wildly prolific career, Haring made his mark in many cities nationally and internationally, painting elaborate murals everywhere from Phoenix to Berlin. Philadelphia’s own We the Youth, Haring’s colorful, cheerful scene of dancing figures, has graced a wall at the corner of 22nd and Ellsworth Streets since 1987. But nowhere is Haring’s massive talent and legacy more keenly felt than in New York City, the artist’s original laboratory; Modern and Contemporary Art offers the opportunity for collectors to own a piece of that history.