Keith Haring
Subway Drawings 1981-82

January 13 - February 11, 2011

“A drawing would maybe stay up for a week or two weeks and then there’d be a new advertisement or a new black paper put on top of it … There was a constant need to do the next step in the story, so the story started growing like a serial.” — Keith Haring

Those of us who have come to Keith Haring’s drawings from an historical distance may assume that his instantly recognizable glyphs are part of a fixed iconography, as a cryptic communication to be deciphered. But for Haring — and for the commuters who rode the trains in the early ‘80s (and the police who patrolled them) — the drawings were more like episodes or fragments in a kaleidoscope, and the elements that populated them were always shifting and accumulating and transforming their meanings. The “radiating baby” was not always infantile, nor was the “barking dog” always canine. The latter originated as a generic box-nosed beast. The former began merely as a crawling person, who had been “empowered” by beams from a sombrero-shaped UFO; later, because its head grew in proportion to its body and it was juxtaposed with nuclear symbols, it became a baby whose glow seemed to represent radioactivity. (And the figure with the hole in his chest was forever connected in Haring’s mind with the shooting of John Lennon, although the figure predated that event.)

Several factors account for this instability of meaning. The first is a consequence of Haring’s practice: “The subway became like a drawing workshop to develop ideas and for the vocabulary to expand.” The drawings’ liminal and ephemeral (not to mention anonymous) status meant that Haring could try out arrangements and configurations without fear of commitment or criticism; false starts could be abandoned and forgotten. The second is formal: The influence of comic strips and comic books plays always at the surface of Haring’s images. However much is made of their symbolism, these icons are not the static signs of a private lexicon, but as in any comic strip, these figures are like characters, part of an ongoing story. The third factor is historical: Haring was fascinated by William S. Burroughs’ cut-up technique, and Haring’s experimentation with his figures were part of his attempt to apply that technique to iconography. Each drawing was a combinatory experiment to see how the icons’ meanings could change in new juxtapositions. A final consideration is Haring’s intention, as he clearly stated in his publication of subway drawings photographs: “The drawings are designed to provoke people to think and use their own imagination. They don’t have exact definitions but challenge the viewer to assert his or her own ideas and interpretations.”

One of those viewers was Paolo Buggiani, who was among the first admirers to attempt to “rescue” these early drawings, asking transit workers for the black papers as they were being taken down. Later, as Haring’s popularity grew and more people began to “collect” these drawings (sometimes through disingenuous means), Buggiani stopped his salvage and eventually became friends with the artist himself (they would appear together on German TV in 1986). The drawings here then are “primitive” Harings — the place where the stories of the radioactive baby and beast-headed men begin.

– Vic Brand