Power, Rhythm and Body in Keith Haring's "Untitled (Littmann 62)"
The visual power of “Untitled (Littmann 62)” (1986) lies in its multilayered character. In this work, Keith Haring utilises the whole space of the image to create an ambiguous figure whose body sprawls across directions, as if evolving before the viewer’s eyes. The composition is characterised by a sense of metamorphosis: individual bodies overlap and merge in unexpected places, contributing to an overarching shape that hovers between the human and the monstrous.
Vocal about the issues of militarisation, environmentalism and inequality, Haring’s art often moves towards scenarios that foreshadow the pitfalls of a progress-oriented world. “Untitled (Littmann 62)” embodies the critical dimension of Haring’s art, presenting a mutant figure, in relation to which, the surrounding headless bodies constitute the image of a conquered humanity. Captured in Haring’s signature curved lines, the headless figures meander toward the central circular point, gripped by a force that seems to both attract and devour them.
Much like in “Flowers II” (1990) or “Art Attack On Aids” (1988), the human creatures in the print appear weakened and subordinate. In his book "Heaven and Hell", Ralph Melcher defines the key topics of Haring's art as 'power and threat, death and deliverance, religion, sexuality, heaven and hell', emphasising that 'these subjects do not appear in isolation from each other, but interact and almost inevitably overlap one another'1. Even among those more bleak visions, there is a hidden element of hope to be found in Haring’s art. With an outsized body supported on weak bones instead of legs, the vision of domination in “Untitled (Littmann 62)” appears unstable, suggesting an alternative, better order could still arise.
Why Is Rhythm Important?
The themes of Haring’s works are not limited to sociocritical aspects. His artworks serve as a complex record of a personal world, with interests such as dance having a decisive impact on the message of his art. Essential aspects of his creativity, dance and music are ever-present in Haring’s body of work, expressing a dynamic energy that challenges the static nature of traditional visual art.
The rhythmic movements and fluidity inherent in dance find their representation in “Untitled (Littmann 62)” with its figures caught in dynamic poses that evoke a sense of perpetual motion. While Haring typically engages with dance as a symbol of freedom, joy, and the interconnectedness of people, here, the aspects of rhythm and movement communicate the dynamic nature of the situation, its potential to change and take on another form. Through this, “Untitled (Littmann 62)” not only evokes Haring’s personal passions but also invites the viewer to connect with the expressive vitality that defines his legacy.
Why Focus on the Body?
The diversity of body forms within “Untitled (Littmann 62)” serves as a symbolic language, articulating the complexities of social structures without relying on additional figurative elements. Haring's choice to focus solely on corporeal forms underscores the raw and immediate impact of the human body as a medium for expression. Through bold lines and stark contrasts, he captures the tension, vulnerability, and resilience embedded in the physicality of his subjects.
Haring's exploration of the body in “Untitled (Littmann 62)” reaches into the collective human experience. The body becomes a vessel for broader narratives, illustrating the interconnectedness of individuals within larger socio-political contexts. This approach encourages us to think about the impact of societal power dynamics on individual lives as well as the fragility inherent in the shared human experience.
The Power of Lines and Curves
Keith Haring's visual vocabulary is characterised by a distinctive use of lines and curves, a language that adds a dynamic and expressive quality to his works. In Haring's art in general, lines often serve as bold, continuous strokes that outline his iconic figures. These lines not only encapsulate the simplicity and immediacy of the artist's messages but also convey a sense of movement and energy.
In “Untitled (Littmann 62)”, this use of lines becomes particularly pronounced. The lines and curves, in their rhythmic and fluid nature, capture the essence of perpetual motion, adding a layer of tension to the composition. Haring employs bold, sweeping curves to create an intricate interplay of forms and craft a visual narrative that evolves dynamically within the confined space of the image. The curves in this specific artwork contribute to the sense of metamorphosis, allowing us to see the overlapping, merged bodies in the context of an ongoing process.
Keith Haring and Printmaking
Ultimately, “Untitled (Littmann 62)” encapsulates Haring’s ever-evolving experimentations with the medium of printmaking. Reflecting on his early days in Pittsburgh, Haring admitted his fascination with paper, opting to work on this medium due to its affordability and inherent interest: ‘At the arts and crafts centre in Pittsburgh, I started to do printmaking. I not only took classes, but used all kinds of other facilities to do my own work. Around this time, 1977, I had a real obsession with paper. (...) I didn’t want to do things on canvas. I wanted to work on paper partly because paper was inexpensive, but partly because it was interesting.’2
Keith Haring's exploration of printmaking commenced with conventional techniques such as lithography and etching. As his artistic style evolved, he delved into screenprints, a departure undoubtedly influenced by the iconic Andy Warhol, a key figure in Haring's creative journey.3
Progressing in screenprinting, Haring's work transitioned from simplistic colour schemes of the Bayer Suite series to more vivid and intricate compositions exemplified by “Apocalypse”, a collaboration with William S. Burroughs. Together with the iconic experimental writer, Haring executed two notable projects, another being a series of 15 etchings illustrating a chapter from Burroughs' novel "The Western Lands." Representing a turn towards a more sombre tone in Haring’s prints, the period between 1988 and 1989 coincided with the loss of influential figures like Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Juan Dubose as well as Haring's own AIDS diagnosis.
Unlike his predecessors who focused on appropriating commodities into an art context, Haring prioritised the process of bringing art into everyday life. Through Pop Shop, an innovative retail space in New York City that offered a wide array of affordable items featuring Haring's iconic artwork, he established a sustainable model of art merchandising, seamlessly integrating his works into mass consumption and adapting the art multiple to the cultural context of the 1980s. Through a keen understanding of public desires and expectations, Haring not only appropriated existing consumer networks but also used the concept of the multiple to achieve widespread accessibility of his artistic ideas.
1) Ralph Melcher, Heaven and Hell (Berlin: Hatje Cantz Verlag, 2004).
2) Conversation with Keith Haring, The Keith Haring Foundation, also published in The Keith Haring Show (Milan: Skira, 2005), p. 81-85.
3) Alexandra Kolossa, Keith Haring: A Life for Art (Köln: Taschen, 2006), p. 85-87.