Keith Haring Terracotta Vase
Lot 32*
Keith Haring (American, 1958-1990) Untitled, 1984 a unique terracotta vase
Sold for £46,800 (US$ 76,474) inc. premium

Lot Details
Keith Haring (American, 1958-1990)
Untitled, 1984
a unique terracotta vase
signed 'K.Haring', dated 'May 26 1984' and stamped on the base in black marker pen 20 x 19.5cm (7 7/8 x 7 11/16in).

Footnotes

  • I felt that Haring was …going way back into the past, attempting to imbue the present and future with a sense of the mythic’. (Gianni Mercurio).

    ‘Present day aesthetics are an eclectic hybrid of the primitive and civilised, the old and the new’. (Keith Haring)

    The two vases offered here, made in a workshop outside Milan in 1984, are arguably the clearest manifestations of both Mercurio’s observations and Haring’s own perceptions of late 20th Century aesthetics. In their shape, colour and to an extent the motifs employed, the vases reveal clear affinities with Greek vases dating from the 4th and 5th Centuries BC. This fusion of modern symbols with ancient styles and forms was of great significance to Haring. He wrote,

    ‘The confrontation between the history of the vase and the mixture of contemporary and ancient symbols produces an ironic mixture of opposites’.

    The cartoon style in which Haring has drawn the characters on the vases and the fact that he was attracted to their shapes ‘because of their similarity to the shape of nuclear cooling towers’ renders them thoroughly modern. However, by forging visual parallels with ancient cultures made manifest in Western consciousness by myth, Haring imbued the signs, characteristics and dynamism of his own age ranging from Hip Hop to nuclear power, with a gravitas borrowed from historical archetypes. The signs Haring selected to represent his own epoch in the vases and in Haring’s wider oeuvre are refracted through his own biography, interests and life experiences. He said, ‘I consider myself a perfect product of the space age not only because I was born in the year the first man was launched into space, but also because I grew up with Walt Disney cartoons', while in an article entitled ‘The Radiant Child’ published in 1981, Rene Ricard praised Haring’s ability to produce ‘a unique echo of the street and clubs’. The vases can thus be read as a tribute to New York in the 1980s, which Haring described as ‘the only place I would find the intensity I needed and wanted for my art and life’.

    Haring’s synthesis of the art historical past with his present was paradoxically irreverent and yet significant and indeed profound. It is a stance which can also be seen in the reproduction bust of Michelangelo’s ‘David’, which Haring covered with fluorescent shapes. By subverting art historical tradition, Haring challenged what he perceived as a refusal amongst the art establishment to accept artistic diversity, infused traditional forms with 20th Century energy and dissolved divisions between fine art and popular culture.


    The vase

    The exuberant decoration and texture on the surface of this vase compels the viewer to rotate it, in order to explore and experience each motif fully and understand how the composition works as a whole. This urge further animates the already pulsating scenes and images, which although silent conjure a sense of sound. The vase therefore fulfils Haring’s desire to make art ‘that encompasses music, performance, movement, concept and craft’.

    When analysing this vase it is clear that it is not simply the form and colours, which take their inspiration from the vases of ancient Greece but the decorative motifs. The dancing, leaping figures are clearly a response, indeed depiction of the energy and excitement which emanated from the 1980s New York Hip-Hop scene, a world in which Haring thrived. Such motifs have been dubbed as manifestations of ‘techno primitivism’, a term which describes the raw power of the Hip Hop movement. However the arched figure in the centre of the vase, a break dancer, can be compared to the illustration below, taken from a Campanian red-figure bell krater of circa 335-315BC. Both images celebrate human agility and movement, despite the fact that they were made centuries apart from one another. In this celebration, the arched figure whose energy seems to meet in his back, is a visual manifestation of Haring’s comment in his 1978 journal,

    ‘Every second from birth is spent experiencing; different sensations, different interjections, different directional vectors of force/energy constantly composing and recomposing themselves around you’.

    The parallels with Greek decorative devices are continued throughout the vase. Indeed the winged figure, in the background seems to resemble the central figure in a spherical pyxis of 320 BC. Although it would be difficult to elucidate the precise meaning and significance of Haring’s winged figure, there are clear connotations of energy and a sense of escaping the physical realm, as well as an association with the Greek hero Perseus, who borrowed Mercury’s wings to slay Medussa.

    The fusion of human forms with non-human parts continues in other motifs around the vase. There are human figures with sperm or brains for heads. These images have clear sympathies with an extract from William Burroughs’s 1961 publication ‘The Soft Machine’. The passage reads,

    ‘Carl walked a long row of living penis urns made from men whose penis had absorbed the body with vestigial arms and legs breathing through purple…gills’

    However the idea of the human hybrid is also found in Greek mythology, the most famous example being the Minotaur who was killed by Theseus. Although Haring may not have been referring to this specific myth, the association with the ancient myths, where the heroes are usually young men, heighten Haring’s own celebration of the virility and energy of masculine youth. Indeed it could be argued that Haring reworked the Greek vase tradition to exploit its inherent erotic potential.

    Finally the men moving across the bottom of the base of the vase are a frequently re-occurring image in Haring’s oeuvre after 1980. Their arms are clearly updated versions of the Greek key pattern. However the figures with crosses in their stomachs also have modern connotations. After the death of John Lennon, Haring had a dream in which he saw ‘a figure standing, with open arms and a hole in the stomach’. It would appear then, that this image is also a motif for the shooting of the Beatles singer.

    In short this vase explores life, birth and death through imagery borrowed from Greek vases, which Haring updated to reflect his own epoch.
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