Untitled Memories

Keith Haring, Untitled (detail), 1983, vinyl paint on vinyl tarpaulin*Gazing into the splendidly intense untitled vinyl painting from 1983 in the Keith Haring exhibition at the Reading Public Museum, I am lost in a reverie of recollections unleashed perhaps by the gravity-induced drips of vinyl paint that cover its surface.I remember driving with Keith through the Lower East Side of Manhattan in 1982 – searching for a paint store that sold a certain type of vinyl paint. This was a reconnaissance trip and we picked up enough for some small pieces. He had been using vinyl as a paint and support material for some time and he changed brands and suppliers looking for the right stuff. He talked about the thin quality of the paint and that the way it dripped down the surface of the paintings added a spontaneous quality he was increasingly learning to appreciate.That memory jogs another – from 1984 – Tony Shafrazi had filled his expansive white space with huge hanging vinyl tarps that were just waiting for Keith to work on. The gallery was closed for the event. As we arrived at the gallery, I anticipated an unforgettable experience – Keith painting a roomful of giant works with no sketches, no preparation whatsoever. After some socializing, the hip-hop soundtrack was cranked up and Keith took to the ladder with paint cup and brush in hand. The paint had its own insistent consistency. The occasional drip ran from his brush when, for example, a line abruptly changed direction. For Keith, the act of drawing and the act of painting were so close they melded into a single activity. Over the years, I watched him draw and paint things from little marker drawings to huge tarps and mural-size works.The deftness, sureness, and pure skill of his draftsmanship were uncanny. Perhaps the most astounding thing about his method of working was that as he worked on the most intricate and complex designs, he would pause, look at you and talk, relate, laugh, and generally be involved with things around him. He reflected a serious laser-like focus of concentration while he was painting but he could tune in and out of it so precisely that he never missed a mark.That day he filled each tarp with complex whirling two-dimensional imagery in just a few hours. The calligraphic lines were telegraphed from his brush in rapid-fire sequence. He raced up and down the ladder like an athlete. The few of us that were present just looked at each other and shook our heads. We had never seen anything like it.Keith always followed some pattern while distributing his imagery across the surface. This allowed him to wind the spiraling forms into unendingly complex compositions. His mark-making existed as a radical two-dimensional procedure with an extreme quality of flatness. Nevertheless, it could be employed to represent the illusion of any number of multidimensional spaces.The drawings and paintings often evolved in a circular fashion, emanating from a central focal point out toward increasing complexity and resolution. Sometimes they moved in a linear fashion from left to right, emphasizing their textual aspects – ciphers of mystery and meaning. Keith’s work is a permanent record of the incredible fluidity of his execution. The pieces reveal much about the sequence of evanescent moments Haring inhabited during his remarkable lifetime. Their magnificent looping arcs embody the cyclic thought forms of some infinite ineffable organism.

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