Keith Haring Untitled, 1982

Keith Haring Created His Own Iconic Language

Keith Haring, and slightly later, John-Michel Basquiat, set themselves apart from contemporary "graffiti artists" by exercising a rigorous studio practice that synthesized art historical references with an awareness for conceptual theory. At first that theory centered itself in literal explorations of language; non-linear textual studies on paper (influenced by Willilam S. Burroughs, Brion Gysin, Roland Barthes, and Umberto Eco), and video. Later Haring distilled a system of universal symbols drawn across Western, African, Asian and Pre-Columbian antecedents to form a non-verbal language that has the power to affect viewers regardless of native culture. These early symbols included the outlined figure, the barking dog, the baby, flying saucers, pyramids, penises and radiant lines to indicate energy and movement.

“I bought a roll of oak-tag paper and cut it up and put it all over the floor and worked on this whole group of drawings. The first few were abstracts, but then these images started coming. They were humans and animals in different combinations. Then flying saucers were zapping the humans. I remember trying to figure out where this stuff came from, but I have no idea. It just grew into this group of drawings. I was thinking about these images as symbols, as a vocabulary of things. In one a dog’s being worshipped by these people. In another one the dog is being zapped by a flying saucer. Suddenly it made sense to draw on the street, because I had something to say.”
- Keith Haring Interview with David Sheff, Rolling Stone, August 1989