Modern & Contemporary Art

Contextualizing a Keith Haring Sketchbook

Keith Haring, Untitled, 1978, Ink on sketchbook paper

Before his life-changing move to New York City, Keith Haring worked his way through a series of different schools and other venues in his home state of Pennsylvania. The year 1978 found him in Pittsburgh, where he had moved after dropping out of the Ivy School of Professional Art to work as a non-matriculated student at the Pittsburgh Arts and Crafts Center. Haring scored a maintenance job at the Center, which afforded him the luxury of studio usage and admission to campus events (a lecture by Christo that same year was of great importance), while being able to avoid the drudgery of classwork. That year would be a turning point for the 19-year-old artist, as the Pittsburgh Arts and Crafts Center staged a solo exhibition of his work.

The untitled sketchbook page featured in the November 1 Postwar & Contemporary Art sale (lot 260) was created during this seminal period in 1978, just before Haring moved to New York City and enrolled at the School of Visual Arts. This page, along with many others that appear to originate from the same sketchbook (or possibly others of the period), shows an abstract side to Haring’s art.  While the artist would later become famous for his representational pop characters such as the radiant baby and the dancing man -- ubiquitous figures that are synonymous with his later work – the only commonality that the abstractions in the sketchbooks have with those figures is a shared fluidity of line. These sketchbook pages are much indebted to Haring’s interest in the art of Alechinsky and Dubuffet, stream-of-consciousness works that allowed him to develop the skills necessary to create rapid yet spectacular compositions throughout his career. Speed and consistency are seemingly as characteristic of this sketchbook page as they are of the works from any moment in Haring’s oeuvre. This page and similar sketchbook pages, such as the examples shown at the 2011 Gladstone Gallery retrospective, show clean, precise line work – no hiccups, no bumps, no inconsistencies. This unique talent would prove crucial for Haring when he created his illegal subway chalk drawings, where the ultimate goal was to make as many great, legible works as quickly as possible before the MTA or New York City Police could catch up to him.

Given as a gift in 1978 to a Pittsburgh Center studio mate, Haring’s sketchbook page was separated from those that went on to be exhibited in major museums and galleries. Only a short time later in October of 1978, now happily enrolled at the School of Visual Arts in New York, Haring sent a postcard to his this friend, which accompanies the sketchbook page in lot 260 of the November 1 sale. As he wrote: “Hello. I’m having a great time in N.Y. I have a small apartment w/ 2 roommates. Lots of space to work in at the school. Amazing city!”  New York would prove to be a city made all the more amazing by Keith Haring’s incredible presence until his tragic passing in 1990.

Portrait of specialist Angelo Madrigale
SVP/Director of Paintings / Director of Contemporary Art
Modern & Contemporary Art
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