Altarpiece: The Life of Christ

MOCRA presents the final work of prominent American artist Keith Haring in its first Midwest showing.

Keith Haring
Altarpiece: The Life of Christ

April 8 - May 7, 1995

     free public opening reception Saturday, April 8   5:00 to 8:00 p.m.

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Keith Haring's work is known throughout the world for its unique and immediately recognizable pictorial language. His often light-hearted art reaches beyond the confines of museums. It can be found in subways, churches, schools, on T-shirts and watches, and even at one time on the Berlin Wall. Haring was also an activist who used his art to promote AIDS awareness.

MOCRA is pleased to present the first Midwest showing of Haring's last work. Haring had been diagnosed with AIDS in 1988, and had already lost many friends to the disease. Still, he resolved to continue working for as long as possible. In 1989 Sam Havadtoy created clay panels in the shape of a traditional Russian icon for Haring.

 Haring - Altarpiece: The Life of Christ (1990)
   Keith Haring, Altarpiece: The Life of Christ, 1990. Bronze with white gold leaf patina.
81 x 60 x 2 in.
Courtesy of Sam Havadtoy and the Keith Haring Estate.

The altarpiece, cast in bronze and covered with gold leaf, is rendered in the artist’s post-graffiti style. Sam Havadtoy, writing in May 1990, shared his recollection of Haring's work on the panels:

In 1989, Keith asked me to help him decorate his new Manhattan apartment. In his living room was an old brick fireplace which he hated, so I had it plastered over. The plaster was wet and I suggested that he draw into it. He thought it was a cool idea. It was as if the plaster were a three-dimensional textured canvas. He loved drawing in the plaster, and got very excited about the new medium. When he finished, it was very beautiful. I asked him if he wanted to make an edition of the fireplace and he loved the idea. Later, I asked him if he wanted to do other works in editions -- perhaps, panels and tables. He laughed. But he said he liked the idea -- he would do it.

Trays were made for the panels and tables. I also had a last-minute inspiration and had special trays made in the shape of a Russian icon, an altar piece, a large version of a miniature icon I saw in a shop in Geneva. All the trays were then laid out in a quiet, womblike room in the Dakota. Trays were filled with fresh clay. Keith arrived. He snapped a tape into the ghetto blaster, turned up the music, sipped a Coke and set to work.

Instead of a brush, for the first time, he used a loop knife. He handled the knife freely and spontaneously like he wielded his brushes. As he worked, he became more and more excited. He said that he couldn't believe it had taken him so long to discover this kind of sculpture. He made no preliminary drawings except for a quick sketch of the dancer on the third panel, which he made on a two-by-four piece of wood. Yet he was completely sanguine as he cut into the clay. The images came directly from his head. He placed the knife in the clay and carved a continuous running line, a quarter-of-an-inch deep groove, which wound like a swollen stream during the spring thaw. He never stopped to rethink the line; he never edited himself and never made corrections. The lines he carved in the clay were seamless, flawless.

Keith finished the panels and then, for the first time, saw the three altar piece sections. He stared at them and was silent. Then he set to work. He cut into the clay and began to carve freeflowing lines. The images that emerged were unlike the others. They were religious: an inspiration of the life of Christ; a baby held by a pair of hands; hands ascending toward heaven; Christ on the cross. On one side panel he depicted the resurrection. On the other, a fallen angel. When Keith finished, as he stepped back and gazed at this work, he said, "Man, this is really heavy."

When he stopped, he was exhausted, and it was the first time I realized how frail he had become. He was completely out of breath. He said, "When I'm working, I'm fine, but as soon as I stop, it hits me . . . "

The altar was Keith's final piece of work.

Haring died two weeks after completing the altarpiece. The uncharacteristically solemn altarpiece reflects the artist's coming to terms with his own mortality and his grief over the death of friends. The work is an expression of love and an affirmation of the sacred.

About the artist
Keith Haring was born on May 4, 1958 in Reading, Pennsylvania. After a brief stint at the Ivy School of Professional Art in Pittsburgh, he moved to New York City in 1978 and enrolled in the School of Visual Arts (SVA). Haring soon became established in New York's thriving alternative art community and began to organize and participate in exhibitions and performances at Club 57 and other alternative venues.

Determined to devote his career to creating a truly public art, Haring  began to create drawings in white chalk upon blank paper panels throughout the subway system. This seamless flow of images became familiar to New York commuters, who often would stop to engage the artist when they encountered him at work. The subway became, as Haring said, a "laboratory" for working out his ideas and experimenting with his simple lines.

During a brief but intense career that spanned the 1980s, Haring’s work was featured in over 100 solo and group exhibitions. In 1986 alone, he was the subject of more than 40 newspaper and magazine articles. He was highly sought after to participate in collaborative projects ,and worked with artists and performers as diverse as Madonna, Grace Jones, Bill T. Jones, William Burroughs, Timothy Leary, Jenny Holzer, Yoko Ono and Andy Warhol.

By expressing universal concepts of birth, death, love, sex and war, using a primacy of line and directness of message, Haring was able to attract a wide audience and assure the accessibility and staying power of his imagery, which has become a universally recognized visual language of the 20th century. Throughout his career, Haring devoted much of his time to public works, which often carried social messages. He produced more than 50 public artworks between 1982 and 1989, in dozens of cities around the world, many of which were created for charities, hospitals, children’s day care centers and orphanages.

Haring was diagnosed with AIDS in 1988. In 1989, he established the Keith Haring Foundation, its mandate being to provide funding and imagery to AIDS organizations and children’s programs, and to expand the audience for Haring’s work through exhibitions, publications and the licensing of his images. Haring enlisted his imagery during the last years of his life to speak about his own illness and generate activism and awareness about AIDS. Keith Haring died of AIDS related complications at the age of 31 on February 16, 1990. Since his death, Haring has been the subject of several international retrospectives. The work of Keith Haring can be seen today in the exhibitions and collections of major museums around the world.

(excerpted from The Keith Haring Foundation website)

This exhibition is presented in collaboration with the Palo Alto Cultural Center, Palo Alto, CA. The Altarpiece is show in St. Louis courtesy of Samuel Havadtoy and the Keith Haring Estate.

Any contributions received during this exhibitions will be donated to St. Louis Effort for AIDS.

Additional information

The casting of the altarpiece shown at MOCRA now resides in the AIDS Interfaith Chapel at Grace Cathedral, San Francisco. Take a virtual tour of the chapel here.

More about Keith Haring 

Altarpiece: The Life of Christ in the media
Higher purpose. Greater good.
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