Apocalypse Keith Haring
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The Apocalypse series is one of Keith Haring’s most enigmatic and powerful works. The set of 10 screen prints juxtapose borrowed images with Haring’s graffiti-inspired bold and curving lines, elegantly linked together with blocks of primary colour.
Published in 1988, the series was born from a collaboration with the Beat Era poet and novelist William S. Burroughs, whose text-based ‘cut-up’ method formed the basis of Haring’s pictographic style. Whilst a student at the School of Visual Arts, Haring came across the Beat poets at the 1978 Nova Convention and had been inspired by Burroughs’ methods of breaking down language ever since. As with much of his other works, Haring adopts a system of expression inspired by Egyptian hieroglyphics in this series, that repeats and appropriates a set of motifs to create a memorable pictorial language. Read in conjunction with Burroughs’ free-form text, Haring’s prints represent disjointed, violent and at times perplexing episodes that imagine the horrors of Armageddon.
Why is Apocalypse important?
Reflecting a shift from Haring’s more light-hearted early works, the Apocalypse series is dark and menacing, made during the final years of his life when he was living with AIDS. The series is characterised by scenes of war, destruction, and visions of hell on earth. Among drawings of grotesque beasts, satanic symbols, serpents, crumbling cities, TVs and technological-age hybrid monsters, Haring embeds collaged images of high art, Christ icons and 1950s magazine clippings of children. The collage components, juxtaposed with the artist’s raw gestural marks, produces a jarring effect that emphasises the otherworldliness of his subjects.
In the Apocalypse series, religious iconography and apocalyptic imagery are central to how Haring portrays the manifold catastrophes that converged around him. Based upon his experience of evangelicalism as an adolescent and the way in which news-media had related the AIDS crisis to apocalyptic thinking, Haring became preoccupied with this idea of the end of the world in his works. Playing on views held by the 1970s Jesus Movement around Revelation, which references apocalyptic events and fire destroying the earth, Haring reworks Christian iconography throughout the series to reflect the chaotic and troublesome events of 1980s New York. “Still, all that stuff stuck in my head and even now there are lots of religious images in my work, although they’re used in a more cynical way – to show how manipulative those beliefs and images can be.” – Keith Haring.
The ‘devil sperm’ motif that is repeated throughout the series forms part of Haring’s pictorial language warning of the perils of sexual joy. Haring also uses the motif of the mushroom cloud, often ambiguous in its phallic shape, directly relating the devastating effects of the AIDS crisis to the concept of nuclear holocaust.
Completed during the AIDS crisis of the 1980s and in the year of Haring’s own diagnosis with the virus, the Apocalypse series powerfully expresses the pain and anguish felt at the time by people living with AIDS. It is one of Haring’s few works that explicitly centres around the dangers of extreme promiscuity in such an immediate and instinctive style with the series focusing on the direct correlation between physical love and death. Haring used his standing within the art world to go public with his diagnosis, helping to destigmatise the AIDS virus that was inaccurately coined as the ‘gay plague’.
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