The Valley Keith Haring
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Marking a new direction in the artist’s visual language, The Valley series is a set of fifteen etchings from 1989. As one of Haring’s most enigmatic and powerful works, the series brings together a set of intricate line drawings depicting horror and chaos in the fictional world of the valley.
Published in 1989, the series was born from a collaboration with the Beat Era poet and novelist William S. Burroughs, whose text-based ‘cup-up’ method formed the basis of Haring’s pictographic style. As 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. The ominous texts by Burroughs are copied by hand on sixteen sheets of tracing paper, which were photo-etched onto copper plates and printed in red ink. The text which is also titled, The Valley, is a chapter from the author’s novel, The Western Lands from 1987. Read in conjunction with Burroughs’ free-form text, Haring’s prints represent disjointed, violent and at times perplexing episodes that imagine the end of times.
The Valley series is made up of images that are depicted exclusively in black and white and contrast to many of Haring’s black and white works due to his use of fine lines and complex compositions. Finer details are included in each print to replicate the elaborate narrative of Burroughs’ text. Haring marks the figures in this series as gendered and with facial features, unlike in his iconic works where his famous figures are both genderless and featureless.
Reflecting a shift from Haring’s more light-hearted early works, The Valley series is dark and menacing, made during the final years of his life when he was living with AIDS. Alongside his Apocalypse series (1988), this series introduces stylistic shifts of more complex compositions and characters such as jesters, masks, skills and martyrs. This series tells the story of the valley people who live in hellish conditions, then rescued by people from the outside world. Haring and Burroughs set up an ‘us’ and ‘them’ narrative in this series, notably around contamination from the valley people. Thus, The Valley series strikes parallels with contemporary crises like the AIDS epidemic and functions as an interesting social commentary.
Why is The Valley important?
The Valley series is one of many by Haring that when considered in full, tells an unusual story as the sequence of images, combined with text, unfold. Haring’s later works like this series have been compared within art historical narratives to the chaotic storytelling of Hieronymus Bosch and the fierce liveliness of his friend and contemporary Jean-Michael Basquiat. This particular series is representative of a stylistic shift exemplified in his Cranbrook Mural (1987) that introduced intentional blotches, drips and themes around death and the end of times.
Completed during the AIDS crisis of the 1980s and the year after Haring’s own diagnosis with the virus, the story of the valley people powerfully expresses the pain and anguish felt at the time by people living with AIDS. The Valley series is representative of the way in which Haring’s work and activism became intensely embroiled in his personal life and the socio-political context of the AIDS epidemic in New York City. 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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