Selected by Jonathan Dodd

KEITH HARING, Subway Drawing, 1980-85


We are delighted to have just acquired this vibrant drawing by Keith Haring, a strong and relatively complex composition from the series of Subway Drawings he produced between 1980 and 1985. 


While riding on the New York subway Haring noticed the blank advertising panels in the station at Times Square – perfect rectangles covered in soft, matte black paper awaiting the next poster to be pasted onto it. As he later wrote: “I immediately realized that this was the perfect place to draw. I went back above ground to a card shop and bought a box of white chalk, went back down and did a drawing on it. It was perfect–soft black paper; chalk drew on it really easily.” The chalks were both cheap and easily portable, and above all produced a clear and sharp white line even when applied in a hurry. For the next five years he was to create new artworks on the subway almost every day.


Keith Haring working on a drawing in the subway, New York City, circa 1980-85.


Although Haring never identified himself as a graffiti artist, he was arrested many times for defacing public property and he accepted that as part of the creative process. There became an element of performance in the production of these drawings, as crowds of commuters would gather to watch as he drew energetically and then rushed to catch the next train. Afterwards, the drawings would often be torn from the walls by enthusiasts in further acts of civil disobedience, or they would have new posters pasted over them. As they routinely disappeared so Haring replaced them with new works in an endless cycle of reinvention throughout the early 1980s.


Through this endless repetition Haring was forced to simplify his linear vocabulary and to build up an inventory of stock images that he was to use for the rest of his career: the barking dog, the irradiating baby, the flying saucer and, as in this work, the figure riding a dolphin. The works are drawn close to the surface like cartoons, with little concern for spatial depth, but almost always surrounded by a rectangular chalk line that mirrors the edge of the black paper and gives alternatively the effect of a television screen, a theatre stage, or the box of a comic strip.


Haring would often telephone the locations of his latest drawings to his friend the photographer Tseng Kwong Chi, who could then photograph them in situ, but the majority of the drawings went unrecorded. They remain one of the greatest ephemeral art projects of the 20th century.


KEITH HARING (American 1958 - 1990)

Subway Drawing, 1980-85
Chalk on black paper
37 3/4 x 23 5/8 in
96 x 60 cm
November 16, 2020