One of Keith Haring’s best-hidden works from his oeuvre, a monumental mural that he left in an old convent, will be offered at auction for the first time with an estimate of US$3m-5m. It contains Haring’s iconic figures such as the Radiant Boy, the Barking Dog and the figures dancing.
Set to go under the hammer at Bonhams’ Post-War & Contemporary Art Sale, this is the first Keith Haring’s mural ever to come to auction. The 85ft mural is being sold on behalf of Ascension Church to fund major capital projects at the parish, including significant accessibility upgrades.
Recognised as a key figure of Pop Art in the 1980s, Keith Haring was best known for his deceptively simple, bold lines, and dynamic figures in motion. Haring's work was born from his environment, politically and socially, and much of them contained messages about AIDS, crack cocaine, the environment and apartheid.
Coming from a formal art education, Haring was especially drawn to the work of Jean Dubuffet and Pierre Alechinsky. Pop culture, specifically cartoon, and animated figures such as Mickey Mouse, were also highly important to his development as an artist. While Haring was still a student at New York's School of Visual Arts, he would draw bold figures in white chalk on black empty advertising boards in the underground. Haring was often arrested on the subway platform as graffiti was, and still is, considered illegal.
Keith Haring died in 1990 at the age of 31. During Haring's lifetime he had fifty solo shows and he painted forty-five murals across the globe. Today fewer than twenty are still standing and there are no murals located in the Middle East or Asia.
In the 1980s, Grace House was once an old convent which was used as a Catholic Youth Center. The building, located on Manhattan's Upper West Side in the Morningside Heights neighborhood, was associated with the 125-year-old Church of the Ascension.
In March of 1983 or 1984, Haring painted the present mural in the main stairwell of Grace House, at night, using black industrial house paint. Most impressive is that he completed the mural without first working out the composition in a sketch or an underpainting. The composition flowed out of him with a mature confidence.
The spontaneous mural begins with the Radiant Baby and ends at the third-floor landing with a figure that seems to dive into a doorway, with only its lower half visible. In terms of the artist's iconography, all the key figures are included in the work. In addition to the 'Radiant Baby', present are the 'Barking Dog', a figure with a hole in his stomach, the running man, and dancing characters. The mural is a complete lexicon of Haring's unique vernacular.
Keith Haring (left), Andy Warhol (centre) and Basquiat
But how was Keith Haring invited to create a mural in Grace House? During that period, Haring may have spent his days in the studio, but at night he was a regular fixture on the vibrant, lower Manhattan club scene, particularly at the Paradise Garage. Here he rubbed shoulders with Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Kenny Scharf, together with young people on the club scene.
Two regular attendees at Paradise Garage, Benny Soto and David Almodovar, were involved in a Catholic Youth Organization called Grace House. After meeting Haring in the SoHo club scene, Soto, Almodovar and Haring formed a tight friendship. Eventually, both went to work for the artist, Soto as an art assistant and Almodovar later managed Haring's Pop Shop on Layfette Street.
Untitled (The Church of the Ascension Grace House Mural) is perhaps the best kept secret of the artist's oeuvre. Over the years the mural has remained untouched, perfectly preserved with the exception of a child having drawn a (now faded) face on one of the figures.
With the Grace House building being sold, preserving the mural was of the utmost importance and a significant undertaking. All three floors of the composition were professionally extracted from the building in a highly strategic and calculated manner. The project began in 2017 and was completed in August 2019.
Screenshot from the footage showing the removal process to extract mural from the building
The 13 figures, preserved in 15 separate sections, have been described as a “lexicon of Haring’s vocabulary”.
Keith Haring (1958-1990). Untitled (The Church of the Ascension Grace House Mural)
Lot no.: 8
Created in: circa 1983/1984
Acquired directly from the artist by the present owner
Estimate: US$3,000,000 - 5,000,000
Auction house: Bonhams New York
Sale: Post-War & Contemporary Art
Sale: 13 November 2019