One of Keith Haring’s final great works is being offered by Sotheby’s, from the collection of photographer David LaChapelle, in its Contemporary Art Evening Auction, on June 28th. It’s estimated to sell for £2,000,000–3,000,000 ($2,900,000–4,340,000).
Entitled, The Last Rainforest, it is more detailed, more complete, more studied, and more virtuosic than any other work by this artist. It is a tempest; a melting pot where personal stories blend with societal issues and eroticism entwines with violence; where cruelty coincides with frivolity, and fantasy melds with inescapable truth. It should be viewed as Haring’s artistic last will and testament; a socio-political warning shot to those who would outlive him and a formal summation of his cruelly curtailed career. It is closely linked to his views on the AIDS crisis and on nuclear technology, and certainly connected to his environmental activism; it is densely packed with art-historical reference, and executed in a manner that demands the viewer’s attention. Although it has appeared in numerous prestigious international museum exhibitions, this painting has remained in the same collection of renowned photographer David LaChapelle since it was first acquired from the Tony Shafrazi Gallery.
After Haring was diagnosed with AIDS he asked Shafrazi, his long term gallerist, to get him 100 canvases. The nature of the grandiose parting project that he had planned is lost to history as only three were completed before he passed away: Brazil,Walking in the Rain, and most significantly, the present work. Of this trio, The Last Rainforest is by far the most engaging; so teeming is it with action and complex tessellation that it is almost overwhelming to the eye. Strewn with densely packed linear articulations, and lacking any axis or centre, it is redolent of Jackson Pollock’s all-over compositional method. However, under continued observation, the panel reveals its figurative nature and myriad episodes of individual action appear. The painting is comprised of several large tree trunks, bedecked with labyrinthine branches, and punctuated by a plethora of figures and objects, sometimes upon the boughs, sometimes enlaced amongst them. The trees and their occupants take up every inch of the canvas and each motif is linked to another. Any sense of scale or depth is nullified and the viewer is drawn into an endless cycle of weaving interpretation. “Keith knew he was dying when he made it. He was painting three paintings at the time, including The Last Rainforest. Tony had gotten him 100 canvases, because that’s what Keith had asked for; he wanted 100 paintings, but finished only three,” LaChapelle stated in an interview.
There are many motifs in this work that we recognise. On the upper right hand side one can make out Haring’s oft-repeated Pyramid form and not far away is his similarly relied upon lightbulb. There are multiple televisions littered around the all-consuming landscape, and we can even spot the radiant child itself – Haring’s most famous motif and the proxy for his own identity. In the present work, the child is no longer a crawling baby; it sits upright, cocooned within a tree trunk with legs folded in an inimitable pose of meditation. Haring’s baby sits at the heart of this composition; the placidity of his meditative state forms a stark contrast with the nightmarish scenes that revolve, thrashing and unbound, in a horror vacui jumble of action that occupies every remaining inch of canvas.
Indeed, there are many more motifs here that are entirely unique to this picture. Particularly compelling is the menagerie of fantastical beasts, dispersed across this perverted woodland in twisted poses; there is a six-legged caterpillar with an electrical plug for a tail and a satanic satyr who has been run through with a roasting spit and set on fire. There is a gargantuan masturbating rat, sitting engorged on the lower edge of the panel, and several giant serpents, snaking themselves around trunks and branches. Across the whole ground, tree becomes beast and beast becomes tree, interlaced and overlapped. They make for a scene that is consummately engaging: at once amusing and engrossing, beautiful and terrifying. Haring has made the rainforest of our nightmares: inhospitable, perverse, and claustrophobic.
Death is writ large across this canvas. In each mini-tableau, he shows human figures reaching their demise – hanging and crucified; burnt or impaled. We see smoking guns and stabbing knives, knotted trunk becomes threatening mechanised hinge, and everything is played out against a hellish background of fiery red licked by fronds of yellow. This morbid mood is entirely appropriate for Haring’s contemporaneous life. He had been diagnosed with AIDS only the year before and would die four months after this painting’s completion. His death was a tragedy, a major loss not only to the international art world, but also to the New York downtown scene in general. However, even to the artist himself, it was less than a surprise. Haring was part of a generation that had already lost so many to the AIDS crisis that his death seemed almost inevitable. In a diary entry after his diagnosis, he wrote “I always knew, since I was young, that I would die young… I live every day as if it were the last” (Keith Haring cited in: David Galloway, ‘The Marriage of Heaven and Hell’, in: Exh. Cat., Rotterdam, Museum Boijmans van Beuningen (and travelling), Keith Haring: Heaven and Hell, 2002, p. 56).
But this work – one of the very last studio paintings that the artist made – is no elegiac farewell to a world that Haring knew he was leaving behind; there is not a trace of self-pity in its writhing intricate forms. Although this work is fundamentally underpinned by the artist’s trademark optimism, it is also a work about anger. In 1989, Haring was angry about AIDS; not only with the injustice of his cruelly curtailed life, but also with the way that society was reacting to the pandemic. Viewed by many as a disease that was only for drug addicts, homosexuals, and African Americans, AIDS was at the centre of America’s prejudicial Venn diagram, and for many, it was taboo to even admit having contracted it. Even before his own diagnosis, and particularly after it, Haring fought with a vehement fervour to bring the disease out from under the shadow of shame and taboo, and those emotions of righteous rage undoubtedly influenced the vitriolic mood of the present work.
As much as it is a work that challenges the distinctions between good and evil, this is a work of premonition. Its evocation of a nightmarish post-apocalyptic landscape seems closely linked to Haring’s fears over humanity’s increasing use of nuclear power. By the time of this work’s creation, Haring had long viewed himself as “a child of the atomic age” (Ibid.). Having worked extensively in Japan, he was consummately aware of the precedent that America had set at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and was terrified of how it might come back to haunt his nation. He even feared peacetime use of nuclear technology – his childhood home was only a short distance from the Three Mile island nuclear power plant, which had suffered a partial nuclear meltdown in 1979. In this context, the present work should be viewed as a dramatic prophecy; Haring’s caution to those who he knew would outlive him. He forces us to look at these horrifying mutants spawned from nuclear waste and compels us to experience the deformed denouement of this phase of so-called technical progress. This cautionary mood is best summed up in a singular detail: in the upper left hand corner, a television screen shows a mushroom cloud redolent of that famous image of Hiroshima, which was so effectively appropriated by Andy Warhol in his Death and Disaster series. In this prophetic vision of our post-apocalyptic future, this image that shocked and terrified so many millions of people is no longer a focal point; it is just another news bulletin.
However, as much as referring to the dangers of nuclear technology, the prophetic mood of the present work is linked to Haring’s environmental activism. In the 1980s, a wave of ecological awareness and activism was focused on saving the rainforest. Moreover, it was a cause that Haring personally identified with, having travelled extensively in Brazil with fellow artist Kenny Scharf and his Brazilian wife. He loved the country, regularly spending months at a time there, and was thus acutely aware of the damage being done to its ecology. This context only endorses the interpretation of this picture as a prophetic warning message. In each episode of this work, Haring was imploring the contemporaneous viewer to take notice – to take action – to save the rainforests; to avoid letting each one perish until we are left with this scene of apoplectic horror. It is worth considering the other two works in this series: Brazil, and Walking in the Rain. Even from their titles, it is overwhelmingly evident that these three were part of a wider series through which Haring had planned to orchestrate a message of environmental awareness.
The Last Rainforest is more detailed, more designed, more painterly, and more complete, than any other work in Haring’s oeuvre. There is a strong sense that this is not only the artist’s parting message in meaning and content, but also in style and design. Haring identifies himself with some of the great figures of Western art history and asserts his own place within the discourse. Hieronymous Bosch forms the most obvious comparison, another artist who relied on a florid imagination and a despairing outlook on the future of the world in order to create nightmarish landscapes of fantastical beasts. His Garden of Earthly Delights, circa 1500, features the same level of extraordinary detail, the same ingenuity for inventing creatures of terrifying potency, and particularly in its right hand panel, the same nightmarish mood. The present work also compels us to think of William Blake, whose Last Judgement evokes a similarly apocalyptic mood, and features the same density of human figures, shown in thronging masses of helpless limbs. Meanwhile, and particularly in the images of violent terror that are inherent to parts of this work, we are further reminded of Francisco Goya’s Disasters of War, in which hanging men and dismembered limbs comprise the same levels of gratuitous violence. In The Last Rainforest, Haring identifies himself with the great figures of art history, newly interpreting the apocalypse trope for his own atomic age.
The vast majority of Keith Haring’s works are appreciated for their immediate impact and their graphic ability to convey a message instantaneously. The Last Rainforest takes a diametrically opposite approach. In specifically complicating and convoluting his forms so as to create a labyrinthine mesh composed of myriad tableaus of action, Haring demands that his viewer takes its interpretation seriously; he implores us to look and to read and to interpret and to absorb. With his own death fast approaching, he not only wanted to identify himself with the great figures of art history – with Pollock, and Blake, and Goya, and Bosch – Haring also wanted us to truly understand the threats he knew to be facing humanity; not only disease, war and environmental insensitivity, but also prejudice. The Last Rainforest is magisterial and ineluctable, the crowning glory of an exceptional oeuvre from an artist who was as socially aware as he was creatively gifted.