GLENDALE, Ariz. – In December 1986, world-renowned street artist Keith Haring visited Phoenix for a well-documented, week-long visit that included a drawing workshop at Phoenix Art Museum, lectures and, most notably, a collaborative project with some 60 students from South Mountain High School.
That collaboration produced a bold, colorful, abstract 125-foot mural on the wall of an abandoned building at the corner of Adams Street and Central Avenue in downtown Phoenix.
Now, more than three decades later, an acrylic painting Haring gifted to a young man during his trip to Phoenix has emerged. The painting, measuring 35-3/4 inches by 25-1/2 inches and singed on the bottom right with a personalized note on the back of the canvas, will be auctioned at noon Friday, June 19 at EJ’s Auction & Appraisal, Glendale.
“We’re confident that this is an original Keith Haring painting,” Erik Hoyer, CEO of EJ’s Auction & Appraisal, said. “Everything points to it being an original, and we encourage serious collectors to schedule an appointment to examine it.”
Renowned forensic document examiner Bart Baggett confirmed that the handwriting on the painting front and back is Haring’s, Hoyer said. The consignor, a Phoenix resident, wishes to remain anonymous, Hoyer said. She did, however, share some history on the painting.
“Keith Haring’s note on the back of the painting is addressed to ‘Chris.’ While the consignor did not know Chris personally, she was friends with his partner,” Hoyer said. “Chris passed in the early 1990s, and then his partner gave the painting to the consignor before he passed.”
The consigner didn’t care for the painting and stored it away, moved and most recently had it in a storage unit. “She didn’t realize who Keith Haring was,” Hoyer said, “and it wasn’t until she emptied her storage unit that a friend suggested she research the artist.”
Haring’s art, with its deceptively simple style and its deeper themes of love, death, war and social harmony, is coveted by collectors.. The most ever paid for a Haring painting is $6.5 million for the piece Untitled (1982) on May 18th, 2017. It is a prototypical Haring, with his trademark simplistic human figures, wolves and clouds painted in white lines against a black background. Haring’s works can be found in the collections of the Art Institute of Chicago, the Albertina in Vienna, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
Hoyer said Haring was known to share his art and signatures freely, especially at the start of his career. “He traveled often and signed everything from shirts people wore to skateboards and napkins, not to mention all of his street art,” Hoyer said. “He was a prolific artist and I suspect there are many pieces in existence that are unknown just as this piece was.”
Mike Prepsky, a former art teacher at South Mountain High School and educational trustee at Phoenix Art Museum, is a Haring fan. Prepsky not only worked closely with the late museum curator and influential art critic, Bruce Kurtz, to bring Haring to Phoenix, he stayed in touch with the artist for several years until he passed.
Founded in 1954, South Mountain High School is the oldest high school in the South Mountain community. The school had just been designated as a magnet school when Prepsky came up with the idea of bringing a renowned artist to Phoenix Art Museum. The visit would include an educational component for students.
But Haring was not their first choice. They originally contacted installation/performance artist Jonathan Borofsky, who couldn’t make it. Kurtz happened to be friends with Haring and reached out to him with the proposal of flying out from New York for an exhibition at the museum that would include a student drawing workshop. Longtime Phoenix professional photographer Dan Vermillion documented the workshop.
The workshop was on a Sunday, and the next day Haring approached Phoenix Art Museum with the idea of getting a larger group of South Mountain high school students together to paint a mural in downtown Phoenix. The city agreed and the collaborative project began less than 24 hours later.
“When we discussed the project the night before, we had a plan, but when we turned the students loose the next day, the plan fell apart. But Keith was okay with it, saying it didn’t matter and that their work was wonderful,” Prepsky recalled.
Several years later, when the City of Phoenix made plans to demolish the building, Haring told Prepsky and city officials that any salvageable plywood panels should be sent to South Mountain High School.
“Unfortunately, most of the panels were damaged at that point, and if there were any that were salvaged, I don’t know what happened to them,” Prepsky said.
Now retired and working as a ceramic sculptor, Prepsky looks back at those years with gratitude. “Keith Haring’s trip here was life-changing for me, and I know he influenced many of our students. It truly was kismet,” he said.
Born on May 4, 1958, in Reading, Pennsylvania, Haring was best known for striking graffiti-inspired drawings that took him from New York City’s streets, subways and clubs to museums and public spaces around the world. Fascinated by cartoon art from an early age, Haring dropped out of the Ivy School of Professional Art in Pittsburgh to move to New York and enroll in the School of Visual Arts in 1978.
There, he discovered a thriving art community that was developing outside the gallery and museum world and included fellow emerging artists such as Jean-Michel Basquiat. Haring created a singular graphic style based on the primacy of the line, peopling it with such signature images as dancing figures, “radiant babies,” barking dogs and flying saucers, and infusing it with uncommon energy and optimism.
After using the city as his canvas – from making countless quick chalk drawings on empty black subway advertising spaces to creating a Crack is Whack mural in Harlem – Haring applied his bold lines and bright colors to freestanding drawings and paintings.
Between 1980 and 1989, the artist achieved international recognition, participating in numerous group and solo shows and producing more than fifty public artworks from New York to Paris. By finding a direct means of expressing universal concepts of birth, death, love, sex and war, Haring created a lasting imagery that has been embraced around the world.
Much like his mentor Andy Warhol, the central focus of Haring’s career was to make art accessible to the public. His work has endured posthumously – just as Warhol’s has – because of its accessibility and commercial appeal. Haring was obsessed with the commercial applications of his art. In 1986, Haring opened his own store in Soho called the Pop Shop that sold mass-produced products of his work such as shirts and posters. Throughout his career, Haring also used his work to benefit the public by working in conjunction with literacy, environmental, human rights and children art education programs. He died of AIDS-related complications on February 16, 1990.
While the Keith Haring Foundation in New York no longer authenticates paintings, it does work to sustain, expand and protect the legacy of Keith Haring, his art and his ideals. The Foundation supports not-for-profit organizations that assist children, as well as organizations involved in education, prevention, and care related to AIDS. To learn more, visit: www.haring.com/kh_foundation/.
Bidders can inspect the painting, as well as the opinion letter, by contacting EJ’s Auction & Appraisal. Video and photos can be found on EJ’s website, www.ejsauction.com. Private viewings may be scheduled at the auction house through Thursday, June 18.
EJ’s will also open for a public preview at 9 a.m. on the day of the auction, June 19 (barring no statewide restrictions relating to COVID-19). A starting bid of $50,000 must be met for bidding to begin, and bidders must pre-register at www.ejsauction.com.
For more information, call 623-878-2003.