A new exhibition at NYU shows how the artist used glyphs, anagrams, and phonics to express taboo subjects
“Art Boy Sin,” reads a sheet of graph paper from Keith Haring’s notebook.
“Fat Art Sin,” it continues.
“Sin Lick Boy.”
These phrases, penned neatly in black ink, were part of the script for Haring’s 1980 film Lick Fat Boys. In the video, the young artist reads off sequences that he created using letters from the title “First National City Bank.” Each anagram is an allusion to New York’s gay subculture. The repetition continues until Haring ultimately forms the bawdy phrase for which the work is named.
Lick Fat Boys is one of more than 130 rarely viewed archival objects and artworks featured in the new exhibition “Keith Haring: Languages.” On view through February 28 at New York University’s Fales Library, the show focuses on text-based films, notes, collages, and sketches that Haring created in the late 1970s and early ’80s, shortly after moving to New York City from Pennsylvania. As the exhibition’s curator, Andrew Blackley, explains, these language studies “set the stage” for Haring to develop the iconic pictograms—barking dogs, intertwined male bodies, and happy, dancing people—for which he is known today.
On the pages of his notebooks, Haring worked to identify the limits of the written word and find a nonrestrictive language—one that would allow him to discuss topics that were, at that time, considered taboo. He performed operations on words, altering their form and questioning their value. He discovered clever ways to embed gay themes and vocabulary into a language that, in large part, excluded them.
In his collages, Haring plays with dual meaning and irony. Following the example of “cut-ups” made by his friends Brion Gysin and William S. Burroughs, Haring selectively cropped and pasted newspaper clippings to modify their meaning and undermine the control possessed by formal language.
In another playful exercise, Haring even created a key for his own glyphic code, like a decoder ring for a cereal-box cryptogram. He replaced English letters and standard numerals with symbols and shapes, then attempted to write words with his new alphabet.
The repetition, silliness, and overt sexual references found in the film Phonics prefigure Haring’s glyph drawings and murals. In the film, the artist’s friends—including a young Kenny Scharf—pronounce various combinations of letters, which Haring had adhered to the wall behind them. They take turns reading “io” and “er” and “th” and “three,” and from time to time, the word “anal” flickers across the screen. Over time, the sounds become distorted, like an alien language to which only Haring’s group of outsiders was privy.
He recorded Phonics in 1980. That same year, Haring began doodling the signature hieroglyphic characters that he would later graffiti on subway walls and paint on buildings. These glyphs made public the private statements Haring had previously only shared with fellow members of New York’s underground culture.