Zapped with Energy: Keith Haring’s Flying Saucers, 1980 – 1985

 Exhibit / September 27, 2018

Object Name: Flying Saucer illustrations by Keith Haring
Maker and Year: Keith Haring, 1980-1985
Object Type: Illustrations/paintings
Image Source: The Keith Haring Foundation
Description: (K.E. Roberts)

Artist, activist, and philanthropist Keith Haring produced most of his “flying saucer” drawings well before his work became an international pop culture touchstone. In the summer of 1980, Haring was at a crossroads, and his life and art, he said, “went totally berserk.” He was making provocative newspaper collages—“Reagan Slain by Hero Cop,” ran one—and pasting them all over New York City, but he deeply missed drawing and painting, and eventually borrowed studio space from a friend to find out if he still had it. What came pouring out were the abstract, hieroglyphic, totemic figures and often sequential panels that became the foundation of his oeuvre. He explained the experience to John Gruen, who was at the time assembling the interviews that would become Keith Haring: The Authorized Biography (1991):

The flying saucers looked like Mexican sombreros, but they were my archetypal vision of what I thought a mythical flying saucer would look like. The saucers were zapping things with an energy ray, which would then endow whatever it zapped with this power…

Out of these drawings my entire future vocabulary was born. I have no idea why it turned out like that. It certainly wasn’t a conscious thing. But after these initial images, everything fell into place…

Later the same year, Haring discovered black paper panels plastered over old advertisements on subway platforms. He was already strongly influenced by graffiti art, and haunted the underground hoping to make his own contributions to the scene. So he started drawing on these blank slates with chalk—more flying saucers, pyramids, snakes, “babies” on all fours, animal hybrids, conspicuous technology, and nonverbal symbols expressing energy and “activation.”

Although UFOs and ufology saturated the popular culture of the day, especially the growing corpus of alien abduction narratives, for Haring the craft were symbols of a different sort: a representation of forbidden desires, fertility, virility, authority, divinity, estrangement—“the difference between human power and the power of animal instinct.” What he conveyed was the feeling of being human and animal and alien all at the same time.

Haring’s art became increasingly somber, his flying saucers replaced by angels and corpses, as the AIDS epidemic decimated the gay community. He devoted much of his work throughout the decade to AIDS education and research, children’s hospitals and orphanages, political causes, and spontaneous public service announcements, until he himself died of AIDS-related complications in 1990 at the age of 31.

One thought on “Zapped with Energy: Keith Haring’s Flying Saucers, 1980 – 1985

  1. Pingback: Escape from the Pondox Corporation: Mark Beyer and the Mystery of the Mundane

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