Museum of Contemporary Religious Art, Saint Louis University
The altarpiece, cast in bronze and covered with gold leaf, is rendered in the artist’s post-graffiti style. Sam Havadtoy, writing in May 1990, shared his recollection of Haring's work on the panels:
In 1989, Keith asked me to help him decorate his new Manhattan apartment. In his living room was an old brick fireplace which he hated, so I had it plastered over. The plaster was wet and I suggested that he draw into it. He thought it was a cool idea. It was as if the plaster were a three-dimensional textured canvas. He loved drawing in the plaster, and got very excited about the new medium. When he finished, it was very beautiful. I asked him if he wanted to make an edition of the fireplace and he loved the idea. Later, I asked him if he wanted to do other works in editions -- perhaps, panels and tables. He laughed. But he said he liked the idea -- he would do it.
Trays were made for the panels and tables. I also had a last-minute inspiration and had special trays made in the shape of a Russian icon, an altar piece, a large version of a miniature icon I saw in a shop in Geneva. All the trays were then laid out in a quiet, womblike room in the Dakota. Trays were filled with fresh clay. Keith arrived. He snapped a tape into the ghetto blaster, turned up the music, sipped a Coke and set to work.
Instead of a brush, for the first time, he used a loop knife. He handled the knife freely and spontaneously like he wielded his brushes. As he worked, he became more and more excited. He said that he couldn't believe it had taken him so long to discover this kind of sculpture. He made no preliminary drawings except for a quick sketch of the dancer on the third panel, which he made on a two-by-four piece of wood. Yet he was completely sanguine as he cut into the clay. The images came directly from his head. He placed the knife in the clay and carved a continuous running line, a quarter-of-an-inch deep groove, which wound like a swollen stream during the spring thaw. He never stopped to rethink the line; he never edited himself and never made corrections. The lines he carved in the clay were seamless, flawless.
Keith finished the panels and then, for the first time, saw the three altar piece sections. He stared at them and was silent. Then he set to work. He cut into the clay and began to carve freeflowing lines. The images that emerged were unlike the others. They were religious: an inspiration of the life of Christ; a baby held by a pair of hands; hands ascending toward heaven; Christ on the cross. On one side panel he depicted the resurrection. On the other, a fallen angel. When Keith finished, as he stepped back and gazed at this work, he said, "Man, this is really heavy."
When he stopped, he was exhausted, and it was the first time I realized how frail he had become. He was completely out of breath. He said, "When I'm working, I'm fine, but as soon as I stop, it hits me . . . "
The altar was Keith's final piece of work.
Haring died two weeks after completing the altarpiece. The uncharacteristically solemn altarpiece reflects the artist's coming to terms with his own mortality and his grief over the death of friends. The work is an expression of love and an affirmation of the sacred.
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