A.I. ‘Completes’ Keith Haring’s Intentionally Unfinished Painting

Critics say the image is disrespectful of the original work, which the artist made as a commentary on the AIDS epidemic

Keith Haring in Studio
Artist Keith Haring in his New York City studio in the 1980s Paulo Fridman / Corbis via Getty Images

The year before he died of AIDS-related complications, the artist Keith Haring created a unique work known only as Unfinished Painting (1989). In its upper-left quadrant, black and white lines form stylized patterns on a purple background. Streaks of purple paint trickle down onto the otherwise empty lower-left quadrant; the right half of the canvas is also blank. Haring intentionally left the work unfinished as a commentary on the AIDS crisis.

Now, a newly “completed” version of the work—made with the help of artificial intelligence—is generating controversy: A social media user employed an A.I. image generator to expand Haring’s designs across the blank sections of the canvas, ultimately posting the altered image on X, formerly known as Twitter.

“The story behind this painting is so sad!” writes the user, who goes by Donnel. “Now using A.I. we can complete what he couldn’t finish!”

The image was met with intense backlash.

“It’s very disrespectful to not only anyone who was around during the AIDS epidemic, but particularly those who died from it or who lost friends and loved ones during it,” Tina Tallon, a researcher of A.I. and the arts at the University of Florida, tells NBC News’ Kalhan Rosenblatt.

Born in 1958, Haring rose to fame through the graffiti art he drew inside the New York subways. In the early ’80s, “Haring produced hundreds of these public drawings in rapid rhythmic lines, sometimes creating as many as 40 ‘subway drawings’ in one day,” according to the Keith Haring Foundation. “This seamless flow of images became familiar to New York commuters.” He began exhibiting his art in cities around the world.

While Haring is perhaps best known for his colorful, playful designs, he also used his art to help raise awareness of the AIDS crisis. In 1988, he was diagnosed with the disease, which he died from in 1990, when he was 31.

“I find the ‘completed’ version of the artwork to be abhorrent,” artist Brooke Peachley, whose post honoring Haring’s work prompted Donnel’s, tells Hyperallergic’s Elaine Velie and Rhea Nayyar, using a pseudonym for her last name. “Not only does ‘completing’ the painting completely negate it of its original meaning, but spits on the tens of thousands of queer individuals who lost their lives to the AIDS epidemic in the ’80s and ’90s.”

She adds: “To do so using generative A.I., a computer program that cannot feel the weight of what it is doing nor create with any sort of human intention, only adds to the disrespect.”

Exhibition view
Keith Haring's unfinished work in an exhibition at the Broad Museum in Los Angeles last year Joshua White / JWPictures

What’s more, the A.I.-generated image doesn’t appear to be faithful to Haring’s style, which often included images of human figures. These kinds of figures are visible in Haring’s original piece, but the image generator wasn’t able to replicate them.

“The once deeply intentional curves and shapes eerily lose their form as the program moves farther and farther away from the original source,” Peachley tells Hyperallergic.

Ever since A.I. image generators became publicly available, their role in the art world has been a matter of debate. Many artists worry that these models are trained on copyrighted works by living artists—who didn’t consent for their art to be used in this manner. Just last month, a list of thousands of artists allegedly used to train Midjourney started circulating, intensifying concerns about how A.I. art interacts with copyright law.

“Right now, we don’t really have structures or frameworks for engaging with A.I.,” Tallon tells NBC News. “Or engaging with generative AI in a way that I think fully respects artists and the agency of artists and their agency over their own creative work, whether living or dead.”

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