Stories of artists who die young but make lasting contributions to culture course through art history. There’s van Gogh, Boccioni, Basquiat and, of course, Keith Haring, the posthumous star of MCA Denver’s marquee spring and summer attraction, Keith Haring: Grace House Mural.
Born in Pennsylvania in 1958, Haring arrived in New York in 1978 and launched his art career. By 1990, he had died from AIDS-related complications; he was only 31. His artistic practice spanned just a little over ten years. During that brief burst, he became world-famous, and even today, more than thirty years later, Haring’s iconic drawings are still well known.
His most famous imagery, like the crawling baby surrounded by radiating lines, or the wolfman — simple outlines rather than fully fleshed-out renderings — remain seared into the mind’s eye of art enthusiasts, hipsters and the general public, even those who might not know Haring’s name.
Though he had some formal training and came to New York to study at the School of Visual Arts, where he first encountered postmodern theory, his visual inspirations were children’s cartoons and the impromptu art of the street.
Haring was pretty much a street kid himself. He got his start as a graffiti writer and first became known in New York for his subway-stop pieces, which were seen by thousands. He took advantage of this high-traffic ad hoc exhibition space, working on found-paper surfaces — in this case, black paper that covered unleased ad space.
Haring would mark the black paper with white chalk, and used the soon-to-be-famous radiating baby symbol as his personal tag. Because his drawings were on paper, they were easy for passersby to take, and many did.
Over the next decade, his repertoire would expand from the chalk and paper days, but the simple signature comic-book depictions he developed early-on had staying power and more. His mega-fame exploded within a few years. Given how readily appealing his work is, this success now seems inevitable.
First, he delivered familiar and comprehensible images with confident and coherent lines. Second, the renderings are charmingly naïve and thus viewer-friendly. They mostly convey the human figure, often in movement, but sometimes depict animals and even flying saucers. His pieces are almost pictographs, conveying narratives more efficiently than writing.
This kind of work gave Haring status in the contemporary art world while simultaneously establishing his street cred. Creating work that plays this dual role of being part of the high culture of galleries and museums and gaining fame in the pop-culture arena of T-shirts and album covers is quite a trick, but Haring pulled it off. (He even opened his own store in SoHo, called the Pop Shop, selling products emblazoned with his imagery.)
The MCA exhibit zeroes in on a mural Haring did in the early ’80s, when he was hanging out at a place called the Paradise Garage. Located in a converted parking structure, Paradise Garage was an alternative nightclub that was famous not only for its sound system, but also for its inclusiveness. It emerged as important to the development of dance, pop music, club culture and the LGBTQ community. Haring was among the many future luminaries hanging out there, and it was there that he also met two street-savvy teens who were clients of Grace House and who then introduced Haring to the facility. Grace House was a Catholic center for at-risk youth, located in New York City's Morningside Heights neighborhood.
Haring, intrigued by the walls in a staircase there, got permission from the center’s manager to paint them. He carried out the monumental work in less than two hours. The mural was not a formal commission, but was done gratis for Grace House simply to show the artist's support for the place. Haring painted the mural around 1983 or ’84, early in the arc of his development, though his iconography was already full-blown and he was well on his way to building an international reputation. The mural comprised Haring’s classic human figures done in black paint on the pre-existing off-white ground of an underlying coat of wall paint.
A couple of years ago, the decision was made by the Church of the Ascension, which had control over Grace House, to remove the mural in preparation for the sale of the building — a decision that was not without controversy, as many felt it should be preserved where it was, lining the walls of that staircase. To save it ahead of the interior being gutted, conservators cut it into thirteen panels, also taking along a few related bits, like doors, a plaque and some mailboxes. The panels and ancillary parts were sold together at auction in 2019 to an anonymous collector for nearly $4 million. According to MCA director Nora Burnett Abrams, who curated the Haring show, the collector intends to display the mural publicly, in the spirit of the artist’s intentions, as is the case here in Denver.
Denver is the first place in the country to showcase the mural since its removal from the Grace House walls, and the MCA exhibit is crowded with typical Haring iconography (though there are no flying saucers, sadly). The mural pieces take over all of the first-floor galleries, opening with the familiar radiating baby image, which dominates the initial space. This inspired placement establishes the show’s mood, and it was also, as it happens, the introductory passage in the mural in its former home before Grace House was deconstructed. The baby is crawling, surrounded by radiating lines, suggesting both that it is glowing and that it is moving. It’s worth the price of admission just to see it all by itself.
In the large adjacent space, the walls are lined with painted androgynous figures that look like they’re dancing or leaping. Haring suggests the action as simply as he conveys the figures themselves, using their dynamic poses and painted lines running along their arms or legs. In a different space, there’s a figure leaping into a closed office door, and another that portrays the wolfman, who’s dancing and howling. Haring conveys the two activities using those same simple lines. Movement is implied by lines along the wolfman’s legs, sound by an arc of dashes emanating from his open mouth.
At the MCA, the Haring mural fragments have been supplemented by a video and photographs of the artist working on various projects, many of them taken by Tseng Kwong Chi, who was also part of New York's contemporary art scene at the time.
Keith Haring: Grace House Mural represents a staggering logistical project considering that the images are still attached to large fragments of the cinderblock wall on which they were painted. Abrams decided that it would be more effective, and closer to Haring’s intentions, if the mural fragments were submerged into the walls. To pull this off, the huge and heavy fragments were put in place in front of the museum’s actual walls, then, drywallers came in to build false walls around the variously shaped mural chunks. This approach achieves its aim of suggesting that the murals have been painted on the new walls. Enhancing that illusion is the off-white color used on the new walls, which comes close to perfectly matching the shade of the old wall paint background of the murals.
Haring made artworks not only for high-end clients, but also, as was the case with Grace House, for youth centers, schools and other public places. He even painted a mammoth piece on the Berlin Wall. He was not just an artist and entrepreneur, but also an activist for progressive causes, in particular championing under-privileged children, gay rights and AIDS awareness.
As quoted by the MCA, shortly before he died Haring said that doing charity works such as the Grace House mural was his way of supporting and embracing the community. They were “less as an egotistical exercise and more natural somehow. I don’t know how to exactly explain it. Taking it off the pedestal. I’m giving it back to the people, I guess.”
Keith Haring: Grace House Mural runs through August 22, at the MCA Denver, 1485 Delgany Street. Entry requires timed tickets. Reserve your tickets at the MCA Denver website.
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