October 20, 2021

The Keith Haring Mural in Collingwood

The Keith Haring mural in Collingwood is the remarkable legacy of the artist's visit to Melbourne in 1984. It has faded, been restored, part of it was even stolen.

The Keith Haring mural in Collingwood
The Keith Haring mural in Collingwood

Born in 1958, in Reading Pennsylvania, Keith Haring showed a talent for art from an early age.

A listless student, after high school he studied drawing in Pittsburgh, where he had his first solo exhibition in 1978. Later that same year, he moved to New York to study at the renowned School for Visual Arts (SVA), an event which would change his life.

Keith Haring in the late 70's
Keith Haring in the late 70's

New York in the late 70's was a hotbed of artistic experimentation. Contemporary musicians, writers, film makers and visual artists made the city their home, and used the lively environment to energise their creative efforts.

Haring was drawn to New York's edgy street art movement, and found himself at the centre of a group of talented, like minded individuals. Among them was Jean-Michel Basquiat, who Haring befriended.

Experimenting with different media, and influenced by pop artists Andy Warhol and Christo, among others, Haring was determined to express himself artistically in public.

Keith Haring drawing in the subway, early 1980s

Keith Haring art in the New York subway
Keith Haring art in the New York subway

He found an outlet in New York's subway system, where disused advertising was covered with plain black board. This provided a free canvas, which Haring began to utilise.

Creating cryptic images in white chalk, often with a subversive, political message, Haring's subway drawings quickly became well known. The simple designs were striking, their unique style made them eye catching, and memorable.

He was able to transpose his renown as a street artist into a series of gallery shows across New York, which were rapturously received. By the early 80's, Haring was famous, and on a meteoric rise.

The original ACCA headquarters, Melbourne
The original ACCA headquarters

Founded in 1983, the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art (ACCA) was a Victorian Government initiative to promote modern art in Melbourne.

From a modest base, a three bedroom cottage in the Botanic Gardens, ACCA director John Buckley had large ambitions. He wanted an artistic coup, something to really grab the public's attention, and establish his institute in the competitive local arts scene.

Buckley was familiar with Haring's work from a visit to New York in 1982.

He had seen both Haring's subway drawings, and a formal exhibition, and had been impressed. When he met the artist in London that year, he extended an invitation to visit Melbourne, with the offer of some publicly commissioned pieces as an enticement. The street art star accepted.

Haring arrived in Melbourne in February 1984, for a one month visit.

Keith Haring paints the waterwall, at the NGV.
Haring at work on the water wall, at the NGV.

The main project Haring was engaged on was a new design for the 'water wall' in the lobby of the National Gallery Victoria (NGV).

The water wall is a striking feature at the entrance of the building: a metres high sheet of thick glass, with water running down it perpetually. The rippling of the water creates a muted effect, diffusing the light inside, giving the gallery a singular tone.

Haring was to decorate the glass with a series of his distinctive drawings.

'For four days he painted on the inside of the glass wall with his Kenny Scharf decorated radio blaring, surrounded by interested spectators coming and going. The foyer of the NGV was crowded with school kids and Keith was signing things on arms, on books, on  scraps of paper, for anyone who wanted one.'

 

- John Buckley

Haring's visit had generated considerable excitement, and his water wall mural was well received.

Unfortunately, it did not last long.

Only a few weeks after the piece was completed, a bullet was deliberately fired through the glass, shattering the wall and  destroying the artwork. This deliberate act of vandalism seems to have had no specific motive. It was just done for kicks (much like the later destruction of Melbourne's final Banksy).

The broken glass was beyond salvage and the wall had to be replaced.

Keith Haring at work in Sydney
Haring at work in Sydney

Haring then made a flying visit to Sydney, where he produced another large scale commission. This time a mural on an interior wall at the Art Gallery NSW.

While in Sydney, Haring, open about his homosexuality, also appeared on a float dedicated to him at the Mardi Gras.

Keith Haring mural in Collingwood: the artist at work
Haring at work in Collingwood

With Haring returning to Melbourne near the end of his trip, Buckley hoped to facilitate one final, major public work from the artist.

As Haring liked to work with young people, Buckley arranged for him to produce a work for a local school. The Principal of the Collingwood Technical School, then on Johnson Street, agreed to give over a wall on their main building, for another mural.

As time was short, Haring agreed to complete the work in one day only; March 6, 1984.

'It was a warm and windy Melbourne day. Keith worked very quickly. The energy that he produced when he was working on a piece was infectious.

 

He radiated energy. People loved to watch him work.

 

I never had any discussion with Keith about what he was going to produce. I simply went up the road to the paint store, and bought a whole bunch of Dulux paints.'

 

- John Buckley

The finished, giant size mural is visually arresting.

Painted in lime green and red, it highlights some of the artist's fixations. There are a mass of people, seemingly dancing, while a large caterpillar, with a computer head and organic brain, marches above them.  Haring was a humanist, most interested in people, fascinated with technology and how it impacted our species.

The mural is strange and vibrant. It captured people's attention, while simultaneously dividing public opinion, at least at the time.

Haring left Australia two days later.

His distinguished career subsequently took him to many parts of the world and he left large scale public works in many of them, similar to what he had produced in Melbourne.

An AIDS awareness poster designed by Haring
An AIDS awareness poster designed by Haring

Politically aware, and generous with his time, Haring devoted an increasing amount of effort to activism. He was particularly committed to raising awareness of AIDS, then in its infancy as a global health risk.

Sadly, this cause would intervene directly in the artist's life, when Haring was diagnosed with the illness himself.

Keith Haring died of an AIDS related complication in Manhattan on February 16, 1990. He was only 31 years of age.

'The Radiant Baby', by Keith Haring.
'The Radiant Baby', by Keith Haring.

In its obituary, the New York Times called Haring 'one of the most astonishingly unique talents of recent times.'

Among the broad legacy the artist left behind, his most famous image seemed to sum up some aspects of his short life: 'The Radiant Baby'. Many people who met and worked with Haring remarked on his energy and enthusiasm, much as John Buckley had done, traits that seem to be captured in his signature work.

Keith Haring mural in Collingwood: 1990s
The Haring mural in the 1990s.

In the years after his passing, the Keith Haring mural in Collingwood slowly faded into neglect.

Exposed to the weather, the elements took their toll. The paint faded and flaked away, while little was done to preserve the work. By the 1990s, parts of the wall had become damaged and the mural difficult to see.

The Collingwood Technical School had relocated by this time, and the building was then acquired by Arts Victoria. They began to investigate ways to restore the work.

But the assessment was both lengthy and frequently delayed, as the merits of different restoration techniques were debated.

The Keith Haring mural in Collingwood: restored
Arts Minister Heidi Victoria unveils the restored artwork

In 2013, the Victorian Government finally appointed Italian expert Antonio Rava as chief conservator, and the restoration project commenced. Cleaning the original work, and re-touching where required, the project too several months to complete.

It was re-unveiled in August 2013, to much acclaim.

But there was one final twist in the story.

The Keith Haring mural in Collingwood: the artist's signature
Keith Haring's door signature

When the work was first completed in 1984, Haring signed his name on a small service door at the bottom of the wall.

Shortly after the mural's completion, the door went missing, although exactly when seems to have been unrecorded. By the time its absence was noticed, it seemed too late to do anything to recover it.

The door remained missing throughout the mural's slow decline, for 29 years.

The Keith Hating mural in Collingwood: the artist's signature
Hochberg with the returned door.

During the restoration, Arts Victoria made a public plea for anyone who may know the whereabouts of the door to come forward.

Hopes were not high, due to the long absence. But everyone was in for a surprise. An anonymous package containing the door was delivered to restoration Project Administrator Jessica Hochberg.

The door's authenticity was verified by Haring's estate, and returned to the mural shortly afterwards.

The Collingwood mural is now one of only 31 Keith Haring murals left in the world.

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