Keith Haring: The Radiant Baby

Keith Haring was one of the most famous and significant artists of his generation. In 1984 he spent a month in Melbourne, and left behind an extraordinary legacy on a nondescript inner city wall.

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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 Pittsbugh, 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

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 quickly found himself at the centre of a group of talented, like minded individuals (among them Jean-Michel Basquiat, who Haring befriended). Experimenting with different media, and influenced by pop artists Andy Warhol and Christo, among others, Haring became determined to express himself artistically in public.

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

He was able to transpose his notoriety 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

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

From his modest base in 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 Melbourne's competitive 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 more 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. To the delight - and, perhaps, surprise - of the local artistic community, the street art star accepted.

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

Haring at work on the waterwall, at the NGV.

The main project Haring was engaged on was a new design for the 'water wall' in the lobby of the NGV. The water wall is a glass section of the front of the NGV building, between the entrance and exit doors. Water trickles down the glass, into a pool at the bottom, creating a rippled texture, and obscuring the interior.

Haring was to decorate the plain 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

While well received, unfortunately Haring's water wall did not last long.

Only a few weeks after the piece was completed, a bullet was fired through the piece, shattering the glass and effectively destroying the artwork. The broken glass was beyond salvage and the wall had to be replaced (The shooters motive could not be established from any of the available reference material).

Haring at work in Sydney

Haring then made a flying visit to Sydney, where he produced another large scale work for the state gallery; this time an internal mural at the Art Gallery of NSW. While in Sydney, Haring, open about his homosexuality, also appeared on a float dedicated to him in Mardi Gras.

Haring at work in Collingwoid

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 wanted to arrange for him to produce a work for a school. He approached the Principal of the Collingwood Technical School, then on Johnson Street, who agreed to give over a wall on the 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

Haring left Australia two days later, never to return.

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 Australia.

An AIDS awareness poster designed by Haring

Politically aware, and generous with his time, in the 1980's Haring devoted an increasing amount of effort to raising awareness of AIDS, then in its infancy as a global health risk.

Sadly, this cause would intervene directly in the artists 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. Photo: The Haring Foundation

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 the image above.

The Haring mural in the 1990s.

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

Its out of the way locale, and outdoor positioning, meant that the elements took their toll, while little was done to preserve the work. By the 1990s, the paint had faded badly, and parts of the wall had become damaged.

With the Collingwood Technical School relocated, the building was acquired by Arts Victoria, who 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.

Then 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 mural took several months to restore.

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

But there was one final twist in the story.

When the work was first completed in 1984, Haring signed his name on a small service door at the bottom centre 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 then remained missing throughout the mural's slow decline, for 29 years.

Hochberg with the returned door.

Arts Victoria finally made a public plea for anyone who may have souvenired the door to come forward. Remarkably, this was successful, and 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 Haring murals left in the world.



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