When Keith Came to Town

One day, in January 1985, during my first visit to Melbourne (in fact my first time away home), I became a little lost. I ended up in Johnston Street, Collingwood, and while making my way back to what I hoped was the more familiar territory of Fitzroy, a strange and beautiful sight suddenly came into view. Here, on a ratty, windswept, traffic-ridden stretch of road, facing away down the hill to nothing and no one in particular, was a large, and totally unheralded, Keith Haring mural. A sphinx-like computer-headed worm, a glowing brain within the screen, rode rough shod over a sea of electric boogie, defiant dancers breaking and spinning and popping with a relentless, if anxious, energy. What a city, I thought to myself, so utterly cool it casually plonks a major international art work somewhere like this, and forgets to tell anyone about it.

Keith Haring was invited to Australia in March 1984, by curator and dealer John Buckley, when he was on the cusp of international fame. During his visit he painted a couple of large, but ultimately temporary, murals for the National Gallery of Victoria and the Art Gallery of NSW. Critics would later decry his willing accessibility and his openness to the commercial, even describing his work as ‘not much more than pleasant downtown wallpaper’. But his signature dancing figures and ‘radiant’ babies, bombastically bright palette and reoccurring social themes have an insistent power; his work manages to both symbolise and transcend the decade that his career spanned. I was privileged to watch a high-top sneaker clad Haring aloft a scissor lift, at Sydney’s AGNSW, calmly and assuredly making his mark above the neo-classical arches. With a swift, precise hand honed through years of chalk and magic marker drawing on the walls of New York’s subways, he worked without preparatory drawings or even the usual gridded markup of mural-makers. This direct, and public, way of working was a rarefied but no less immediate form of graffiti tagging. It not only put his consummate skill on display and referenced the original outsider act, but became performance in itself. Haring was well aware that he was fusing disparate practices, describing hearing Christo talk in 1976: ‘that had the most profound effect on me…the event as public art takes it into another arena besides object-making’. He was also conscious that in his work the language of the street and the clubs met with that of the gallery.

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While in Melbourne, Haring was also asked to create a permanent work for the city’s new contemporary ‘kunsthall’, the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, now located in South Melbourne. As ACCA then lacked a permanent home, a wall was found at the Collingwood Technical College, a tatty ‘tech’ school in what was at the time a rough-and-ready inner urban neighbourhood. The chosen site appealed immensely to Haring who was always keen to engage, and on many projects actually work, with children and teenagers; he considered himself an activist as well as an artist. Once the wall was primed by volunteers, Haring completed the painting in a single day.

Fast forward 26 years. Haring is long gone, having succumbed to an AIDs-related illness in early 1990, at the age of 31. His Collingwood mural, unlike so many others, persists. But while concerted preservation efforts were made in 1996, it is but a shadow of its former self. Its kinetic lines of red and green are faded into chalky rust and blue tones, its vibrant mustard-yellow ground is wan and, in parts, flaking. The current state of neglect is partly due to years of bureaucratic buck passing. The site was listed on Heritage Victoria’s register in 2004, so the mural cannot be destroyed, but the building itself has gone through several changes of departmental ownership and is currently up for sale, leaving no party willing to fund relatively insignificant maintenance costs. Troublingly, the inaction also stems from a seemingly unbreachable divide between two camps of Haring devotees.

Those on the conservatorial side see the mural as a cultural artefact, one that contains the artist’s rare and authentic touch evidenced in each singular brushstroke; they advocate a commitment to preservation, or stabilisation, with the caveat that even with their best efforts, the mural will continue to fade and eventually cease to exist. The Haring Foundation, and many others, including several curators and Haring’s original Australian contact, John Buckley, are hoping to restore, or more accurately, repaint the work, claiming that this would most closely follows Haring’s wishes. Yes, the original paint and brushstrokes would be forever lost, but Haring’s intent, creative vision and integral design will live on, in all its jellybean vibrancy. Buckley recalls a conversation with Haring who, with a characteristic lack of preciousness, said that the mural could, when needed, just be repainted by any good signwriter.

Whatever your take on the preserve/restore schism, and whatever the eventual outcome, the mural should be on every Melbourne visitor’s itinerary. It’s an amazing example of Haring’s work, a prescient vision of the dark, depersonalising shadow of digital technology, and the spirit of resilience and resistance contained in popular dance and music. It’s also a poetic and serendipitous document of its time. Gaze a while and take yourself back to a world before Google and iPhones. Conjure up the image of Haring making a brief descent from his cherry picker. Not to size up his work as a Renaissance master might, but rather to change sides of the Fab 5 Freddie mixtape playing on his Kenny Scharf-customised boom box, making sure the kids who’d gathered to watch kept working their freshly-acquired b-boy moves. The mural is currently behind a locked gate, but can clearly be seen from the street, both through a fence and towering above. Plans are also afoot for greater public accessibility. These days the neighbourhood, now my neighbourhood, might still present a tad bleak (and does still contain pockets of extreme disadvantage). But, with a slew of cool-kid patronised pubs, cute cafes, restaurantsshops and bars, it’s a destination in itself.

The Collingwood Technical College mural can be found on Johnston St, Collingwood, near the corner of Wellington St, just behind the Tote Hotel.

Where else to see Keith Haring’s murals

  • Napier St, Fitzroy (1984)
    Btw Gertrude and Webb Sts, Fitzroy, Melbourne
    During Haring’s month-long trip to Australia, he was to casually daub quite a number of walls in both cities, including a railway overpass, a nightclub and a private prep school. This small but iconic figure on the fence of an inner city terrace – a gift for the one-time resident – is one of the only that both endures and is publicly accessible.
  • Crack is Wack (1986)
    East 128th St& 2nd Ave (the Harlem River Drive), New York
    Painted on the northern face of a handball court wall, Haring’s cautionary response to New York’s crack epidemic was executed without permission (or remuneration), but was put immediately under protection of the City Department of Parks.
  • Carmine Street Swimming Pool (1987)
    Carmine St & 7th Ave, New York
    Painted on an ajoining wall between the public pool and the James J. Walker Park handball court, this aquatic-themed work is unusually sparse, but still joyfully kinetic, and at 18ft high and 170ft long is huge.
  • L’hôpital Necker (1987)
    149 rue de Sèvres, 15ème, Paris
    Haring’s most enduring and evocative figure is the ‘radiant baby’ – a symbol of innocence and hope – and his interest in the wellbeing of children was borne out in many of his public works. This soaring, vertical mural graces a brutalist external stairwell of a busy children’s hospital.
  • Tuttomondo (1989)
    Piazza Sant’Antonio, Pisa
    The idea of creating a mural in Pisa happened by chance when a young Italian student met Haring in the street in New York. This 180sqm work is on the side of the Church of Sant’Antonio, and was realised in a relatively subtle palette in deference to the surrounding streetscape. The interlocking figures optimistically represent the struggle for peace and harmony in the world. This was to be Haring’s last public work.