In a world-first, Keith Haring | Jean-Michel Basquiat: Crossing Lines brings more than 200 artworks by two iconic 20th-century American artists to the National Gallery of Victoria.
It’s the first time both artists’ works sit side by side in a major retrospective, where careers are mapped, a friendship line is traced and their profound political expression through art is paralleled.
Theirs was an art world of collaboration, the pair coming together on several occasions—taking to public spaces and galleries, reminding us why New York was synonymous with groundbreaking art in the ’80s—in a scene that also starred William S Burroughs, Andy Warhol (who was also their close friend and mentor) and a pre-pop star Madonna.
Haring and Basquiat’s prolific yet short-lived careers saw them create an abundance of work from painting to sculpture, found object to journal entries. They commented on police brutality and racism and questioned the commercialisation of the art world long before their works became the most sought- after at art auctions.
Sadly they both died young: Haring at the age of 31 in 1990 from AIDS and Basquiat aged 27 in 1988 from a heroin overdose.
They inspired popular culture and created a visual language through the use of signs, symbols and words to convey their deepest thoughts. There were moments of political rage as they sought to provoke social change through their art and used their voices to express concern when America was ruled by President Ronald Reagan and NYC declared bankrupt and unsafe.
According to art historian and guest curator Dr Dieter Buchhart, who spent many months in Melbourne working on bringing this mammoth show together with the help of international collectors and the artists’ respective foundations, Haring and Basquiat met in New York in the ’70s and had huge respect for one another.
“They weren’t rivals, but the rivalry between them inspired them to get better at their art,” says Buchhart.
The exhibition plots each artist’s journey from when they didn’t know each other to when they were collaborating and sharing gallery spaces. Theirs was a world of graffiti, poetry and a cut-up style of sign and symbol use to create a dialogue that would define an era.
Basquiat was the first African American artist to receive attention worldwide. While he was alive, works sold easily for USD50,000 a pop, but it wasn’t until a Sotheby’s auction in New York in 2017 that an ‘Untitled’ painting of a skull sold for USD110.5 million to Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa.
“Basquiat didn’t politicise through the microphone but he was highly political in questioning identity, questioning everyday racism and other major challenges of society,” says Buchhart. “On the other hand, Haring was supporting rallies against apartheid, addressed nuclear threat and wanted protection against AIDS.”
But it’s the insight into journals and notebooks that really dig deep into the psyche of both visionaries. They hung out in New York’s art community, a place where musicians, performance artists and writers leaned on each other for creative inspiration. They lived parallel lives, often moving in the same circles and crossing paths along the way. This show maps those intersections and revels in all they created at the time.
“In the exhibition you have beautiful pages of Haring’s text in contrast to Basquiat’s. There’s an obituary that Haring wrote for Basquiat after his death on 12 August 1988 for Vogue and you see he rewrote it a few times,” Bucchart says.
Haring sketched the following tribute to Basquiat: “The intensity and directness of his vision was intimidating. He was uncompromising, disobedient… He revealed things. He removed the emperor’s clothes…His expertise at the assembling and disassembling of language has revealed new meanings to old words. He used words like paint. He cut them, combined them, erased them and rebuilt them. Every invention a new revelation.”
Haring’s best works are on show including the ‘Untitled’ 1983 piece featuring a computer on top of a caterpillar’s body crushing an army of people beneath it. The symbolism of technological advancement over humanity raised all sorts of paranoia about the time, with Haring at odds with the rise of personal computers and video games and their impact on human life. He was ahead of the times in predicting the rise of technology in the modern world.
Haring also brought attention to politics, from the epidemic of AIDS to South Africa’s apartheid as seen in works like ‘Prophets of Rage’ in 1988, but it’s the deeply moving tribute to his friend Basquiat in ‘A Pile of Crowns’ (1988), which you’ll find toward the end of the exhibition, that reminds viewers of the deep loss he felt after his friend’s departure.
According to Buchhart, Haring was the forerunner of emoji culture today and in his time managed close to 10,000 subway drawings. He produced hundreds of drawings through New York’s subway system, creating up to 40 on a single day. He was inspired by pop art, which fuelled his desire through graffiti and gave New York its vibrant underground streetstyle.
“Haring was inspired by Egyptian art and was one of the first to use symbols as language,” says Buchhart. “Meanwhile, Basquiat was building these knowledge rooms with his work when he was alive too. He was a visionary and would paste different kinds of information and create out of it a new room of thinking.”
New York in the 1980s was described as dirty and dangerous. The city was broke and the Lower East Side was a place for crime, drugs and murder. Basquiat was seen hanging with his girlfriend Madonna before she became a
pop star, Grace Jones and Jerry Hall were hanging at Club 57, and stylist and Polaroid 1980s queen photographer Maripol captured much of this burgeoning nightlife and art scene on camera. Some of these Polaroids appear on the walls inside the exhibition, with portraits of Haring, Basquiat, Madonna, Jones and Exene Cervenka from LA punks X.
“New York in the ’70s and ’80s was a time for freedom. That has gone from New York now,” says Maripol, who met Basquiat in 1979. “Not having the pressure of a high-paid job to pay high rent certainly created a spirit then that isn’t the same now in New York. The ’80s was an era of free thought and exchange. We’d go clubbing, lived without air-conditioning in the most oppressive summer. There was a lot of camaraderie and free sex and free love. But let’s not forget, we were the children of the ’60s and those who came before us, paved the way for us to take it someplace else.”
She is also known for the production and art direction of the 1980 film Downtown 81, assisting filmmaker Edo Bertoglio. It starred Basquiat and has been described as an ‘urban fairy-tale for its unique documentation of New York City’s pioneering artistic and musical culture at the end of disco and the beginning of hip-hop and new wave’.
Larry Warsh, a New York publisher and art collector, was in Melbourne for the worldwide premiere. He hung out in the New York’s ’80s art scene and became friends with Haring and Basquiat. He collects their works and initially paid as little as USD1,000 to USD10,000 for some pieces.
“I have a deep-rooted history with the time and with the artists and their work,” says Warsh, who published Basquiat-isms and is working on a Haring version for release in 2020. “What gravitated me to champion these artists and collect their work was their monumental energy and with this exhibition it has been recreated to remind us of the impact of the 1980s and that era.”
Some of Warsh’s works are on loan; the keen art collector says you don’t need to have lived in NYC in the ’80s to understand the gravitas of these iconic artists.
“Anybody can learn about Haring and Basquiat’s creativity and who they were by seeing this show,” Warsh says. “We really see how these guys created a language from the streets that is forever a permanent visual dialogue we can turn to. These two artists charted new territories and became a global phenomenon. For me it’s so interesting to see how they created a language through words and how these words were placed and interpretations made and how they morphed into paintings with collages over the years.”
Warsh describes those New York moments in an essay he wrote for the Crossing Lines exhibition catalogue: “There were always parties, exhibitions and special events and the city was bursting with raw spirit. It was obvious to me that something groundbreaking was taking place, something akin to what we see today in terms of the expansion of popular culture. There was an implied generosity and a strong sense of continuous interchange and interconnectedness between artists back then, and a feeling of support and care… Many of the Haring and Basquiat works that I was fortunate to collect are a result of the artists’ generosity towards a close circle of friends. Keith, in particular, was always giving artworks to his dearest companions. I think he understood how important it would be for his friends and he even thought about their families and children, too.”
“Downtown was cheap to rent, easy to squat and it gave room for artists at the time so they could be part of the scene,” says Buchhart. “It was dangerous and looked like a war zone and it was declared bankrupt. It was the moment these two geniuses emerged and gave us an art scene we are still
Both artists were inspired to work across various artistic media—an important role model was Warhol who had been doing it since the 1960s.
“I go on instinct and intuition,” adds Warsh of his collector style. “I was manic about these artists at the time and I started collecting early on because I felt it was from an honest place. There was a liveliness and energy about downtown and around Astor Place that really fed the works by Haring and Basquiat. I feel privileged I was there and I have now become a huge collector of Kaws’ [Brian Donnelly] work now. I feel Kaws is the next generation of what Haring and Basquiat did. In fact he was inspired to do pop-ups and bring art to the people just like Haring did in the mid-’80s. It’s a very exciting time.”
Keith Haring | Jean-Michel Basquiat: Crossing Lines is on show at National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne until 13 April 2020.
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