Ideas Expressed in Image: Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat at the National Gallery of Victoria

Keith Haring, American 1958–90, Pile of Crowns for Jean-Michel Basquiat, 1988, synthetic polymer paint on canvas, 304.8 x 304.8 x 304.8 cm, The Keith Haring Foundation, New York. © Keith Haring Foundation.
Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat at the opening reception for Julian Schnabel at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1987. Photo: © George Hirose. Courtesy of the National Gallery of Victoria.
Jean-Michel Basquiat, American 1960−88, A Panel of Experts, 1982, synthetic polymer paint and oil pastel on paper on canvas and wood, 152.5 x 152.0 cm. Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. Gift of Ira Young, 1990.28 © Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York.
Keith Haring, American 1958–90, Malcolm X, 1988, synthetic polymer paint, enamel and collage on canvas, 152.4 x 152.4 cm. Private collection © Keith Haring Foundation.
Keith Haring, American 1958–90, Prophets of Rage, 1988, synthetic polymer paint on canvas 304.8 x 457.2 cm. The Keith Haring Foundation, New York © Keith Haring Foundation.
Jean-Michel Basquiat, American 1960−88, Untitled 1982, acrylic and oilstick on wood panel, 183.0 x 122.5 cm. Private collection © Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York.
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In a major survey exhibition at Melbourne’s National Gallery of Victoria, the work of Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat have been brought together in an attempt to explore the intersections in their practices. Through creating distinctive visual vocabularies, both artists critiqued social and political issues in their rapidly transforming society and, in some ways, predicted trends that remain prevalent today.

TEXT: Michelle Talitha Stockman
IMAGES: Courtesy of the National Gallery of Victoria

 

In 1988, Keith Haring (1958–1990) painted a tribute to Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960–1988), who had unexpectedly passed away earlier that year. In Pile of Crowns for Jean-Michel Basquiat (1988), Haring took his friend’s iconic three-pointed crown and arranged dozens of them in the shape of a pyramid. The final image is a testament to the way in which both artists used the repetition of symbols to convey meaning. Here, the crown that was Basquiat’s visual signature and a representation of power and strength in his work is gifted back by Haring to crown Basquiat many times over.

The ways in which Haring and Basquiat used visual language to create art and critique society is a key theme of the National Gallery of Victoria’s summer headliner “Keith Haring | Jean-Michel Basquiat: Crossing Lines.” Guest curated by art historian Dr. Dieter Buchhart, the exhibition is the first major survey to bring the work of the titular artists together and examine it through the intersections of their careers and practice. This is set against the background of 1980s New York.

 

Keith Haring, American 1958–90, Pile of Crowns for Jean-Michel Basquiat, 1988, synthetic polymer paint on canvas, 304.8 x 304.8 x 304.8 cm, The Keith Haring Foundation, New York. © Keith Haring Foundation.

 

The 1980s was a time of transformation in the arts industry. Art rose as a commodity within a worldwide movement towards consumerism, while several new artistic movements emerged. It was in this context that Haring and Basquiat commenced their individual practices on the streets of New York. The artists, who had met in 1979 in the hall of Haring’s art school, shared an interest in removing art from its traditional centres and experimenting with different media. They developed reputations in the city streets: Haring through his drawings in the subway and Basquiat through his collaboration with Al Diaz as “SAMO©.” Borrowing from graffiti culture, they painted on any available surface and used tags to identify their work.

 

Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat at the opening reception for Julian Schnabel at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1987. Photo: © George Hirose. Courtesy of the National Gallery of Victoria.

 

In these tags, a major point of commonality between their practices emerged—the search for a visual vocabulary that effectively conveyed meaning. Basquiat’s crown could be interpreted in several ways and was used in his representations of the black person to express heroism. In a similar vein, Haring’s crawling baby and barking dog not only identified the artist; they carried meanings of youthfulness and innocence, and action and abuse of power.

Haring’s and Basquiat’s search for visual language took place within the context of 1980s New York—the epicentre of artistic production. Here, they shared a circle of friends that included performers Madonna and Grace Jones. The group was headed by Andy Warhol, who was admired by both younger artists and collaborated with each of them on different works. This circle allowed Haring and Basquiat to continue their search for new contexts in which to produce art. Both appeared on MTV. Haring painted Jones’ body for one of her performances. These friends and pop culture figures would in turn appear in Haring’s and Basquiat’s artworks. Haring collaborated with Warhol on Untitled (Madonna, I’m Not Ashamed) (1985), adapting the front page of a newspaper sensationalising Madonna’s nude picture scandal. One of Haring’s signature figures dances in the corner, celebrating the singer’s unapologetic reaction.

Basquiat, on the other hand, inscribed a copyright sign after Madonna’s name in A Panel of Experts (1982). This ubiquitous symbol indicates ownership of and, by extension, power over ideas—a power that has only grown more complex with the rise of the digital age. Placing it after “Madonna” spurs consideration of the way the name now represents a pop culture figure where it once denoted a religious icon and the connotations of this transformation. It urges a reconsideration of the profound meanings of words and ideas.

 

Jean-Michel Basquiat, American 1960−88, A Panel of Experts, 1982, synthetic polymer paint and oil pastel on paper on canvas and wood, 152.5 x 152.0 cm. Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. Gift of Ira Young, 1990.28 © Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York.

 

Untangling the symbolism in Haring’s and Basquiat’s works is one of the great pleasures of viewing it, particularly in a concentrated forum such as this exhibition. The way symbolism is unfolded throughout the gallery space reflects the way Haring and Basquiat built their vocabularies throughout their careers. For example, Haring developed an interest in Egyptian hieroglyphs while visiting New York museums. This is most clearly seen in Sarcophagus (1982), a collaborative work with LA II (Angel Ortiz) in which Haring covered a replica coffin of an Egyptian mummy with the stylised patterns, dancing figures and television-headed creatures that made up his visual vocabulary and featured in other examples of his work.

Importantly for Basquiat, this language was not confined to images. Special attention is given to the role of words by displaying pages from both artist’s notebooks against the soundtrack of Haring’s video Lick Fat Boys (1980). The repetition and reordering of words in this work causes language to morph and take on new meanings.

 

Keith Haring, American 1958–90, Malcolm X, 1988, synthetic polymer paint, enamel and collage on canvas, 152.4 x 152.4 cm. Private collection © Keith Haring Foundation.

 

However, the written word had a more prominent place in Basquiat’s practice. He often inscribed titles onto works themselves, along with words drawn from sources such as Henry Gray’s 1858 human anatomy textbook, Gray’s Anatomy, which had been gifted to him as a child. In Basquiat’s paintings, he often repeated, transformed, or crossed out words “so that you will see them more.”

This makes Haring’s and Basquiat’s work compelling for the modern viewer. Constant strengthening of meaning through addition and repetition is very familiar in today’s online world. In this digital realm, immediate proliferation of images feeds a strongly visual community. Through mediums such as Twitter, words gain new meanings in seconds. Meanwhile, online communities and forums produce endless commentary on events using transformed words, emojis and memes to state their case in a moment.

Like today’s online communities, Haring and Basquiat were heavily engaged in the society in which they lived. Much of their art critiques the social and political issues of the 1980s. Haring’s Prophets of Rage (1988) demonstrates his mastery of communicating political ideas through a series of symbols. His rejection of the racism inherent in South African Apartheid is shown through the death of the white oppressor and the broken chains of the central black figure. In other works, he expresses frustration and anger at the response to the AIDS crisis by isolating body parts.

 

Keith Haring, American 1958–90, Prophets of Rage, 1988, synthetic polymer paint on canvas 304.8 x 457.2 cm. The Keith Haring Foundation, New York © Keith Haring Foundation.

 

In comparison, Basquiat addressed issues related to violence and racism in America. Hollywood Africans in Front of the Chinese Theater with Footprints of Movie Stars (1983) engages with issues of racism by inscribing the title of the work beside the faces of three African-American men—Basquiat himself, artist Rammellzee and hip-hop musician Toxic—to comically point out the homogenous nature of Hollywood. This was part of the development of the image of his heroic black man to address the representation of black people in the canon of art history and related trends in American society. For example, His Irony of a Negro Policeman (1981) states his view of the law as a system used to oppress black communities.

What intersections of method and practice, visual vocabularies, and engagement with social, cultural and political issues equates to in Haring’s and Basquiat’s work is a thoughtful and sensitive, yet unapologetic, exploration of humanity in a rapidly transforming society. Haring and Basquiat are shown to be not only artists, but people exploring the world and grappling with the meaning of it all. This is a quest that was relevant not only in the world of the 1980s, but in the continuing effect of that decade’s changes today.

 

Jean-Michel Basquiat, American 1960−88, Untitled 1982, acrylic and oilstick on wood panel, 183.0 x 122.5 cm. Private collection © Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York.

 

 

Keith Haring | Jean-Michel Basquiat: Crossing Lines
1 December 2019 – 13 April 2020
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne

 

 


 

Michelle Talitha Stockman is a graduate of art history and curatorship with ten years’ experience in museum collection documentation and management. She has a particular interest in the arts of Korea and cultural exchange between nations. She recently spent seven months in Seoul on a cultural and language immersion scholarship, with plans to contribute to future collaborations between Asian and Australian institutions.

 

 

 
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