Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat: art stars who shone too briefly

When Keith Haring sat down to write an obituary for his friend and fellow art star Jean-Michel Basquiat in August 1988, the spectre of his own death was already looming. More than a year earlier he had written in his journal: "I am quite aware of the chance that I have or will have AIDS … I live every day as if it were the last."

As Haring lovingly crafted draft after draft of the obituary commissioned by Vogue magazine, there was still time to contemplate his own legacy. Basquiat was gone at 27, victim of a drug overdose, and 18 months later, aged 31, Haring would be felled by the disease that had already killed too many of his friends.

"The supreme poet," Haring wrote of Basquiat. "Every action is symbolic, every gesture an event… Greedily we wonder what masterpieces we might have been cheated out of by his death… only now will people begin to understand the magnitude of his contribution."

Jean-Michel Basquiat, left, and Keith Haring at the opening reception for Julian Schnabel at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1987. Credit:George Hirose

It was a prophetic declaration that would just as easily apply to his own work. In their short but remarkably prolific careers, the two young artists drew the eyes of the art world to the creative hotbed that was downtown Manhattan in the 1980s.

In the face of prejudice – Basquiat for the colour of his skin, Haring for his sexuality – they turned art into weaponry. When wealthy collectors began jostling for works that raged against police brutality, racism and the crass commercialism of the art world, the irony only enhanced the potency of the message. Ever the outsiders, theirs was the art of a cultural wave that is still washing over us today.

A joint exhibition opening at the NGV on December 1 tracks their impact across more than 200 works – including rarely seen collaborations – that shimmer with audacity and energy. Crossing Lines explores parallels in the lives and work of two trailblazers dubbed by curator Dieter Buchhart as "forerunners" who "sensed our time before our time", foreshadowing seismic cultural shifts and the emergence of new forms of communication. In pairing their work, the show explores the formative role played by New York's vibrant street scene and a glittering cohort that included William S. Burroughs, Andy Warhol and Grace Jones.

The most poignant parallel, of course, was their early deaths, still a source of pain for those closest to them. Gil Vazquez, who befriended Haring in his final years, describes his loss as "devastating".
"This man taught me so much, opened up a world to me that I had no idea existed," he says. "He opened me up about art, about people, about fame."

Vazquez currently oversees the foundation that was established by Haring shortly before his death and that still funds his pet causes, including AIDS prevention and children's welfare. He was in his late teens when a friend invited him to visit the fifth-floor studio on Broadway where the celebrated artist held court.

Keith Haring in his Broadway studio.Credit:William Coupon

"I was blown away by what I saw," he recalls. "The paintings on the walls, drawings on the floor, posters everywhere. Keith at that moment, when we walked in, was hammering nails into a wooden portrait of the Mona Lisa, which I just found completely surreal. It was really difficult for me to process what was happening.

"When I first started coming around, Keith had quite a big entourage. He was invited to all the big parties, knew all the coolest people, smoked all the best weed, so there were a lot of folks that hung around."

Gil Vazquez inside the Broadway studio that is now home to the Keith Haring Foundation. Credit:Lindsay Cobb

Vazquez, though younger than Haring, became a steadying influence. "I was very quiet, watching what was going on and taking everything in. I was more of an observer," he says. "As we got closer, and I guess, as he got sick, his focus started to become sharper, realising that he did not know how much time he had. So the entourage started to get smaller, until really it dwindled to just me. I don't know what it was about our friendship that focused him. I can't really take any credit for it. He knew what he had to do."

Inside the studio, now home to the foundation, paint still marks the chequered floor and ghostly traces of Haring's massive works haunt the walls. Even in the downstairs lobby, his bold, graphic marks range across the walls and ceiling. Vazquez points to one of Haring's daily to-do lists as evidence of his boundless energy. "He would start his day with these to-do lists, and as time went on, those lists became more intense," he recalls. "There were boxes he had to check off before he was no longer able to."

A sense of loss also lingers for Patti Astor, a friend and former gallerist who staged important solo shows for both artists at the East Village's legendary Fun Gallery, which she ran with partner Bill Snelling. Now living in Hermosa Beach, Los Angeles, the actress and former "queen of downtown" evokes a heady scene where creative souls gathered to make art, music and films. New York was bankrupt and parts of downtown resembled a war zone – friends warned Astor she'd be killed if she moved there – but underneath the rubble, brilliance was brewing.

Patti Astor ran the legendary Fun Gallery in downtown Manhattan. Credit:Lindsay Cobb

Bands such as Talking Heads, Television and Blondie played gritty downtown nightclubs such as CBGBs, and struggling artists dragged abandoned doors, window frames and car scraps back to their squats or low-rent apartments and turned them into artworks that might now fetch millions. Indie filmmakers churned out avant-garde offerings starring their own bright and beautiful friends.

"I was a punk rocker and I was making movies," Astor says. "And because I was already a 'celebutante', I was able to get people to come to my parties and see these black and Latino people because otherwise they would never come to the East Village."

The Fun Gallery, an important focus of the Crossing Lines exhibition, played a pioneering role in legitimising the work of so-called graffiti artists. Thumbing her nose at the art establishment and its "white cube" galleries, Astor told her artists: "Here, you're going to be represented the way you want to be represented, not pushed around and cast aside as soon as you're used up …. If you're here, you're Fun Gallery crew for life."

The energy of young artists such as Basquiat and Haring was fuelled by a sense of breaking new territory, Astor says. "It was like, 'we got this, and we're going to own the world'."

Astor met Basquiat at the Mudd Club in the late 1970s. The part-time musician was performing there with his band, Gray, named after Gray's Anatomy, the book his mother gave him during a long hospital stay after he was hit by a car outside his Brooklyn home at the age of seven.

Jean-Michel Basquiat.Credit:William Coupon

The pair connected and Astor became a trusted confidante who still despairs at the racism Basquiat faced from collectors and dealers. "Jean got treated like shit his entire career," she says. "I'm just really glad that I was able to give him that show."

Basquiat's Fun Gallery show in November 1982 was a defining moment in his career. He installed his raw, gritty works amid half-finished sheetrock walls with exposed joints and metal studs. "The whole thing was kind of threatening," Astor recalls. "We were in the ghetto, we were going off the plantation, you know …. We had so many major paintings in the show. We would go over [to his studio] and there were drawings all over the floor. Jean would say 'take some drawings', and Bill would say 'no, Jean we're here to talk about your show, not to freeload off your drawings'." Not everyone was so honourable, of course. "There are some things people have, and I'm not sure if they went out through the front door," she says.

There's no telling how many works Basquiat and Haring gave away during that fiendishly busy decade. "You would go to their studios any time, they were always working, 24/7," Astor says. With tears in her eyes, she tells me: "One thing I have to say is that they made the most of their time."

17 April 2019.Keith Haring, Prophets of rage, 1988; acrylic on canvas.Credit:Keith Haring Foundation

Jean-Michel Basquiat, Self portrait 1984; acrylic and oilstick on paper.Credit:Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat

New York gallery owner Tony Shafrazi met the pair early in their careers and was shocked by the audacity of their approach. "Having studied art for so long, it was always put in our heads that what you needed was the preparation, the academic study of history, whereas these people were actually making art and learning during the process," he recalls. "They had the confidence."

Though their styles were very different, Haring and Basquiat admired each other's work. "They were so respectful of each other, from day one, as different as their own works were," Shafrazi says. "Keith Haring had a different body build, he was tall, skinnier, incredibly muscular and nimble, and he'd bounce around. He had enormous mobility." Basquiat's childhood injuries meant his movements were "a lot more conscious," Shafrazi recalls. "The way he held his brush was entirely different, almost awkward."

Haring's physical agility fed into a remarkable fluidity in his art. In perfect, unbroken lines, he could fill a massive mural without preparatory sketches, as though the finished image was fully mapped out in his head before he'd even begun. It was a skill he'd honed during his days of subway station bombing, when he'd ride New York's trains, his pockets filled with chalk. With the city on its knees financially, the subway's billboards were often ad-free, covered in matte black paper that Haring adopted as an early canvas.

"Chalk was very portable," Vazquez explains. "He could get off at a subway stop and do something really quickly, and move on … He thought, I'm going to take a risk and bring art to the people. Since they can't come to the gallery, I'm going to take art to them."

Haring's estimated 10,000 subway drawings became, says Vazquez, "the foundation of his career". "The maturity of the line came from those drawings. When you see the early drawings, some of the work looks really crude. But as he kept doing it, the line became so solid and so strong … It wasn't that he was in a studio with a blank canvas, thinking what am I going to do. No. It was pressure. You get caught, you're going to get arrested [which he did, a couple of times]."

While Haring was honing his craft underground, Basquiat and his school friend Al Diaz were on the street, leaving cryptic messages across walls and doorways under the joint moniker "SAMO".
"SAMO© AS AN ALTERNATIVE 2 ‘PLAYING ART' WITH THE ‘RADICAL? CHIC' SECT ON DADDY'$ FUNDS", Basquiat scrawled on one wall. "SAMO© AS AN END TO PIN-HEAD EXCUSES". Haring, an early SAMO admirer, later described their pronouncements as "a sort of literary graffiti" that "opened up new vistas to me".

By 1980, the ambitious Basquiat had abandoned SAMO to focus instead on earning his place in the museums and art galleries that had inspired him during childhood visits with his mother, or later, as a student skipping classes to spend entire days at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. What he saw there fed into layered, complex canvases that riffed on everything from Aztec imagery to Egyptian mythology and the Bible.

Jean-Michel Basquiat, Untitled 1982; oilstick, acrylic, and spray paint on canvas.Credit:Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat

"The way he applied the paint was almost shocking, a little surprising," says Shafrazi. "But it was so magnetic. He would paint over things, hide things. I asked him why and he said, 'well it makes it more interesting'."

One of Basquiat's most formative relationships began in 1979, when Andy Warhol bought a hand-painted postcard from the young artist. Initially sceptical of Basquiat's significance, Warhol came to see the benefits of a collaboration with the rising star at a time when his own reputation was waning. The collaboration, Basquiat said later, "was very simple. I just had to push him, because he's a bit lazy. He hadn't drawn for 20 years."

Basquiat's relationship with Warhol was a rare constant in a life increasingly fractured by illicit drugs and professional jealousies that alienated many of his old friends. When Warhol died suddenly in February 1987, the 26-year-old was reportedly devastated. At the Great Jones Street studio Basquiat rented from Warhol, and in which he died on August 12, 1988, a painted silhouette and SAMO-style graffiti mark this as a place of creativity and tragedy.

The Great Jones Street studio where Jean-Michel Basquiat died in August 1988. Credit:Lindsay Cobb

NGV curator Miranda Wallace says Basquiat's final works became increasingly sparse, populated by demonic heads and jackal-like figures. In one of his last works, Riding With Death, a ravaged figure sits atop an assemblage of skull and bones. "It's kind of a bleak vision at the end," Wallace says.

When Basquiat met Haring for the last time just months before his death, he announced that his drug-using days were over. "The word about Jean was that he was clean," Vazquez says. "Everybody was really rooting for him."

In contrast to Basquiat's stripped-back final works, Wallace says, Haring in his final years was "covering every inch of the canvas, as though he was fighting till the end". His remarkable energy only faltered in the last two weeks of his life. "He really worked until January 1990, then fell sick and could not work any more," Vazquez says. Had he survived another year, advances in the treatment of AIDS might have saved him. "It's really tough. What he could have continued to do…"

Nearly 30 years after this death, Haring's exuberant spirit lives on in his work. In a leafy pocket of Manhattan's West Village, running the length of a community swimming pool, a mural from 1987 is awash with joyous figures. A half-man, half-dolphin dances, while a swimmer with webbed feet and hands floats among shapes of blue and yellow. Someone's riding a dolphin, and an oversized fish is swallowing a swimmer, but it's OK, his arms are raised in exaltation. In a playground beside the pool, children squeal, making the most of the last days of summer. Across the street, City-As-School, a progressive high school housed in a stately red brick building, is in session. Garden gnomes guard the entrance and inside the courtyard the walls are covered in paintings by budding artists who might well have been inspired by one of their predecessors, a wildly talented teenager named Jean-Michel Basquiat.

Keith Haring/Jean-Michel Basquiat: Crossing Lines is at NGV International, December 1-April 13, 2020. Lindy Percival travelled to New York as a guest of the NGV.

Jean-Michel Basquiat, Untitled 1982, acrylic and oilstick on wood panel.Credit:Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat

BASQUIAT'S CROWNS: Outlined in graphic black and white or infilled with majestic gold, the crown became a central image in Basquiat's work, suggesting, says NGV curator Miranda Wallace, "the crown of thorns, the martyr symbol, but also the hero warriors, the champion boxer, the king". In a tribute to his lost friend, Haring painted A Pile of Crowns for Basquiat, a towering cluster of radiant crowns assembled on a triangular canvas edged in red – part altar, part warning sign.

WORDS: Having grown up in a multi-lingual family, Basquiat retained the anarchic approach to language that was first seen in his SAMO street poetry.

Among the major works in the Crossing Lines exhibition, Museum security (Broadway meltdown), 1983, features a seemingly random and sometimes inexplicable scattering of words: ASBESTOS, PRICELESS ART, FBI, TAR, BLACK ORAPO, EPZ, PAPA DOC. Critic Klaus Kertess wrote that the artist "loved words for their sense, for their sound, and for their look; he gave eyes, ears, mouth – and soul – to words". Fellow critic Nicolas A. Moufarrege said Basquiat "has put grammar through the wringer and developed his very own".

Jean-Michel Basquiat, Museum security (Broadway meltdown), 1983; acrylic, oilstick, and collage on canvas.Credit:Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat

HARING'S BABY: The graphic, stylised baby was a defining image of hope for Haring. "Babies represent the possibility of the future, the understanding of perfection, how perfect we could be," he once explained. "There is nothing negative about a baby, ever." In one of his best-known works, Untitled, 1982, he encloses this symbol of innocence in an atomic cloud, a reflection of his lingering unease following the Three Mile Island nuclear accident in 1979, close to where he grew up in Pennsylvania. The baby was a "fundamental icon", says Haring's friend, Gil Vazquez. He recalls Haring's reaction when a member of the public asked him to draw a baby with a line through it. "He absolutely refused. He was like, hell no … what it represented, to draw a line through it, no."

Keith Haring, Untitled 1982; acrylic on vinyl tarpaulin with metal grommets.Credit:Keith Haring Foundation

SYMBOLS: With his clean lines and simplified figures, Haring offered a graphic response to some of the most pressing social issues of his time. In Untitled, 1983, a human figure rides a screen-headed beast in a comment on the growing dominance of screen culture and mass media. Haring was, says curator Dieter Buchhart, "one of the founders of the emoji culture". Though his complex and "multi-meaning" images were a far cry from the simplicity of those that define digital communication today, "he was still a clear forerunner," Buchhart says.

Keith Haring, Untitled 1983; vinyl paint on vinyl tarpaulin.Credit:Keith Haring Foundation

Source: Read Full Article