Why Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat have stood the test of time

Some artists are shooting stars, others get their names carved into the annals of art history. The trick is to distinguish one from the other. Disgusted by the rampant commercialism of the New York art scene of the 1980s, Robert Hughes wrote a mock-epic poem, The SoHoiad, in which included throwaway references to “Keith Boring” and “Jean-Michel Basketcase”.

Thirty years later it looks as if Hughes made the wrong call if he saw Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat as simply the ephemeral products of an overheated art market, although he may have been on firmer ground in expressing an opinion as to their aesthetic merits. There’s a huge amount of energy and activity in the National Gallery of Victoria’s Keith Haring/Jean-Michel Basquiat: Crossing Lines, but few works that invite lengthy examination. As the show is greater than the sum of its parts, I won’t be dwelling on details.

One shudders to think what Hughes would have thought of the NGV’s other main attraction: KAWS: Companionship in the Age of Loneliness (until April 13). Like Haring and Basquiat, KAWS began as a street artist. Unlike them he has instantly made it big by creating branded objects – overblown plastic toys and slick paintings featuring the Simpsons. It took Haring (1958-90) and Basquiat (1960-88) considerably longer to become fully fledged "brands", but walk the streets of Manhattan today and you’ll see their imagery on hats, T-shirts, shoes, socks, bags and gymwear.

Keith Haring, Prophets of rage, 1988.Credit:Keith Haring Foundation

One of the marked features of the contemporary art scene is the transmutation of art into merchandise. If you can’t afford to pay millions for a Takashi Murakami, like the Art Gallery of NSW did, you can buy a bit of mass-produced plastic junk for a few dollars. With KAWS it’s all junk, even if you pay millions. Such is progress in art.

Haring and Basquiat have been posthumously co-opted into the merchandise revolution, but they were edgier propositions while still alive. When Haring had the idea for a Pop Shop that would sell branded material, he viewed it as a way of bringing art (and activism) to the masses. Many of his contemporaries were horrified by the scheme, seeing it as a sellout. Nowadays it seems a prescient move.

A detail from Keith Haring’s Untitled (1985).Credit:Keith Haring Foundation

In the 1980s there were many collectors who didn’t feel convinced by Haring or Basquiat. Jane Holzer told me in an interview that Andy Warhol advised her to sling $20,000 to Jean-Michel and acquire a painting. Had she done so, that $20,000 would probably be worth $20 million today. In 2017 a Japanese collector paid an auction price of $US110.5 million ($160 million) for an untitled painting by Basquiat, causing a feeding frenzy in the market.

One New York collector who quickly got the idea was Larry Warsh, a consultant and major lender to this exhibition. In the catalogue Warsh emphasises his close ties with all the big players in the 1980s, but rather than chasing major works he has accumulated a volume of titbits and ephemera. He has Basquiat’s notebooks and a bizarre array of items which Haring has compulsively covered with drawings – a fridge, a cardboard box, a hat, a motorcycle helmet, a pair of crutches, a child’s feeding chair, and so on.

The NGV show is full of such pieces, giving the impression of a ferocious art virus born in the streets and subways, that migrated into clubs, shops and the mass media, before taking up residence in the art galleries. Basquiat came to prominence under the tag SAMO, writing cryptic messages on walls with his buddy, Al Diaz. Haring made thousands of white chalk drawings on black-papered Subway advertising panels.

Haring and Basquiat were part of the same close-knit bohemian subculture and knew each other well. It’s a neat coincidence that the NGV show runs parallel with the National Gallery of Australia’s overview of Matisse and Picasso. Over the summer local audiences can compare a friendship and rivalry that shaped modern art with one that helped define the postmodern era.

Detail of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s “Because it hurts the lungs” (1986).Credit:Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York

With Haring and Basquiat there was respect and admiration on both sides, but the contrasts were stark. Basquiat cultivated a mystique, was riven with insecurity and ambition, and destroyed himself with his drug habit. Haring comes across as a compassionate person, always willing to take up a good cause, giving freely of his time to help people in need, whether it be people living with AIDS, disadvantaged children, or those who had suffered because of racism or police brutality. He himself succumbed to that first deadly wave of HIV that brought about a small-scale cultural apocalypse in New York.

The Haring/Basquiat show has been put together by Dieter Buchhart, an Austrian curator and long-term champion of both artists. It probably requires an outsider to drum up the necessary enthusiasm for everything that happened in New York in the 1980s. So many of the actual participants – the survivors – sound too jaded, too well rehearsed to bring those days alive.

Buchhart has given us a noisy, messy, gossipy exhibition, full of shameless celebrity moments. The art is fast, spontaneous and in-yer-face; by turns puzzling and poetic, or brutally direct. The impression of buzzing, roaring excitement is lessened when one imagines all the hours insiders spent being drunk or stoned, lying around in a drug-induced stupor, or standing in darkened clubs mumbling over the noise. It wasn’t like the impressionists sitting in the Café Guerbois, listening to Manet and Degas trade witty barbs.

Despite the distractions, Haring and Basquiat were phenomenally productive. In hardly more than a decade they created thousands of images. Although quantity naturally took precedence over quality they left many works of lasting value. Basquiat’s Ishtar (1983), for instance, incorporates all the things that are distinctive in his artistic persona: the unconventional framing; the spindly, cryptic writing; the mask-like faces and bursts of vivid colour.

Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Self portrait (1984). Credit:Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat

Basquiat picked up words and images by a kind of instinctual super-scanning. His paintings are covered with lists of names; odd facts gleaned from glancing at books, picked up from signs in the street or packets from the kitchen cupboard. Pop culture and high culture are locked in a death spiral, neither being able to triumph over the other.

Haring is more direct: a maker of icons and emblems, a natural communicator. His lexicon of radiant babies, barking dog-men, grinning faces and frantic, clone-like figures was adaptable to any surface or occasion. He created a personal sign language used with the fluency of handwriting.

Haring and Basquiat, volatile and patchy as they were, had more talent than almost anyone else kicking around the New York scene in those days. The NGV catalogue reproduces one of the supposedly seminal texts of that era – Rene Ricard’s Artforum essay, ‘The Golden Child’. This is reputedly the first major piece of writing on Basquiat but it’s a barely readable slab of self-indulgence.

Ricard, a bitchy, self-aggrandising poet, is a stock character in memoirs of the Manhattan subculture of 1980s, in which the line between reality and fiction was constantly being crossed. The same group of people would congregate at the same galleries, and go to the same clubs night after night. “Everyone was sleeping with each other, or in love with each other,” recalls artist Sam McEwen.

People took the opportunity to reinvent themselves. Freelance curator, Diego Cortez, was born Jim Curtis in Illinois. Patti Astor began life as Patricia Titchener in Cincinnati. Rene Ricard’s real name was Albert, but “Bert Ricard” felt a little prosaic. Fab Five Freddy sounded cooler than “Fred Braithwaite”.

Detail from Keith Haring’s Untitled (1982).Credit:Keith Haring Foundation

Basquiat was a supreme self-inventor and self-mythologiser. The painting Yellow Door (1985-86), includes a black face, the year of his birth, 1960, and the word “milagro” (miracle) repeated six times.

Although Basquiat came from a broken home it was solidly middle class. He claimed to despise the rich, white collectors who bought his paintings and treated him like a noble savage, but he loved all the trimmings of money and luxury. In Phoebe Hoban’s 1998 biography, Basquiat: A Quick Killing in Art, he emerges as intelligent and charismatic, but also cynical, insecure, self-destructive and full of contradictions. Few people got close to Basquiat without being burned.

Haring’s personality was radically different. He was almost painfully sincere, self-effacing, filled with righteous anger over the injustices of the world. Those who knew him speak with admiration of his character and his superhuman work ethic.

Keith Haring’s Untitled (1982).Credit:Keith Haring Foundation

Racism was an issue that lies at the heart of Basquiat’s work. It was also a preoccupation for Haring, who was equally obsessed with combating homophobia and other forms of social injustice. This is reflected in a series of wall labels that make the artists sound like Batman and Robin, constantly ready to battle the forces of evil.

We think of New York in the 1980s as an artistic powerhouse, but time has shown how Haring and Basquiat outstripped everyone else in terms of productivity, originality and lasting impact. Out of the seething, visual anarchy of this exhibition we can see how a lasting legacy was born.

Keith Haring/Jean-Michel Basquiat: Crossing Lines is at the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne until April 13.

John McDonald flew to Melbourne courtesy of the National Gallery of Victoria.

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