Art

A world-first double exhibition creates a spirited conversation between the work of Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring, and reveals how their art resonates with today’s political climate. By Miriam Cosic.

Keith Haring | Jean-Michel Basquiat: Crossing Lines

Installation view of Keith Haring | Jean-Michel Basquiat: Crossing Lines at NGV International.
Credit: Sean Fennessy

Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat were born within two years of each other and died 18 months apart: Basquiat first, of a heroin overdose; Haring, from an AIDS-related illness. The two were friends as well as occasional collaborators, and moved in the wild and decadent arts scene of 1980s New York.

Andy Warhol, Jenny Holzer, William S. Burroughs, Grace Jones, Julian Schnabel, Yoko Ono and Francesco Clemente were among their contemporaries in that grungy underground intersection of radical creative movements. The era was both dangerous and groundbreaking, and remains a touchstone today. It makes much of the market-driven Postmodernism that followed seem anodyne by comparison.

Crossing Lines, a compelling double exhibition of Haring and Basquiat, has opened at the National Gallery of Victoria. It contains more than 200 works borrowed from museums and collectors around the world, curated by Austrian art historians and critics Dieter Buchhart and Anna Karina Hofbauer. Never before has the output of the two artists been arranged in such direct dialogue, a compare-and-contrast that may challenge some viewers’ preconceptions – charged by Basquiat’s good looks and notoriety – of their relative importance.

Basquiat (1960-1988) and Haring (1958-1990) both came from middle-class families. Haring grew up in Pennsylvania, where his father was an engineer and an amateur cartoonist. A devoutly religious child, Haring became interested in art at an early age. Unlike Basquiat, he went on to study it formally, ultimately moving to New York to study painting at the prestigious, and expensive, School of Visual Arts.

His study of semiotics – the science of signs and symbols – formalised ideas he had been playing with and merged with his inherited interest in cartooning. His signature style was both galvanic and orderly: animal shapes, human outlines and black wavy lines, suggesting both force fields and movement, were carefully arranged. He worked in monochrome, or in colours that were bright but surrounded by breathing space.

Basquiat, meanwhile, grew up in Brooklyn and was of Puerto Rican and Haitian descent. He learnt to read and write at a young age, and displayed an early interest in art. His mother fed him books written in the three languages he was fluent in: English, Spanish and French. She took him to art museums and enrolled him in the children’s club of the Brooklyn Museum. She gave him a copy of Gray’s Anatomy when he was recovering from a car accident, another contribution to his arcane body of knowledge.

It wasn’t as idyllic as it sounds. Basquiat’s mother had severe mental health problems and was hospitalised when he was 13. He dropped out of high school at 15 and his father, a successful accountant and a political exile from François “Papa Doc” Duvalier’s Haiti, kicked him out of home. He wound up on the street in New York, where he quickly found favour – and fame – with a fast set of artists and celebrities. He was handsome; he was drop-dead cool; he lived fast and died young.

Today, Basquiat is the more famous of the two. An untitled 1982 painting of a grinning skull, which is in the NGV exhibition, was bought two years ago by Japanese billionaire art collector Yusaku Maezawa for $US110.5 million. It set a record for Basquiat prices, which was previously held by another untitled work bought by the same collector for $US57.3 million only a year earlier.

From the start, Basquiat triggered dramatic responses. An obituary of him written by the Australian critic Robert Hughes, published in The New Republic in 1988, was headlined “Requiem for a Featherweight”.

“It was a tale of a small, untrained talent caught in the buzz saw of artworld promotion, absurdly overrated by dealers, collectors, and, no doubt to their future embarrassment, by critics,” Hughes wrote. “This was partly because Basquiat was black. The otherwise monochrome Late American Art Industry felt a need to refresh itself with a touch of the ‘primitive’ …

“In a saner culture than this one, the 20-year-old Basquiat might have gone off to four years of boot camp in art school, learned some real drawing abilities (as distinct from the pseudo-convulsive notation that was his trademark), and in general, acquired some of the disciplines and skills without which good art cannot be made. But these were the 1980s. And so he became a star.”

Peter Schjeldahl, Hughes’s contemporary and a magisterial voice in The New Yorker today, was a supporter of Basquiat then – to Hughes’s very public irritation – and remains one to this day. “In his brief best period, it seemed that Basquiat couldn’t make an ineloquent mark, even by accident; his way with color, banging strong hues off against predominant black, rarely failed,” Schjeldahl wrote a couple of years ago.

“His patent spontaneity and offhand sincerity made the works of other artists of his Neo-Expressionist generation seem forced and cynical by comparison, and the contrast has intensified with time, as the excitement of newness fades and the quality of authenticity strengthens.”

Such colourful duelling provides a livelier introduction to the exhibition, perhaps, than the panegyrics of the expert essays and vox pop in the NGV’s superbly produced catalogue. It is a reminder that Basquiat wasn’t universally admired, even at the height of his career, and yet when he was, it was for powerful reasons.

Certainly, some of Basquiat’s works are more messy than masterful; instead of being highly charged they just seem disorganised. But when they work, they leap straight from wall to retina in a double projection – first visual, then conceptual.

From his early graffiti – tagged SAMO© for “same old shit” – in collaboration with Al Diaz, to the drawings, paintings and collages he made on everything from doors to tarpaulins, Basquiat was in a constant colloquy with his urban environment.

So, too, was Haring. He drew on any kind of found object – boxes, hats, a fridge, even a pair of wooden crutches – as well as canvas and paper. His interest in antiquity led to a series of Greek-style vases, the classically painted decorations replaced by his own recognisable cartoon-like figures. Several are on show at the NGV, alongside his take on an Egyptian mummy.

Both men were socially conscious and politically radicalised by their experiences. Basquiat was black; Haring was gay. Between them, they tackled the momentous issues of the day – from capitalism and consumerism to the anti-apartheid movement, AIDS, police brutality, the rights of children and the spiralling inequality of the Reagan era.

Each man individually is a moment in American art history. Together like this, they encompass the political and aesthetic preoccupations of a significant strand of it. Basquiat’s are the more violent denunciations of structural repression, but Haring was as committed in his more measured way.

Haring’s signature dancing figures are often playful and joyous, leaping about with arms thrown wide; they are even energised sometimes, for good or ill, by his use of zigzags and radiating lines that look like public warning signs. When anger seized Haring, however – over events such as the murder of fellow artist Michael Stewart in police custody – his visual response could be as violent as Basquiat’s.

Take, for example, his collage Malcolm X (1988) – a memorial to the assassination of the black Muslim activist. In one corner, a postcard-sized colour image of Leonardo da Vinci’s faintly smiling Mona Lisa is spoiled by a splash of red paint across her face, over which is drawn a Haring-esque outline of another face with downturned mouths. On the other side is a newspaper cutout headlined “THE VIOLENT END OF THE MAN CALLED MALCOLM X”. In between them are drawings of hunting trophies, a dagger and two uniformed figures stylised to the point of abstraction.

It is a potent evocation of Black Lives Matter, avant la lettre. A picture by Basquiat titled Irony of the Negro Policeman, while not one of his most finessed works, has a similarly clear message. His father, Gérard Basquiat, once said, “Jean-Michel was very bright, very social and politically oriented. He didn’t have to politicise through a microphone. The works possess messages and speak for themselves.”

These artists were moving out of Neo-Expressionism, already foreshadowing the ubiquity of 21st-century brand logos and emojis. Haring’s homage to Basquiat after his friend’s death, A Pile of Crowns for Jean-Michel Basquiat (1988), contains a jumble of Basquiat’s trademark logo, accompanied by a copyright symbol.

Their styles, though distinct, are marked by vividness and an unbounded energy. And despite their faux naivety, the work of both is suffused with a highly intellectual engagement with every aspect of the world around them. The exhibition often displays their works adjacent, when a moment is caught by them both. Sometimes, separated by other thematic divisions, a work by one sent me back to view again a germane work by the other.

Basquiat and Haring bounce off each other at the NGV the way they must have in real life. Displays of archival material further connect them. Two walls are full of photos of clubbing celebrities, the crowd they ran with.

Between their use of symbols and collage, their cut-and-paste texts including news headlines, their impudence, and the focus of their social activism on race, gender and capitalism – with echoes of the Ronald Reagan slogan “Let’s Make America Great Again” – their works remain not just signs of their times, but of ours, too.

Keith Haring | Jean-Michel Basquiat: Crossing Lines is showing at NGV International, Melbourne, until April 13. Miriam Cosic travelled to Melbourne with the assistance of NGV.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 7, 2019 as "Kings crossing". Subscribe here.

Miriam Cosic
is a Sydney-based journalist, critic and author.