In Melbourne, Australia, this exhibition traces the career of two protagonists of 20th-century American art, artists who were quite similar and yet at the same time entirely different. These artists, perhaps unconsciously, managed to bring art from the galleries to the street and vice-versa
The Keith Haring / Jean-Michel Basquiat: Crossing Lines exhibition (December 1st, 2019 – April 13th, 2020) is scheduled at the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne. Visitors will find paintings, sculptures, photographs and objects for a total of about 300 works. Some are quite famous, like the Untitled 1982 painting by Basquiat, which boasts the record of the most expensive American work of art, sold in 2017 for 110 million dollars.
The idea of setting up the joint exhibition of two artists is part of this museum’s tradition, where in 2016 the exhibition on Warhol and Ai Weiwei was met with great success. However, here this union is almost an obligation, so strong that the curator, Dieter Buchhart, wondered why it had never been done before. These artists were peers, friends and shared the limelight of the New York Graffiti scene in the 1980s.
Street art and graffiti were born in the ghettos as a spontaneous expression of protest. Initially considered a work of vandals, however, this style speaks a universal language and in 1980s an exhibition in New York consecrated its entry into the official art circles. The Times Square Show, which Haring helped organize and Basquiat was also there. In those years, New York was the centre of the world and they became the city’s stars, friends with the likes of Andy Warhol and Madonna.
They were apparently very different. Haring was the beloved scion of a wealthy white family that always supported him. Basquiat was poor, the son of a Puerto Rican immigrant who was absent in his life. However, they shared the rebellion against the society. Although in a different way, both were marginalized – Haring because he was homosexual, Basquiat because of the colour of this skin.
Their style also starts from the same premises: Primitivism. This style is based on the extreme simplification of the image, almost a sort of infantilism, as if it were the work of children. The results are quite different. Haring fed on comics, expressing himself with shapes with bright colours and no shades – men, animals or hybrid figures like the man with the fish head, all on the same level. These silhouettes are so expressive that they become words, as if they were emojis.
In Basquiat, Primitivism takes on ethnic and more violent tones, after all his background is Latin American and African culture. In his works there is a rage and an anti-racist tone that is missing in his white colleague. The figures are made with colourful but messy actions, like sketches drawn with a very rapid stroke. However, it is not as spontaneous as it might seem. His works arise from careful reflection and a vast knowledge of art. There are many citations. Here, there are no clean Haring-style silhouettes. Instead, we find faces that look like totems, modern masks sometimes reduced to skulls that alternate with complete human figures, various writings and symbols, among these the three-pointed crown.
There were also different styles of managing this success that had catapulted them into the drunken New-York of the parties, vernissages, wealthy collectors, drugs and sexual freedom. This was a false world and no less fierce than the ghettos from which they started. Basquiat alternated moments of euphoria made up of work and intense social contacts with periods of abulia.
Then the loss of Warhol, who had replaced his father, was devastating. Haring, on the other hand, infected by the frenzy, travelling around the world, went where his works were requested, and they were requested everywhere. He works a great deal, and on any surface (walls but also various t-shirts and gadgets) with a creative fervour and a generosity that was criticised by those who advised him not to inflate the market and keep prices high.
Haring, here similar to Basquiat, did not listen to anyone. He believed that art belongs to everyone and even when he discovered that he was HIV positive, he increased his hyperactivity. In fact, the journey is short for both of them, ending in a premature death. Basquiat, more and more closed and isolated, would die of an overdose while haring passed away from Aids.
Today their message is more relevant than ever, denouncing the distortions of modernity. They warn us of an apparently democratic society that is actually subject to the dictatorship of hypocrisy. Haring and Basquiat underline the ills and evils that we, immersed in the comfort of our daily life, can no longer see.
Anna Maria Calabretta