Keith Haring + Jean-Michel Basquiat

In a world premiere, the ‘Keith Haring | Jean-Michel Basquiat: Crossing Lines’ exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) explores the intersecting lives of two of the most influential artists of the twentieth century. Surveying Basquiat (1960–88) and Haring’s (1958–90) tragically short yet prolific careers through more than 200 artworks, the show stages their art, ideas and practices against the backdrop of the ‘80s music scene with the sounds of contemporaries Madonna, Grace Jones, Sade and others.

Friends and contemporaries, Basquiat and Haring led an idiosyncratic vision of the world with their unique multi-disciplinary approaches, spanning multiple mediums, set design, fashion and music. Beginning with examples of both artist’s work from the streets and subway stations of New York City, the exhibition presents the young artists marking their way through the urban landscape with their distinctive use of semiotics and symbols. Haring’s barking dog and crawling baby and Basquiat’s head and crown motifs became iconic tags – much like the practice of graffiti artists – forming a street language that loudly expressed their cultural and socio-political views. Where Haring would mobilise his art to paint directly on the streets or subway, Basquiat was more inclined by the subject of the street, painting on everyday objects and surfaces. ‘Crossing Lines’ includes these paintings on objects and in public spaces, along with, sculpture, works on paper, painting, photographs and more.

Among the highlights of the exhibition, Basquiat’s work Plastic Sax (1984) reflects the new era of the photocopier that set a free form of expression of cut and paste collage. With torn shreds of yellow paper and marks of red scattered across a flat plane of blue, Basquiat’s clever use of composition captures the synergism and movements of jazz, paying tribute to trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and saxophonist Charlie Parker. Similarly, influenced by William S Burroughs and Jenny Holzer’s Truism project of 1977–87, Haring veered to the use cut-up text, manipulating words and meanings to convey his political thoughts and views on racism, discrimination, and authority.

An innovator and humanist, Basquiat was vocal in his views against police violence, racial discrimination and persecution. In his painting, Irony of Negro Policeman (1981), for example, he explores the paradoxes of race and institutionalised control, positing the police force as a form of self-enslavement and hypocrisy for people of colour.

Haring was also prolific in the topic of social justice throughout his career, maximising the urban fabric by using surfaces of walls, subways and streets to convey messages against dictatorship, racism and capitalism. In his painting Untitled (1982), a God-like figure with the face of a dollar sign looms large, his cruciform body flanked by smaller figures moving in some sort of ritualistic dance as if in an act of worship. In an era of unprecedented Capitalism, Haring warns against the malady of money and materialism.

As you come to the end of the exhibition, the viewer draws nearer to the ends of both artists’ lives. In their final works, Haring and Basquiat come together to express a sense of human finitude, emptiness, and death.

One of Basquiat’s last works, Exu (1988), reveals a fresh style and a different use of semiotics and symbols. The painting is a complex system of signs with a multitude of eyes and flames surrounding the central figure Exu. In the African Yoruba religion, the ‘Exu’ or black devil-god is a spirit that stands at the crossroads between the human and the divine, opening the door between both worlds. This work is a poignant foreshadowing of Basquiat’s death, which occurred just months after the painting was created.

Also displayed in the exhibition is one of Haring’s final paintings, Untitled, finished in 1989, which depicts a scene of optimism. Figures raising their arms in an ambiguous gesture of praise, hope or acceptance is a profoundly moving image, given the artist lost his life in 1990 after two-year battle with AIDS.

Despite the tragedies that befell both artists in the prime of their lives, the exhibition concludes on a positive note. You exit through the Haring and Basquiat hall of fame, with its mirrored walls and larger-than-life photographs of friends and peers, each smiling and celebrating – everyone appearing eternally alive. As the mirrored walls force you to be a reflection of their world, you can’t help but feel the privilege to have been taken on a journey of energy, exploration and discovery, that has allowed you intimate access into the intertwined worlds of two extraordinary artists.

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


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