The Melbourne Keith Haring Mural

Keith Haring Foundation Interview

The interview that follows between Hannah Mathews and Julia Gruen took place via several emails throughout April 2012. Julia Gruen is the executive director of the Keith Haring Foundation, which was established by the artist before his early death in 1990. Hannah Mathews is the commissioning editor of this book and an associate curator at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art. She became interested in the work of Keith Haring on her first visit to New York City in 1997. The interview discusses the activities of the Foundation, the times in which Haringʼs artistic practice emerged, the significance of the Collingwood mural in light of Haringʼs oeuvre and his artistic legacy.

Hannah Mathews: Could you tell us a bit about your relationship with Keith Haring and the function of the Keith Haring Foundation?

Julia Gruen: I was hired by Keith in 1984 to be his personal assistant and studio manager. At that time, I was aware of his work but I had never met him. During our first meeting, my job interview, we quickly realised that we had many friends and social activities in common. At that age — we were both just 25 — such things mean a great deal. He hired me and I worked alongside him until his premature death from AIDS-related illnesses in 1990.

During those six years, I observed, absorbed and learned from his passion for life and art, and I helped him to explore, formalise and refine business relationships and navigate the increasing demands on his time. I provided support and bore witness to his daily routines, social interactions, celebrity, struggles and successes, both creative and personal. Our backgrounds were different, but we shared many interests, our social circles intersected, we worked well together and we established a deep, reciprocal trust. When he became ill and decided to create the Keith Haring Foundation, I was honoured to accept his offer to be its executive director.

I have now held that position for 23 years, and my responsibility is to promote and manage a legacy: respecting past connections and relationships, cultivating and nurturing new ones, staying true to Keith’s artistic and philanthropic goals, and doing whatever is needed to ensure his place in history. I frequently consult, advise and collaborate with museums, galleries, publishers and art historians. I speak about Keith’s philosophies of life and art to audiences of all nationalities and ages, keeping his message alive, as I know he would have wished.

Haring’s work is widely recognised and enjoyed. His career, although cut short by his early death, was meteoric and at the time of his visit to Australia his work appeared on the front cover of Vanity Fair. What made the art of Keith Haring so appealing to a worldwide audience?

Keith tapped into and expanded upon a universal language of symbols and messages — executed in simple lines, energised by the spirit (and, at times, context) of graffiti and fuelled by his intense commitment to make his work as accessible as possible. Although he first came to the public’s attention through his chalk drawings in the New York City subway stations, he utilised the same graphically compelling visual vocabulary in the hundreds of works on paper, canvas, limited-edition prints, multiples, sculpture, public murals and, eventually, merchandise — avenues of dissemination that to him were all of equal importance. This populist spirit and prolific output brought his work to the widest audience imaginable.

Haring often spoke about the visibility and accessibility of his imagery. What role did he believe he had in society as an artist? What did he want his art to contribute?

I think it can be best summarised by a quote from Keith’s journal:

I am interested in making art to be experienced and explored by as many individuals as possible with as many individual ideas about the given piece with no final meaning attached. The viewer creates the reality, the meaning, the conception of the piece. I am merely a middleman, trying to bring ideas together.1

New York’s 1980s’ underground scene was greatly enjoyed by Haring: music, dance, clubs, fashion. His career occurred at a time where there was great crossover between the arts, celebrity, pop culture and various subcultures. Could you describe this time in New York and where Haring located himself among this activity? Were there any particular people, places, songs that inspired him?

In a 1989 interview with David Sheff, published in Rolling Stone magazine, Keith recalled:

[The East Village] was just exploding. All kinds of new things were starting. In music, it was the punk and New Wave scenes. There was a migration of artists from all over America to New York. It was completely wild. And we controlled it ourselves. There was the group of artists called COLAB — Collaborative Projects — doing exhibitions in abandoned buildings. And there was the club scene — the Mudd Club and Club 57, at St. Mark’s Place, in the basement of a Polish church, which became our hangout, a clubhouse, where we could do whatever we wanted. We started doing theme parties — beatnik parties that were satires of the Sixties and parties with porno movies and stripteases. We showed early Warhol films. And there was this art out on the streets.2

Keith also discussed where he located himself among this activity with this statement from his notebooks:

I have been drawing in the subway for three years now, and although my career above ground has skyrocketed, the subway is still my favorite place to draw. There is something very ‘real’ about the subway system and the people who travel in it; perhaps there is not another place in the world where people of such diverse appearance, background, and life-style have intermingled for a common purpose. In this underground environment, one can often feel a sense of oppression and struggle in the vast assortment of faces. It is in this context that an expression of hope and beauty carries the greatest rewards.3

Haring also opened the Pop Shop in SoHo during the 1980s. This was a progressive move by a visual artist at the time. Could you talk about the intent of the Pop Shop and the ways in which it realised Haring’s thoughts about art?

Keith mentioned the Pop Shop and his concept of what it meant through many different avenues. I think it is best outlined by the following quote from his authorised biography:

Here’s the philosophy behind the Pop Shop: I wanted to continue the same sort of communication as with the subway drawings. I wanted to attract the same wide range of people and I wanted it to be a place where not only collectors but kids from the Bronx could come. The main point was that I didn’t want to produce things that would cheapen the art. In other words, this was still an art statement.4

The Pop Shop was also discussed by curator and art writer Gianni Mercurio in an essay from 2005:

Haring became a celebrated artist in the yuppie era and, like the ‘wunderkind’ financial consultants of Wall Street, enjoyed success at a very young age. When Haring opened his Pop Shops, which he considered artistic experiments, in New York in 1986 and Tokyo in 1988, he was well aware of Warhol’s ideas about the possibilities of new avenues of communication for artists... After Warhol’s Factory, the Pop Shop was the second attempt on the part of a single artist to spread, through reproducibility, his art as lifestyle and message for humanity.5

The Collingwood mural is one of many Haring painted during his lifetime. What makes it stand out from all the rest of Haring’s large-scale works?

The Collingwood mural in Australia was one of his earliest large-scale murals. Like many others he would go on to create, its theme was political, but not aggressively so. The images in this mural appeared in numerous other works created in 1984, as was Keith’s habit. One can read the images in this mural quite literally. Dancing and falling figures (inspired by hip- hop music, break dancing and capoeira — a Brazilian martial art) are no more than representations of crowds of people. But are they not perhaps being sacrificed to technological superiority? The image of the worm/sphinx with computer-monitor head displaying a human brain is just that, a machine-driven invader, informed by human intelligence and steered by humans, but threatening nonetheless.

Other of Keith’s murals spoke against racism and drug addiction, still others promoted tolerance and unity, themes that are as relevant today as they were almost 30 years ago (and 30 years before that). Keith sought to engage the public’s social conscience, but never in an intimidating or alienating way.

Do you believe the Collingwood mural still conveys an important and relevant message to society?

In late 1984, Keith travelled to Milan for a gallery exhibition of his work, and in his journals he wrote about the extension of ideas that absorbed him when he was in Australia:

Pure intellect without feelings is dangerous (i.e. the computer in the hands of those who wish to control)... The problem facing modern man now (the reconciliation of intellect and feelings/brain and heart/rational and irrational/mind and spirit/etc.) is compounded by the increasing power of technology and its misuse by those in power who wish only to control.6

Keith’s commentary on technology and its impact on the world is still completely relevant.

How did Haring’s time in Australia impact him or his work?

There is no written or oral record of how Keith’s time in Australia impacted either him or his work, and his visit there pre-dated my employment with him, but in his authorised biography he talks about the day he painted the Collingwood mural and says:

I went to look at it (the site), and agreed to do it — and it’s become a permanent site!7

What made this project different from so many others done before or around the same time was that the Melbourne mural was intended, from the very beginning, to be a permanent addition to the city. Keith was dedicated to, and already known for, creating ephemeral works in contexts where it was a given that the art he made would be temporary, and that was part of these works’ beauty. But the Melbourne mural (along with murals in Paris and Pisa) was conceived as a permanent piece. We are often contacted by people from around the world who have stumbled across the mural in inner-city Melbourne. They are surprised and delighted that it is there but saddened by and curious about its neglected condition.

Haring is widely recognised as one of the most influential artists of the late 20th century. What do you believe is the reason for his ongoing legacy and how would he want us to remember/celebrate him?

His impact is still felt around the world, due not only to the persistent relevance of his artistic practice and messages, but to his ever-youthful spirit and philosophy of art. The Keith Haring Foundation has the responsibility of and the privilege of maintaining and enhancing that legacy.

As Keith himself stated:

Art should be something that liberates the soul, provokes the imagination and encourages people to go further.8

This, too, is the Foundation’s credo.

1 Keith Haring, Keith Haring Journals, Fourth Estate, London, 1996, p. 13.
2 David Sheff, ‘Keith Haring, An Intimate Conversation’, Rolling Stone, 10 August 1989.
3 Keith Haring, Art in Transit, http://www.haring.com/cgi-bin/essays.cgi?essay_id=01; accessed 1 June 2012.
4 John Gruen, Keith Haring: The Authorized Biography, Prentice Hall, New York, 1991, p. 148.
5 Gianni Mercurio, The Keith Haring Show, Skira, Milan, 2005, pp. 17–27.
6 Haring, Keith Haring Journals, op. cit., p. 85.
7 Gruen, op. cit., p. 113.
8 Sylvie Couderc, interview with the artist, Bordeaux, 16 December 1985; published only on the Keith Haring Foundation website: www.haring.com/archives/interviews/couderc.html.

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