The advantage of pairing two famous figures is not just that it doubles the celebrity but the comparison allows the one to throw light on the other. The drawback, however, is that one of the artists is shown up because the other has travelled better; and in this case, the contrast is not in Basquiat’s favour.
Haring’s pictures bounce around the walls with ebullient energy, brimming with the thrill of agitated figures, sometimes sinister and sometimes shouting out with an extroverted happy salutation or dance, with much waving of hands and feet.
Owing to their simplicity, the paintings have visual coherence. The uninflected poster-colour technique recalls the notation of sign-writers, often finished with a border. Haring doesn’t have to solve problems in the execution beyond planning the layout. There are no atmospheric edges or conjunctions of rival colours. He keeps it uncomplicated, under tight graphic control, sometimes acknowledging antecedents in Greek vase painting, which also relished a frolic in their subject matter.
With this robust style, Haring artfully mixes the celebratory and the critical. His imagery is often challenging, as when a cross from 1988 sprouts upward from jiggling testicles and a human with outstretched arms issues from the erectile shaft. It updates the Tree of Jesse from Christian tradition, with its generations spawned from the loins of the patriarch unto the Saviour.
The mural on the NGV’s water wall is similarly ambiguous, where signs describe procreation in mysterious terms: a human is engendered by a giant robot, full of atomic frisson, overrun by Lilliputian stewards and framed by serpents and kangaroos with joey. The angular figure is hard to read as female; so the birth of new humanity by daddy science is a psychoanalytical horror. It was too provocative for the Melbourne of 1984 when Haring painted it. It was destroyed a week later and is gratefully reconstructed for the current show.
There are many parallels between Haring and Basquiat. Both developed an idiosyncratic graphic notation and both appeal to a naive tribalism. Unlike Haring, however, Basquiat struggles to achieve coherence: discrete ideas are put together piecemeal, often with vignettes of text. His figures are built in outline which then accommodates second thoughts, going in and around the suggestion with a different colour or emphasis. Edges are messy and placements seem arbitrary.
You can be seduced by the show of instinct, as if strategic control is set aside and you witness a visual registration of the mind operating in chaotic exchanges. If so, the off-hand political and historical content may satisfy you: the works are peppered with biblical or mythological allusions, popular culture and the discourses of race and class that gained much traction, along with gender, in the 1980s.
But too often the allusions are random, like the scribble that doesn’t seem to be searching for something but becomes a rhetorical reflex. You grant them some New York street cred but the confronting coarseness of these grungy machines comes from a stylistic rather than expressive energy and ends up frazzled by its own pomposity.