The gallery faced a few hurdles when it decided to recreate the mural as part of Crossing Lines, a joint exhibition of works by Haring and fellow New York artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, which opens next month. Given the scale of the mural, spanning the entire 20 metres of the water wall, photographic records were incomplete. Eventually, with the blessing of the Manhattan-based Keith Haring Foundation, staff decided that only those sections that had been fully documented would be recreated. The results have been printed onto a vinyl skin that will be unveiled on Friday.
Curatorial project officer Meg Slater is too young to remember the original mural but says she has been astounded to learn details about the artist’s visit. Three days after he landed in Melbourne, a still jetlagged Haring arrived at the gallery armed with small tins of signwriter’s paint and a ghetto blaster. Perched on a cherry picker, he spent two days applying three separate layers – first white, then red, then black – directly onto the glass, without preparatory sketches or markings.
“It was not only a physical feat, it was an intellectual one as well,” Slater says. “At no point during the process did he step back to see how everything was going, because he didn’t believe in taking unnecessary breaks. And he somehow managed to divide three layers that all relate to each other without ever having to redo any part of the work.”
When the mural was unveiled, Haring told local journalists: “It’s a series of images about life and things which threaten life. Maybe it’s a kind of play on good and evil, but I prefer people to read it however they want to.”
Members of the public – including local school children – watched, enthralled, as the work unfolded. One passerby offered a none-too-subtle critique of contemporary art, telling The Age at the time: “At least you can tell what it is. I mean, that’s obviously a baby and that’s a snake.”
During his month-long visit to Australia, Haring created another local landmark when he painted an outdoor mural at the former Collingwood Technical College in Johnston Street. The much-loved mural was added to the Victorian Heritage Register in 2004 and restored in 2013. That same year a small door that had been stolen from the bottom of the mural and that had been missing for 29 years was sent anonymously to Arts Victoria, wrapped in black plastic. The door, still bearing the artist’s signature, will also be part of the Crossing Lines exhibition, another tantalising remnant of Keith Haring’s time in Melbourne.
The recreated mural will be on show from November 22 to April 13, 2020. Crossing Lines opens at NGV International on December 1.