At the old Collingwood Technical College, American stencil artist, Peat Wollaeger has memorialized the work of Keith Haring with writing and a stencil portrait of Keith Haring on the gate.
For me, Keith Haring, 1958 – 1990, is one of the most important artists of the 20th Century. He was certainly the most important artist of the 1980s for me. I have a scrapbook full of photocopied articles and magazine clipping about him that I collected at the time. And considering the rise of street art in the early 21st Century, Haring has to be regarded as an important precursor.
The Collingwood Technical College may not be the most famous wall that Keith Haring painted but it was the first public mural that he painted outside the USA, it was the first time that he used a scissor lift and it is the only surviving exterior mural by Haring in its original form. It is also not the largest nor the most famous wall that Haring painted; in 1986 Haring painted 107m of the Berlin Wall. The mural at the Collingwood Technical College was painted on the 6th of March 1984. Keither Haring wanted to paint the mural for the kids at the Collingwood Technical College and had fun doing it. He found the scissor lift a liberating experience.
The wall on the Collingwood Technical College with its now fading but still visible iconic Haring figures riding a giant centipede is the only surviving Haring wall in Melbourne still visible to the public (there is another piece, a large guardian angel, at a school in Toorak where John Buckley was teaching at the time). The mural shows humanity under threat from computer technology – in 1984 the personal computer was Time Magazine’s “person of the year”.
Keith Haring visited Australia between 18th February and 8th March 1984. Haring was invited to Australia by gallery owner John Buckley (which is why there is a Peat Wollaeger stencil of Haring by the door of his gallery in Albert St. Richmond). Buckley had seen his work in the New York subways. Haring was on the cusp of his international celebrity status when he came to Australia and John Buckley was very lucky to have invited him to Australia at that time because after that he was far too famous.
Haring also painted the NGV’s famous water wall; watched and filmed as he painted, it was a real performance. Keith Haring would paint to hip-hop music played on a tape-deck radio was decorated by Kenny Scharf. The painted water wall was destroyed by a vandal before I could see it because it was thought that Haring had stolen aboriginal motifs. While in Australia Keith Haring also went to Sydney where he painted the large wall in the foyer of the Art Gallery of NSW. Edward Capon, the director of the gallery had not been informed about this due to a missed communication. Nor had he heard of Keith Haring and was reluctant to have the wall painting proceed. John Buckley tells about how he showed Edward Capon the then current issue of Vanity Fair; it had a Keith Haring on the cover and a large interview with him inside. This convinced Edward Capon and within half an hour Haring was up on the sissor-lift painting the wall.
Also in Sydney that year Keith Haring helped with a Keith Haring float for the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras. Although Haring was not yet a mainstream celebrity artist, his art was already well known in the gay community and a float depicting his art was already planned. Haring’s involvement made the float authentic rather than just a tribute.
Keith Haring’s technique was simple lines. He started working with just a large marker pen and then went over the lines with a paint brush. The mural on the Collingwood Technical College was done without any preliminary drawings apart from a demo chalk demonstration drawing of the centipede. Haring’s images that could fill any space from a wall to the body of Grace Jones. His genius was in the iconic figures that populated his images, most famously the radiant child.
Keith Haring studied at art school and was very aware of art history. His early influences were Pierre Alechinsky and Chinese calligraphy. Influenced by Wm Burroughs Haring started to do paste-up of fake New York Post headlines in 1980. And Wm Burroughs influence continued with the iconic images that Haring became famous for, from the centipedes to Mayans.
“I was aware of, and respected conceptual artists like Vito Acconci, or artists who were doing guerrilla art actions – things like that. I studied it and read about it, and respected it.” Keith Haring. (Notes from the Pop Underground, ed. Peter Belsito, The Last Gasp of San Francisco, 1985 p.106)
It is time to review the art of Keith Haring because what appeared to be an oddity of New York the 1980s has turned into an international movement. In particular is time to review Haring’s influence on Melbourne’s street art. It has taken an American street artist, Peat Wollaeger who was exhibiting his “Luchador Collab-o-mask” project at Per Square Metre to commemorate an important part of Melbourne’s street art history.
P.S. In 2013 The Age reported on finding the lost door from Keith Haring’s Collingwood mural.