Under the influence

“His flesh turns to viscid, transparent jelly that drifts away in green mist, unveiling a monster black centipede. Waves of unknown stench fill the room, searing the lungs, grabbing the stomach…”           William Burroughs Naked Lunch

Keith Haring Untitled 1983 © Keith Haring Foundation

Both Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat were influenced by William Burroughs; their shared interest in semiotics and proximity in the NYC art scene made it almost inevitable that they would meet. Haring was a friend of Burroughs, the invite-Keith-around-to-dinner-kind of friend and collaborate on a couple of books, as opposed to a ‘Facebook friend’. So Burroughs influence on Haring is extensive from Haring’s distinctive hieroglyphic iconography to his, not well known, cut up collages and performance poetry.

‘Lick Fat Boys’ by Haring owes much to works, in film and audio, by Burroughs and Brion Gysin, e.g. “Recalling All Active Agents” In these works words are rearranged and reordered to create new meanings. Haring’s cut-up collages of text and images look very similar to Burroughs’s pages of cut-ups with collage elements.

“Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat – Crossing Lines” at the NGV documents this influence; including a list of people from Basquiat with Burroughs along with Prince, David Lynch and Godard (Burroughs is misspelt ‘Burrows’).

Although the exhibition documents Burroughs influence it then ignores it continuing to ignore it when it comes to interpreting the work. It describes the personal computer headed centipedes in Haring’s paintings as “caterpillars”. It is not a correct description for several reasons. Centipedes are used in many of Burroughs’s novels including Naked Lunch as a symbol of self-centred evil whereas caterpillars are not used as symbols of evil in anyone’s iconography. Centipedes are distinguished by having one set of legs for each segment of body, which is what is shown in Haring’s images even though they and all species of centipede don’t have a hundred legs. Finally, caterpillars don’t walk, they crawl, grasping on with their prolegs to pull their body forward until it arches; an iconic movement not depicted by Haring.

Keith Haring Untitled 1982 © Keith Haring Foundation

Haring and Basquiat had an influence on Australian art, especially its street art. The walls that Haring painted are still visible in Melbourne (see my blog post). His simple style of line drawn figures is not inimitable but few do. There is only a couple of Melbourne street artist openly and obviously influenced by Haring – Ero and Civil. Although the influence of Haring, in particular his dogs, on the iconography of clothing manufacturer Mambo has yet to be fully explored; the first appearance of the Mambo’s farting dog occurred in 1984 the same year that Haring visited Australia.

The influence of Basquiat’s visual style is even wider and more varied; from the work of street-artists from Anthony Lister to many contemporary/non-street artists.

How important is influence? Influence has so often been seen as a positive attribute however each iteration of this style weakens the effect, until it becomes bland and ordinary.

Civil, detail of mural, Brunswick

This is the second of a series of posts about the “Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat – Crossing Lines” at the NGV International. To read the first post. (Thanks to the NGV for the tickets to the exhibition and access to media photographs.)

About Mark Holsworth

Writer, independent researcher and artist, Mark Holsworth is the author of the book Sculptures of Melbourne. View all posts by Mark Holsworth

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