Keith Haring at Deitch Projects

From “Bad Boys of Art at Manhattan Galleries,” by Roberta Smith, 11 February, 2010:

The 1980s certainly had no shortage of genuinely hopeless bad boys from both sides of the Atlantic, but Keith Haring 1958-1990 deviated from the norm by having something close to a heart of gold. It always seemed emblematic that his subway graffiti did no lasting damage: he drew in white chalk on the black paper covering unrented advertising panels. Even more characteristic was Haring’s habit of painting public murals pro bono. During his lifetime he completed 16 such works at hospitals and children’s centers around the world, including the 70-foot-long “Mural for St. Patrick’s Daycare Center,” from a San Francisco building. It dates from 1985, was dismantled in 2006 when the center lost its lease and can be seen in an enormous all-white space at Deitch Projects 18 Wooster Street, SoHo through Saturday, and then again from Feb. 23 through Feb. 27. It looks stunning.

Executed in acrylic on wood, the mural is populated by a range of charming cartoon characters and animals inspired by Haring’s childhood drawings, including a self-portrait at one end. The forms are rounder, the energy less aggressive and antic than usual, as if Haring were softening his style, summoning his younger self for younger viewers. Which makes it all the more interesting that he was clearly at the height of his powers, working with complete assurance and ease. The mural is a superb calligraphic performance, revealing the bad boy as a Zen master in a state of grace.

Of note here is two separate statements, both with important links to my current exploration of graffiti.

First, Roberta Smith notes an interesting aspect of Haring’s graffiti: it “did no lasting damage…” This suggests that graffiti usually does lasting harm to the surfaces on which it is put, and I wonder to what ‘lasting’ refers in this context. Spraypaint and wheatpastes are ephemeral: they do not hold up to environmental factors and are removable with commonly available implements (and a fair amount of elbow grease). Carvings, etchings, and other sorts of surface-marring techniques do indeed do “lasting harm,” but such techniques form a small sub-set of the graffiti milieu in contemporary society.

Now, it is largely true that writers desire their works to stay ‘up,’ to remain visible for weeks or months or years: this is likely why drill bits, etching compound, and other sorts of permanently destructive tools/media entered into use. In fact, a writer recently commented that he would like to develop a bleach-based ink for marking on awnings, cloth banners, and the like.[1]

However, graffiti is, for the most part, non-destructive, or not destructive in the same way as, say, a rock thrown through a window would be destructive. So it is interesting to me that Ms. Smith would point specifically to the nondestructive aspects of Haring’s production.[2] Of course, Smith’s assertion that Haring’s work was not destructive is a rhetorical device used to illustrate his “something close to a heart of gold,” so perhaps I’m reading too much into the statement.

It must be noted, though, that most graffiti is nondestructive and is, in some sense, a productive activity: Haring’s graffiti produced an international art career; CHUNK tags produce proof that CHUNK exists.

Second, Ms. Smith refers to the mural as “a superb calligraphic performance,” a statement that points out two of the most important aspects of graffiti practice: the style and form of the letters, and the confidence with which the writer gets his or her name out into the world.

Contemporary graffiti is, at its core, a form of calligraphy. Writers spend a great deal of time working on their letter forms and developing what artists and art historians call a ‘hand:’ an intimate knowledge of materials and techniques, and the body’s ability to deploy various materials and techniques.

In referring to Haring’s execution of the mural as a ‘performance’ also points to the active, performative nature of graffiti in general, a topic that requires much more space and time than I’m willing to go into today.[3]

And I would like to apologize for being so absent lately. Life has taken its toll (in fact, it’s had me in a choke hold for weeks), but I hope to be able to get back to work on this project soon, and with a greater sense of urgency and commitment.


[1] EROK, interview by James Cockroft, November, 2009, DSC Clubhouse, Dallas, TX.

[2] There is a difference between chalk on paper and spraypaint on brick: the point is that neither is particularly destructive to the surface. In fact, it might be argued that chalk on paper is more destructive than spraypaint on brick, since it seems to me that removing chalk would likely cause more damage to the paper than removing spraypaint would cause to brick.

[3] I spoke about this at some length in a 2008 lecture entitled “Varieties of Performance in graffiti and street art.” An essay version is forthcoming.

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