Keith Haring’s doomed mural returns to Melbourne’s iconic water wall

A remarkable slice of Melbourne’s artistic history has been recreated with the return this week of Keith Haring’s ill-fated NGV mural on the gallery’s iconic water wall – 35 years after the original was destroyed in an act of vandalism whose perpetrator was never found.

The New Yorker was already a global star when he arrived in February 1984 to leave his mark on the city. The tri-coloured NGV mural, featuring his signature babies, dogs and rap dancers, was a defining moment for the 25-year-old artist, who had never undertaken work on such a massive scale.

It was also a turning point for Melbourne. Never before had our state gallery so publicly embraced the work of a contemporary artist. Then gallery director Patrick McCaughey described it at the time as "a bold gesture … It really is making a statement about how an institution values contemporary art."

Patrick McCaughey and Keith Haring at the NGV water wall in February 1984. Credit:Peter Smith

But not everyone was happy. Two weeks into the mural’s intended three-month showing, a rock or piece of concrete was thrown, shattering a central panel that showed a woman giving birth. The entire mural had to come down. Members of Melbourne’s arts community have long speculated on the vandal’s motivation. Was it an act of homophobia (Haring was an out and proud gay artist who died of AIDS in 1990), a conservative backlash against contemporary art being given such prominence, or simply a lemon-lipped response to the birth scene?

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.

Ferntree Creek Primary School students, from left, Moeve, Archie and Reuben check out the recreated mural.Credit:Eddie Jim

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.

Keith Haring working on his NGV mural in February 1984. Credit:Geoffrey Burke

"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."

The door from Keith Haring’s Collingwood mural will be shown during the Crossing Lines exhibition. Credit:Scott Barbour/Getty Images for NGV

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. 

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