When Gil Vasquez was a young DJ in New York, two things happened that changed his life: his closest friend, Keith Haring, died of Aids, and – with a small group of friends and peers – he inherited one of the most important artistic legacies of the 20th century.
“It felt quite overwhelming,” Vasquez says when we meet at the Keith Haring Foundation headquarters in Manhattan. He was only 19 at the time. “None of us had any idea how to run a foundation.”
Set in Haring’s old studio, the organisation – of which Vasquez is now acting director – protects the artist’s archives, work and copyright. Haring started out as a graffiti artist in the late 70s, bombing tens of thousands of unused subway ad spaces with chalk. Within a few years he had been embraced by the vibrant art and club scene of downtown Manhattan, and his work was taking him around the world.
These days, the foundation makes money through sales and licensing of Haring’s iconography – the dancing dogs, radiant babies and more stridently political pieces – which it then spends to continue his activist missions: in the past 12 months, he says, they gave $5m worth of grants to non-profits including the Gay Men’s Health Crisis and Planned Parenthood.
It’s also thanks to the foundation – and its collection of Haring’s photos, sketches and journal entries – that the National Gallery of Victoria is able to bring a more personal side to its major summer show.
Crossing Lines, which opened on Friday, is an unprecedented exhibition that presents more than 200 pieces from Haring and his peer and friend, Jean-Michel Basquiat, across 13 rooms or sections – including video installations, art sculptures, and a corridor of celebrity faces snapped on Polaroid by Maripol. It’s the first time both artists have been presented in dialogue at a public museum, and likely the last time in a long while that the region will see their work on this scale again.
The two artists were friends, collaborators and occasional rivals who are synonymous with the groundbreaking art scene of 1980s New York. While their work couldn’t differ more aesthetically, the NGV exhibition bristles with the political urgency that drove them both: Basquiat was a black man, Haring a gay one, and their stars were rising in an industry that continues to either exclude difference, or fetishise and appropriate it.
Famously, both pioneers were cut short in their prime. Basquiat never got to enjoy the institutional status, cult standing and record-breaking sales figures his work has since accrued: he was 27 when he overdosed on heroin in 1988, a year after the death of their close friend and mentor Andy Warhol.
Haring, who had predicted he would die from Aids before he was even diagnosed, was gone two years later, at 31.
What’s it like to to watch someone you loved dearly become a cult hero after their death? Vasquez is thoughtful and soft-spoken as he shows me around Haring’s old studio, where the artist’s paint is still splattered across the floor. “He was really funny and sharp – he somehow just lit up this room when he walked in,” he remembers. “The parade of people that were in and out of here, coming to visit. He was just so generous with his time.”
He opens cabinets filled with the meticulous records Haring kept: on one page is the phone number for “Steven Jobs”; in a nearby folder, his art school schedule (semiotics, 10.30 on Wednesdays and Fridays). Much of this is on display at the NGV – there are iPads that let you flick through his journal – along with pages from Basquiat’s notebooks on loan from collector Larry Warsh. These personal logs have proven invaluable for historians and curators, and show a pair of young thinkers and experimenters, and who were already, audaciously, planning for their legacy.
Vasquez met Haring in the late 80s; he spent the last two years of the artist’s life by his side. “Even in 1982 [Haring] was thinking, ‘I’m important. It’s my responsibility to leave things behind to study’,” he says. “He wanted his name to be spoken among the greatest artists … he knew that it was a very special time. He wanted to ensure that he would live beyond his own life.”
Haring’s major public artworks have become synonymous with New York: the stark Crack is Wack wall in East Harlem; the joyful figures that play over the Carmine Street pool; and the far more risque scenes – giant penises, ejaculate, anal sex – that adorn the men’s bathrooms at the LBGT Centre. His work was often radical and political, imbued with queer symbolism and popping colours; he designed fliers for anti-nuclear protests, and was outspoken about Aids, apartheid, racism and the mass media.
It was a heady, glamorous time in Manhattan, at the Mudd Club, Club 57, the Fun Gallery. They were mingling with Warhol, Yoko Ono, William S Burroughs, Fab Five Freddy and Grace Jones. Vasquez was an emerging DJ – G-Bo The Pro – and was star struck more than once. “Be careful with her,” Haring joked when he introduced his friend to Basquiat’s girlfriend, Madonna. “She’s going to to try and steal you away.”
Despite rumours of romance, Vasquez says his relationship with Haring was platonic – but the love ran deep: you can find the letters “G-Bo” hidden snugly in some of Haring’s tessellated works. “It was a little wink to say, ‘I was thinking about you that day’.” Their friendship was a mentorship, too: “It was like learning something that I had absolutely no idea existed,” Vasquez says. “Every day was like that, for almost two years.”
But over all of this, the Aids crisis loomed: a relentless onslaught of loss, grief and funerals. “This thing was just ravaging like a fire through the community. Everyone was taking significant losses: friends, collaborators – if you were of a certain age, you were touched by Aids or HIV, you’d lost somebody that you care about.
“The world lost really significant, important people,” Vasquez continues. “It was crazy that that was the norm.”
In a journal entry from March 1987, Haring wrote: “I am quite aware that I have or will have Aids. My days are numbered. Important to do as much as possible as quickly as possible … art is more important than life.”
In the exhibition catalogue, guest curator Dieter Bucchart, an art historian, describes both Haring and Basquiat as “manic draughtsmen”; they painted and drew on any surface – walls, refrigerators, radiators – everywhere, all the time. But their process couldn’t have differed more.
Coming up in the rush of illicit graffiti, Haring was quick but meticulous, mapping out complex, jigsaw-like pieces in his mind before painting them with confident lines. He wouldn’t take a step back to survey his work until it was done.
For Basquiat, meanwhile, it seemed a piece was never finished: he would scribble over or add words and symbols to his chaotic expressions – or just paint a block of colour on top.
To watch him was infuriating. “It would drive [Haring] absolutely crazy,” Vasquez laughs. “Keith would walk by something that was on the wall, and would think it’s just beautiful. And then at some point during the day, Jean-Michel would start covering it up with more paint. Keith would be like, ‘What are you doing! It’s finished! It’s flawless as it is!’ ”
Both favoured motifs as a type of vocabulary: for Haring, it was babies, batons dogs, phallic symbols and screens; for Basquiat, it was crowns, copyright signs, skulls and slogans. As Rene Ricard wrote in The Radiant Child, his 1981 essay about both artists, the symbols and their ubiquity had the “same effect as advertising … the greatest thing is to come up with something so good it seems as if it’s always been there, like a proverb”.
Both were heartbroken by the death of Warhol – and when Basquiat died, Haring was bereft: he had seen his friend only a few weeks earlier, and thought he was finally clean.
He painted a Pile of Crowns for Jean-Michel Basquiat (1988) in tribute. It hangs in the middle of the final room at the NGV show; on the other side of the wall is Haring’s handwritten draft of an obituary. “The ease with which he achieved profundity convinced me of his genius,” he wrote, in Vogue. “But perhaps it was his simple honesty that has made him a true hero.”
It’s startling to see so much of their work side by side, coming from the same era, responding to the same injustices – racism, police violence, social inequality – but driven by a different experience of the world.
Haring’s rise came off the back of subway graffiti, which had originated among black people who were being killed, not celebrated, for it. Basquiat, meanwhile, was often dismissed as a jumped-up graffiti artist, for work that had more in common with Germany’s Neue Wilde movement than it did with street art. (“They’re just racist, most of these people,” he said.) In fact, while Haring’s work overtly targeted racism, some academics – including Ricardo Martez in the exhibition catalogue – argue that he was occasionally guilty of the same racial fetishisation that Basquiat was trying to shake off.
“Jean-Michel was frustrated with people who could not see beyond [his race], or who tried to categorise or box him in based on their assumptions about him as a black man,” his sisters Lisane and Jeannine Basquiat tell the Guardian, over email. The NGV show features many of his portraits celebrating black men as defiant heroes – alongside pieces like Irony of a Negro Policemen, which take direct aim at racial injustice and police brutality.
Basquiat was prolific, creating more than 2,000 pieces before his death, but only around 10 are in public collections – making a show like this particularly complicated to put together. With just six years between his first solo show and his death, most major galleries didn’t move fast enough to snap it up. “Institutions were slow to recognise his talent,” Lisane says. “People don’t always embrace something new and different.”
More than 100 are at the NGV, almost exclusively on loan from private collectors who are sitting on the kind of fortune Basquiat never enjoyed: his Untitled 1982 (LA Painting), for instance, broke records in 2017 when it sold at auction for $110.5m – the highest amount ever for an American artist.
His sisters run the Basquiat estate, and say the celebration of him now is “bittersweet”, tied up as it is with a mythology that often diverges from the truth. One rumour, for instance, gathered steam early on: of a wild black runaway churning out masterpieces for gallerist Annina Nosei, while being kept in her basement. “Oh Christ,” Basquiat said at the time. “If I was white they would just call it an artist-in-residence.”
“Jean-Michel was not homeless, nor was he estranged from his family,” his sister Lisane says. Raised in a Brooklyn brownstone, he attended private and selective schools and frequented museums with his mother. His Haitian father was wary about his son’s plans to become an artist – but gave him money to move out when he was 18. “He was a brilliant artist who held so much energy within him,” Lisane says. “He was also the son of people who had no roadmap for the journey he was on.”
His sister Jeanine remembers the moment she knew that the gamble he’d made had paid off. “Jean-Michel arrived [at our house] one morning in a limousine, while we were getting dressed for work and school. He rang the bell, and when my dad opened the door he said, ‘Papa, I made it’.”
They remained close until he died.
“The guy is absolutely epic … this huge iconic figure,” Jeannine says. But the mythologising – the books and films and auction figures – is surreal. “He is also our big brother, who we watched Saturday morning cartoons with.”
• Keith Haring | Jean-Michel Basquiat: Crossing Lines is open at the NGV in Melbourne until 13 April 2020. Guardian Australia travelled as a guest of the NGV.