All photographs in this article are of Keith Haring painting 
a mural on the NGV's St Kilda Road Water Window in 1984

On Thursday 23 February 1984 the front page of the Melbourne Age featured a photograph of a 25-year-old Keith Haring standing before a robot-DJ figure he had recently painted, wearing a pair of cut-off jeans and a tank top decorated with one of his own boppy designs. Another photograph showed the central portion of Haring’s enormous mural on the National Gallery of Victoria’s much-loved Water Window; while the newspaper’s readers were informed that: ‘The gallery director, Mr Patrick McCaughey, threw up both arms and hailed the mural as heralding the rebirth of contemporary art in Melbourne. It’s a nativity image’, he said. ‘It’s positively rich with rebirth imagery. Can’t you see the phallic symbols all over the jolly place? My God, if you can’t see them I’m too embarrassed to point them out.’1 Patrick McCaughey, quoted in R. Beeby, ‘Graffiti moves out of the subway and becomes art’, Age, 23 February 1984, p. 1. McCaughey went on to affirm the manner in which Haring’s mural was ‘symbolic’: “It symbolises the rebirth of the National Gallery, the opening of the new gallery [the Centre for Contemporary Art, see below], and the new interest in contemporary art”, he said’. McCaughey, quoted in M. Bulwar, ‘Graffiti art a stunner’, Sun, 23 February 1984, p. 20.

Despite McCaughey’s phallic reading, the NGV mural in fact contained no images of sexual activity. This was quite deliberate. While Haring had drawn erotic images from his very  days as an art student, he never placed erotic or homoerotic motifs in his New York subway drawings, out of his love and respect for the innocence of children.2 ‘Clearly, much sexual energy is abroad in his work, sexual energy being so powerful a part of our natures that in the healthy world Haring projects there is nothing to hide; indeed, exuberance abounds. Haring is acutely aware of this message in his work and keeps any specifically sexual images in the studio and out of the eye of the general public. “Kids like the drawings and I don’t want to endanger that”.’ H. Geldzahler, introduction to Art in Transit: Subway Drawings by Keith Haring, New York: 1984. For a cogent analysis of Haring’s treatment of sexual imagery, see B. D. Kurtz, ‘Haring’s Place in Homoerotic American Art’, in Germano Celante (ed.) Keith Haring, Munich, 1992, pp. 15–20. Patrick McCaughey’s phallic reading of the NGV mural was doubtless inspired by Haring’s inclusion of snake images and snake-like forms in this design. The only explicit motif to be found on the NGV’s glass entrance depicted a child being born – a subject used often in the subway drawings, to which Haring attached no erotic or base interpretations, and that he felt was safe for children to view. As John Buckley, who had brought Haring out to Australia, noted at the time: ‘I certainly don’t think the image of giving birth would be offensive. It’s the most natural thing on earth.’3 John Buckley, quoted in Bulwar, p. 20.

Keith Haring was, there is no denying, a controversial artist within his own lifetime. However, this controversy stemmed less from the imagery of his work than from the visual language that he employed as a young artist. In being inspired by New York’s anonymous subway scribblers, Keith Haring was seen as revolutionary, around 1981, for the manner in which he mastered the freedom and fluidity of the graffiti artists’ calligraphic defacement of public property and catapulted it over into a mainstream artistic form. By presenting the visual language of one social class in the medium (paint on canvas) and milieus (commercial art galleries) of another elite class, Haring broke the rules then prescribed by the art world, for which he was to pay a price.4 ‘I realize more and more that New York’s art establishment puts me down a lot – the critics seem to resent me, museums pay no attention to me, and the art world in general kind of looks askance at what I am doing. As I see it, the problem is that I took all these shortcuts. Instead of having been cleared and verified by the art world – instead of having been explained by high culture, I jumped over the whole thing.’ Keith Haring discussing his feelings at the end of 1984, quoted in J. Gruen, Keith Haring: The Authorized Biography New York, 1991, pp. 122–3.

When, around 1982, he began to overlay his work with a system of musical notations and a new vocabulary of forms drawn from the disco dancing he revelled in at the time, life and art increasingly fused for Haring, as music and painting became inseparable acts for the artist. As the 1980s progressed, both visual and popular culture drew abreast of Haring’s vanguard creativity, and the relevance and acuity of his art were readable to a culture in which notions of graffiti, advertising and design became increasingly blurred. Haring was truly an artist for the ‘designer’ generation, for whom the boundaries of art, music, fashion and lifestyle were ever more inextricably overlapping.5 Haring’s art also easily traversed borders, and continents, like the flash of an electric spark. During the short tenure of Haring’s Australian visit, for example, his art graced the covers of two international magazines, Flash Art and Vanity Fair. Mark Schaller recalled that while many Melbourne artists had never heard of Haring when he arrived in Melbourne at the start of 1984, both he and his cultural impact were very well known to the musicians and DJs he encountered at the Hardware Club (where Haring hung out at nights during his Melbourne stay, and executed some spray drawings); interview with Mark Schaller, Melbourne, 16 July 2003. As Haring himself noted at the time, ‘I mean, the thing that I went to at the Hardware Club was like being in New York. There’s sort of an international style right now. Things travel really fast because of the media and magazines, so really, in any big cities in the world you can find some people that are tuned into what’s hip.’ Keith Haring, quoted in ‘Oh, Ziggy’, “Keith Haring”‘, Crowd Magazine, edition 3, March 1984, p. 60.

The Water Window commission

Keith Haring’s first and only sojourn in Australia, between 8 February and 8 March 1984, was organised by John Buckley, the inaugural director of Melbourne’s new Centre for Contemporary Art (CCA, later called the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, or ACCA).6 For an introduction to Keith Haring’s extraordinarily prodigious Australian visit, see T. Gott and L. Sullivan, ‘Keith Haring in Australia, 1984’, Art and Australia, vol. 39, no. 4. June/July/August 2002, pp. 560–7; and J. Buckley, ‘Keith Haring in Australia’, in Keith Haring (exh. pamphlet), Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Melbourne, 1985, 2 pp. Unfortunately, the immutable timing of Haring’s visit – which had been arranged in 1982 – found the new CCA premises not yet completed, requiring Buckley to seek out other venues to display Haring’s precocious graphic talent. After Buckley approached the NGV to propose a joint venture, it was agreed that Haring would undertake to paint the Gallery’s famous glass-fronted entrance.

A ‘permanently running water curtain’ placed at the entrance of architect Roy Grounds’s gruff bluestone facade to the new National Gallery of Victoria of 1968, the Water Window was intended – in conjunction with the NGV’s external moats – to maximise ‘the use of water [as] a means of softening the austerity of the building’s exterior’.7 Quotations drawn from Profile of the Gallery. The National Gallery Building at the Victorian Arts Centre, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 1968, p. 5. Each of the Water Window’s nine glass panels was more than seven metres high and over two metres wide, the total glass entrance stretching for more than twenty metres across. It was on this vast, transparent surface that the NGV mural appeared between 21 and 22 February 1984; the water that trickled down the outside of the Water Window in a continuous, shadowy film being turned off while the artist painted on the window’s inside surfaces. The magical nature of Keith Haring’s translucent performance was captured at the time by NGV staff member Geoffrey Burke in a wonderful series of photographs that record the creation of the Water Window painting.8 At the time, Geoffrey Burke was working as Curatorial Assistant in the Department of Australian Art. I am immensely grateful to him for his permission to publish so many of these precious photographs here for the first time. At this same time John Buckley organised the making of a documentary film about Keith Haring’s Australian visit, which records rare footage of Haring at work on the NGV Water Window (Babies, Snakes and Barking Dogs: Keith Haring in Australia. Directed by Robert Alcock, 1984. Colour film, 40 minutes. Produced for the Australian Film and Television School and the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art). I am also immensely grateful to John Buckley for sourcing this rare film for me. Keith Haring’s first Australian project, begun while still jet-lagged just three days after arriving in this country, fulfilled the vision John Buckley had in bringing the artist to Melbourne: ‘It was like the sort of Jackson Pollock and Picasso thing about painting through glass. You could actually stand outside, or be riding past on a tram, and here’s this drawing happening on this great watt of glass, which you could see both inside and outside,’9 John Buckley, interview with the author, Melbourne, 9 August 2001.

The Centre for Contemporary Art’s misfortune in not being able to stage its own Haring exhibition at this time was nonetheless felicitous. By working on the facade of such a prominent public building, whose Water Window was one of the prime symbols of the city of Melbourne, Keith Haring at the height of his creative powers was unveiled to a wider audience than his proposed exhibition at the CCA could have ever hoped to reach. For Haring himself the project was personally transforming, as he worked on a scale larger than anything he had ever attempted before; during the execution of which he also learned to use a cherry-picker machine, which was to become an indispensable tool for his later murals worldwide.

A breathtaking performance

Modern man is consuming information at an increasingly rapid rate. A modern artist has to produce images quickly and efficiently enough to keep up with our changing world. However, the elements of chance, and magic, and spirit cannot be sacrificed in this quest.

The freedom of the artist is symbolic of the human spirit in all mankind.10 Keith Haring, diary entry of 30 October 1984, in K. Haring, Keith Haring Journals, London, 1996, p. 89.

The artist’s willingness to create a deliberately ephemeral work at the NGV, on glass, accorded with ‘Haring’s desire to devaluate a presumed superiority of individualistic drawing on paper or canvas over other kinds of cultural artefacts, considering all surface as having equal worth’.11 R. Pincus-Witten, ‘Keith Haring: The cross against the rod’, in Keith Haring (exh. cat.), Tony Shafrazi Gallery, New York, 1982, p. 13.

Keith Haring habitually painted to the strains of rap and disco music, whose rhythmic, mathematically mellifluous cadences seemed to electrically charge both his eye and his imagination. Accordingly, before painting the Water Window, Haring first set up the small ghetto-blaster he carried everywhere, which was decorated by his artist mate Kenny Scharf and fuelled by numerous music tapes prepared for him by Manhattan DJ friends. John Buckley recalled him at work

with his beaut little Kenny Scharf radio that he brought over with him from New York, that was blasting away the whole time. He loved the scissor-lift. He was like a kid with a new toy, because he had never been on a scissor-lift before, andhe just had the best fun with that. [Before too long] he was a pro with it; he knew how to manoeuvre it in the finest possible way.12 Buckley, interview, 9 August 2001.

His music in place, Haring commenced work in his usual (and phenomenally unusual) manner,allowing both NGV staff and the passing general public to witness an event of seeming simplicity and ease, but the complexity of which – when one actually considers what was involved – still staggers the imagination.

It is worth pausing here to consider that Haring had been brought to look at the gigantic Water Window only a day or two before commencing its decoration; and that he began to paint it ‘cold’, using no plumb-lines or guiding marks, and without a preliminary template or grid-lines being laid upon its expansive surface. As Haring himself observed at this time:

One of the things I have been most interested in is the role of chance in situations – letting things happen by themselves. My drawings are never pre-planned. I never sketch a plan for a drawing, even for huge wall murals.13 K. Haring, ‘Keith Haring’, Flash Art, no. 116, March 1984, p.22. John Buckley stressed how ‘Keith always denied that there was any forethought involved. This, to me, was the remarkable thing about him … He was also an artist who encouraged people literally to stand around and watch while he was doing it. He loved it, he wanted to communicate with people. That’s a very important thing to remember about him … There was a kind of aura of energy around him, that was palpable. Crowds of people were drawn to it. Here was this marvellous thing going on, right before their eyes’. John Buckley, interview with the author, Melbourne, 15 July 2003.

 He thus gave Melbourne a bravura performance akin to that described just a few days later, during Haring’s painting of another mural in the foyer of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, by Sydney art critic Terence Maloon:

Haring was observed on an hydraulic platform working away from left to right, without any preparatory drawing. He never came down to ground or stepped back to appraise the work in progress. … He has evidently developed a sixth sense through long practice as a graffitist, and has an instinctive understanding of scale; spacing and variation.14 T. Maloon, ‘Even Matisse lost his touch at times [and Keith Haring at AGNSW]’, Sydney Morning Herald, 3 March 1984, p. 43.

With the help of local artist Mark Schaller, Haring had sourced small tins of signwriter’s paint with which to create the mural, confining himself to his three favourite colours of white, red and black – and affirming his credo of achieving maximum effect through maximum simplicity.15 Mark Schaller, interview with the author, Melbourne, 16 July 2003. ‘I am trying to state things as simply as possible, like a prime number. So much information can be conveyed with just one line, and the slightest change in that line can create a totally different meaning. Economy has played a big part in the work from the beginning in all senses – materials, form and function’: Keith Haring, quoted in Barry Blinderman, ‘Keith Haring’s subterranean signatures’, Arts Magazine, September 1981, reprinted in Artwords 2. Discourse on the early 80s, J. Siegel (ed.), Ann Arbor, 1988, p.186. That the paints he used occasionally dribbled down the slippery glass surface did not bother Haring. He in fact relished irregularities of this sort, as proof of the artist’s human presence, arguing that: ‘The drippings and imperfections resulting from my painting have to do with humanity, and resist technology and the computer society’.16 Haring, quoted in P. Donker Duyvus, ‘Elk station is mijn galerie. Gesprek met Keith Haring’, Museumjournal, Amsterdam, no. 3, 1982; reprinted as ‘Every station is my gallery. Interview with Keith Haring’ in Keith Haring: Schilderijen, tekeningen en een velum (exh.cat.), Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, 1986, P. 46.

On Tuesday 21 February 1984 Keith Haring painted the entire base design of the NGV mural,

across all nine gigantic glass panels, in white. One of Geoffrey Burke’s most memorable photographs shows Haring standing outside the Gallery at the conclusion of laying in this complex white web, holding his box of paints under one arm and an orange gym bag in the other hand, gazing contemplatively at his first day’s work. The following day he worked back over this vast carpet of interwoven motifs, adding a second layer of images in red, and then a third and final layer of images in black.

Simple, huh?

Keith Haring had just stepped off a plane into a foreign city, approached a building he had never seen before and executed his very first painting on glass. Embracing the challenge providedby the many-sectioned expanse of Roy Grounds’s Water Window, he was able as he worked to

mentally divide the mural into nine perfectly interconnected, balanced and proportionallycorrect schemas – with no preparatory drawings, with everything painted in perfect scale and symmetry, and with not a single unsure or hesitant line, let alone any mistakes.17 John Buckley remembers how ‘he was so absolutely confident about his mark-making that he could just simply gauge the space, and do it’. Buckley, interview, 15 July 2003. Considering that the NGV Water Window was also Haring’s first painting undertaken on this vast scale, the feat is as intellectually impressive as it is logistically breathtaking. Remember too that the whole design was executed nose-to-the-glass, Haring painting constantly at eye level, not needing to move the cherry picker back to judge how the whole might be coming together.

As if these difficulties were not enough, an additional complexity was provided by Haring’s decision to paint the mural in three sequential colours, requiring three layers of superimposed composition. Factoring in that, when he had been laying down the white designs of Day One, Haring had also been mentally leaving space for the red and black motifs that were to follow – which, gradually settling themselves one upon the other, would complete the astonishing interlocked design of his final composition, painted in three faultless layers and compartmentalised across nine colossal sections – his flawless achievement here is absolutely amazing.

It is also humbling to consider that it took Haring just two days to totally cover the cinematic stretch of the NGV’s Water Window with a unique – and never-to-be-repeated – weave of his signature motifs. And all this done without haste. Mark Schaller remembers that what struck him most while observing Haring paint this mural was the confidently slow pace at which the artist worked, never rushing, never seeming stressed or pressed for time.18 ‘Looking at these works, you think they are painted quite rapidly. But they’re not. He was really quite slow and considered.’ Schaller, interview. Critic Robert Rooney, who also watched the artist execute part of the Water Window mural, corroborated this account of Haring’s measured approach:

Haring, at least while I was there, worked at a moderate pace, displaying all the confidence that comes from the experience of (or compulsion for) continually covering all sorts of surfaces and objects with his characteristic images.19 R. Rooney, ‘A “space-age baby” makes his statement’, Weekend Australian, 3–4 March 1984, p. 11.

Haring was also happy to be interrupted at any point, frequently stopping his painting to talk to visiting schoolchildren, sign autographs and quickly sketch souvenir drawings for curious new fans of his work – returning to the mural after each of these intermissions without missing a beat in his concentration or painterly finesse.

Haring’s design skills were, indeed, utterly meticulous, embracing a myriad of complex details – such, for example, as extending the pointed tip of a red serpent-human’s tail down into close proximity to the white outline of a crouching baby, laid down the day before, while remembering to allow just enough room for the radiant red power lines yet to be painted sparking out around the infant. What extraordinary precision. What consummate poetry of draughtsmanship, captured here on film, as Geoffrey Burke moved inside and outside the Gallery to record the occurrence of this phenomenon from both sides of the glass curtain being decorated.

In an interview conducted shortly before his early death at the age of thirty-one, Haring was asked how, working without drawings or plans, he was able to achieve such colossal feats. His answer was typically modest:

It’s probably 20% intuition, 20% experience and maybe 60% chance. I get better at it all the time, so it comes from a lot of experience. I push myself to see how large a space I can handle, always with new heights and dimensions. In a way it’s a very rational and systematic use of space. I try to keep an overall sense of composition and form, then I try to put the pieces together, like in a puzzle or in the construction of a building.20 S. Caley, ‘Keith Haring. In 1981 artists knew what they were working against’, Flash Art, vol. 28, no. 153, summer 1990, p.125.

Iconography

Keith Haring, like many artists, was reticent about explaining the iconography of his own art. As he wrote in the issue of Flash Art that coincided with his time in Melbourne:

Often when I am drawing in the subway in New York City an observer will patiently stand by and watch until I have finished drawing and then, quickly, as I attempt to walk away, will shout out, ‘But what does it mean?’ I usually answer: ‘That’s your part, I only do the drawings’.21 Haring, ‘Keith Haring’ 1984, p. 20. This accorded strongly with his belief, expressed in the same article (p. 24), that ‘Art lives through the imaginations of the people who are seeing it’.

Haring recognised, of course, that whatever artists say about their own work can only ever act as a glossary – occasionally consulted, but usually not – to the average viewer’s interaction with it. Opting to accept the mystery of Haring’s unique visual language rather than attempt to decode every element within it, Robert Pincus-Witten wrote of how ‘the autobiographical always informs imagery but what imagery means as art can never be said’.22 Pincus-Witten, 1982, p. 10.

The brief description of his Water Window mural that Haring offered to the press who assembled for its official launch was typically elusive: ‘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’, he said.23 Haring, quoted in Beeby, 1984, p. 1.

The dominating image of Haring’s composition, spread across the window’s three central panels, was that of a mother figure giving birth. This central figure was surrounded byapparently affirming attendants – dolphins, babies, dogs, rap-dancers spinning upon their heads, tadpole-like hybrids wriggling upwards. The crawling ‘radiant baby’ had early on become one of Haring’s signature tags in the hundreds of chalk drawings with which he had entertained New York’s subway commuters. In his eyes:

There is nothing that makes me happier than making a child smile. The reason that the ‘baby’ has become my logo or signature is that it is the purest and most positive experience of human existence. Children are the bearers of life in its simplest and most joyous form. Children are color-blind and still free of all the complications, greed, and hatred that will slowly be instilled in them through life.24 Haring, diary entry of 7 July 1986; in Haring, 1996, pp. 75–6.

In a similar vein, the dolphin and dog images reinforced the life-giving properties of nature:

It’s really a four-legged animal rather than a dog. It’s a basic symbol for animal life or for nature. We don’t really understand animals after all this time – what they think or if they think.25 Haring, quoted in Blinderman, 1981; reprinted in J. Siegel (ed.), Artwords 2., pp. 184–8.

Haring’s imagery embraced the negative aspects of life, however, as well as the positive. It is no coincidence that his great Water Window mother figure also bore some resemblance to the sinister imagery of medieval art, such as the monstrous devil figure from the Camposanto frescos of c.1335 at Pisa. As a teenager Haring had flirted with evangelical religion, and remnants of this religious inculcation resonate through the Water Window’s buoyant forms:

For about a year I got totally absorbed in the so-called Jesus Movement and consumed a lot of information about the end-of-the-world which dominates that train of thought really. Revelations and things taken directly from the bible about the apocalypse and things that were coming to pass … Now there is a lot of potential for that to happen, we possess the potential for the end of the world to happen anytime … There’s not a day of the week that you can’t turn on thetelevision and hear some discussion of nuclear attack, of coming to our own demise.26 Haring, quoted in A. Crawford, ‘Keith Haring’, Tension 4, July/August 1984, p. 11.

The torso of Haring’s birthing mother was inset with television screens that depicted a bursting atom and a nuclear mushroom cloud, reflecting the anti-nuclear fears of the artist’s whole generation.27 ‘Being born in 1958, the first generation of the Space Age, born into a world of television technology and instant gratification, a child of the atomic age. Raised in America during the sixties and learning about war from Life magazines on Vietnam. Watching riots on television in a warm living room comfortably safe in middle-class white America. I don’t believe in solutions. Things are beyond my control and beyond comprehension. I do not have dreams of changing the world. I do not have dreams of saving the world. However, I am in the world and I am a human being. In 1982, with telephones and radio, computers and airplanes, world news and video tape, satellites and automobiles, human beings are still frighteningly similar to human beings 2,000 years ago. I am scared to death.’Haring, diary entry of 18 March 1982; in Haring, 1996, pp. 75–6. No Nukes was a deeply held belief for Keith Haring, whose hometown of Kutztown, Pennsylvania, was only some fifty miles from the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant, where a partial meltdown on 28 March 1979 had sparked an environmental disaster, threatening hundreds of thousands of citizens with radioactive fallout.

On either side of this atomic matriarch, in the window’s fourth and fifth panels, Haring placed a pair of rampant snake-like monsters, ridden by human jockeys who seemed to be restraining them from attack. These writhing figures were flanked in turn by Haring’s famous DJ-robots, who were electrically charging columns of dancing figures floating in the air above their energising antennae. These panels of the Water Window, and other figures scattered throughout the mural, reflected Haring’s passion for the various forms of dancing that were then assuming enormous significance in the New York club and street worlds – signifying as they did through their derivation from Black and Latino heritages, hope for a new racial harmony in American life. Among the dance styles ‘sampled’ by Haring are the electric boogie (mimicking robotic or electronic energy), downrocking or breaking (featuring horizontally-centred spins and acrobatics), the King Tut (stylised movements with hands frozen angularly, à la Egyptian tomb paintings), and the capoeira (an Afro-Brazilian form of combat-dance, mixing martial arts and dance-floor moves).28 For excellent discussions of Keith Haring and contemporary African-American dance styles, see R. Farris Thompson, ‘Requiem for the Degas of the B-Boys’, Artforum, vol. 28, no. 9, May 1990, pp. 135–41; and, especially, R. Farris Thompson, ‘Haring and the Dance’ in E. Sussman, Keith Haring (exh. cat.), Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1997, pp. 214–24. A compulsive assimilator of signs and visual codes, Haring naturally incorporated an Australian reference into the mural, mutating an obvious national symbol. As he told a group

of Melbourne students:

I get ideas from all kinds of things. I mean, I started drawing these sorts of

kangaroo monsters while I was here. And right when I go back to New York and

draw in the subway, I’ll probably draw some of those there.29 Unedited video footage, Keith Haring interviewed by unidentified students at Collingwood Technical School, 6 March 1984. Conservation Department, NGV.

The outer left and right-hand panels of the NGV mural each contained an enormous power

pylon/kangaroo hybrid, carrying a baby in its marsupial pouch.30 With respect to the issue of other Australian references in the Water Window, in the autobiographical interview sessions taped with John Gruen just before Haring’s death in February 1990, the artist said that there had been quite intense Australian press criticism of his work over perceived, and unintended, similarities to Aboriginal imagery: ‘stating how insulting it was that I, an American artist, had been hired to come to Australia to make Aboriginal art … Well, what I had painted on the glass wall was exactly what I was painting all over the world. I mean, the imagery contained all kinds of concentric circles and snakes and little figures and patterns. I had no idea they strongly resembled Aboriginal art’. Haring, quoted in Gruen, 1991, p. 112. The full story of this aspect of Keith Haring’s Australian visit remains problematic, however, and deserves fuller discussion elsewhere.

Taken as a whole, the many-layered imagery of Haring’s Water Window mural depicted a battle

between the natural forces of life and those of man-made destruction – a battle whose

parameters are ambiguous, and the outcome of which is undecided. The baby being born at the

centre of this battlefield is destined to inherit a troubled world.31 ‘Keith Haring’s paintings also convey his interest in modern time mythologies, those generated by the communication and information boom, the East–West conflicts, the blending of cultures, industrial overproduction and, last but not least, the ghastly power of science with its threat of nuclear holocaust, its genetic manipulations and test-tube babies. Is the child in this painting being born, or is he dying caught in a nuclear cloud? Isn’t this man, turning into a serpent, bound to become his very own victim?’ S. Couderc, ‘Le monde de Keith Haring [Keith Haring’s World], in Keith Haring: Peintures, sculptures et dessins (exh. cat.), capc Musée d’art contemporain de Bordeaux, Bordeaux, 1985, p. 37.

The mural’s reception

Intended, in any case, for only a three-month span on the Water Window, Haring’s beautiful mural was damaged by vandals barely two weeks after its creation. On Saturday 10 March 1984 the NGV ran an advertisement in the Age newspaper, inviting Melbourne’s populace to ‘enjoy Keith Haring’s folk art of the ’80s in his bold, intriguing, Water Window Mural, inspired by his “graffiti” art in New York’s subways’. The advertisement was placed, by serendipity, within the sidebar to a major article on New York’s subway system. That evening the Herald newspaper informed its readers that ‘vandals have damaged a mural on the front window of the National Gallery. A central pane of the mural, showing a pregnant woman, was cracked by a brick last night’. An article run by the Age two days later confirmed that what the police believed to be ‘a piece of concrete or a rock’ had shattered the central panel of Keith Haring’s nine-panel mural ‘in the top left hand corner between 8.30 pm on Friday and 8.30 am on Saturday’.32 Advertisement for the NGV, Age (Saturday Extra), 10 March 1984, p.1; ‘Vandals!’, Herald, 10 March 1984, p. 1; ‘Vandals smash gallery pane’, Age, 12 March 1984, p. 3. The Gallery’s reference to Haring’s ‘folk art of the ’80s’ in its Saturday advertisement seems to have been echoing local critic Ronald Millar’s appraisal of the mural as ‘a folk art for the suburbs’. See R. Millar, ‘Graffiti at Gallery!’, Herald, 1 March 1984, p. 21.Following this act of vandalism the central pane of glass in the Water Window was replaced, necessitating the removal of Haring’s composition earlier than initially planned.

Keith Haring’s mural received a predictably mixed reception from the general public. The Age reported a mainly positive response:

Outside the gallery, the crowd decided that if this was modern art it was perfectly acceptable. ‘At least you can tell what it is, said a pedestrian, who had stopped to watch Mr Haring at work. ‘I mean, that’s obviously a baby and that’s a snake’. Inside the gallery, the mood was a little more effusive, with the cognoscenti vying for superlatives. Mr Robert Lindsay, the senior curator of contemporary art, described Mr Haring’s work as ‘urban tribalism at its best’.33 Beeby, 1984, p. 1.

Speculating, however, that ‘it could prove to be the latest art controversy to hit Melbourne’, the Sun noted how some people thought the still-unfinished painting was ‘out of keeping with the gallery’s image’. And others didn’t quite know what to make of it. A passing taxi driver said ‘people would accept it better in Sydney’.34 Bulwar, 1984, p. 20. In considering her reference to ‘the still-unfinished painting’ we should remember that Ms Bulwar’s article was researched and written the day before, when the mural was, indeed, still receiving its finishing touches.

Critical opinion was equally divided. Writing in the Age, Memory Holloway voiced her suspicion of the sudden interest in the ‘new primitivism’, which she lamented ‘has been used since the beginning of the eighties as a descriptive tag for tacky painting on unstretched canvas, as a means of explaining the return of frenzied emotion in painting, and as a justification for shorthand ideograms’, and which she scathingly dubbed as ‘the art password for the week, the one which will get you past the leopard-skin doors into the best St Kilda studios, the most fashionable South Yarra flats’. Holloway felt that Haring had offered Melbourne ‘his own sanitised graffiti version of the grimy New York subway, its scribblings and coded messages’, which was ‘Primitive? Not at all, but painstakingly considered’ – being ‘as carefully thought out as the Keith Haring T-shirts, the Keith Haring lapel buttons, the Keith Haring party invitations which appeared this week with little human figures jumping out of a kangaroo’s pouch’. Ultimately, she argued, ‘Haring’s window … feeds a myth of the artist as agitator, street-wise, street-ready, while all the time pulling all the marketing strings which a capitalistic society dangles’.35 M. Holloway, ‘Primitive attempt at feeding a myth’, Age, 29 February 1984, p. 14. In the issue of Flash Art that appeared just before Haring left Australia, he himself lamented that ‘in the past two years I have done dozens of interviews and frequently talk about what I think I am doing. Still, I have read very little real critical inquiry into my work, besides the ongoing obsession with the phenomena of money and success’. Haring, ‘Keith Haring’, p. 20. In this same self-authored article he commented further: ‘The use of galleries and commercial projects has enabled me to reach millions of people whom I would not have reached by remaining an unknown artist. I assumed, after all, that the point of making art was to communicate and contribute to a culture’. Ibid., p.24. When asked whether he believed in self-promotion, Haring told one Australian interviewer that: ‘Well I suppose it is a big part of what I am doing, sometimes you can look at the whole thing from that angle and people have used that as a criticism to reduce the whole thing to nothing more than an advertisement. Because it is operating in the same arena as that which the advertisements use, using the same vehicle. In the respect that a lot of people see it and become aware of it. The difference is that up until this point there hasn’t been an actual product to sell, so it’s not so much selling … Whereas with the direction I’m moving – graphics – for instance in New York, I produce posters which I give away for free at shows. Actually the first time I produced a poster for free, was at the anti-nuclear rally, June 12, 1982. I produced 20,000 posters and gave them away in Central Park during the rally. And it was a way of getting the poster out all over the world and people could have it in their house, and it turned up in all these places which made it accessible to a lot of people.’ Keith Haring, quoted in Crawford, 1984, p. 10.

In the Australian Robert Rooney provided a somewhat non-committal but quite informed response to the work. However, Ronald Millar, critic for the Herald, gave an enthusiastic welcome to ‘Keith Haring, New York’s currently hot property in this cheekiest art form [graffiti]’. Millar appreciated the manner in which Haring’s ‘spontaneous, cartoon-y images about the way we live, in the cities, now’ was marked by ‘the direct and untaught look of the drawing, the clarity of message, the simplicity of symbol … this is a folk art for the suburbs’.36 Rooney, p.11; Millar, p.21.

And Keith Haring’s own reaction? As he told one Melbourne interviewer: ‘Yeah, it was fun, it’s my biggest wall to date – I think it came out great’.37 Haring, quoted in ‘Oh, Ziggy, 1984, p. 61. He had every right to be pleased. In painting the NGV Water Window mural, Keith Haring had created one of his first great exercises in mnemonic majesty, on a mammoth new scale. There can be no doubt that by executing this mural in such a public place, and in such a public fashion, he had lived up perfectly to the ambition that he had expressed for his art at this very time:

I have made myself a role as an image-maker of the twentieth century and I daily try to understand the responsibilities and implications of that position. It has become increasingly clear to me that art is not an elitist activity reserved for the appreciation of a few, but for everyone, and that is the end toward which I will continue to work.38 Haring, ‘Keith Haring’, p. 24.

Keith Haring’s Water Window mural received little official documentation at the time of its making. And discussion of this work has been minimal in the vast literature published on the artist to date. While it was always intended to be an ephemeral painting, Geoffrey Burke’s salutary photographs of the mural’s creation can give Keith Haring’s first Australian project a new half-Life in print for us here, ensuring a firm place for it in the ongoing documentation of Haring’s short, but astonishingly productive, career.39 When Geoffrey Burke’s photographs (particularly those which document Day Two of the artist’s work) are viewed in conjunction with Robert Alcock’s excellent film Babies, Snakes and Barking Dogs: Keith Haring in Australia of 1984 (which places a primary focus upon the first day of Haring’s efforts on the NGV mural), the stereoscopic re-enactment of these events some twenty years ago is quite spectacular. Indeed, Alcock’s film captures wondrous footage of something not snapped by Burke – the turning-back-on of the water curtain, that to this day, runs continuously down the enormous glass entrance to the National Gallery of Victoria, and Keith Haring’s reaction to this watery transformation of his transparent but dark Water Window mural. Cinema magic.

Dr Ted Gott, Senior Curator of International Art, National Gallery of Victoria (in 2004).

Acknowledgements

I am deeply indebted to Geoffrey Burke, John Buckley, Mark Schaller, Tom Dixon, Julia Gruen and the Estate of Keith Haring for their help with the preparation of this article. I also thank the late David McDiarmid, as well as Lisa Sullivan and Andrew Montana, for many fruitful discussions about Keith Haring. All works of art are copyright, the Estate of Keith Haring. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Notes

1      Patrick McCaughey, quoted in R. Beeby, ‘Graffiti moves out of the subway and becomes art’, Age, 23 February 1984, p. 1. McCaughey went on to affirm the manner in which Haring’s mural was ‘symbolic’: “It symbolises the rebirth of the National Gallery, the opening of the new gallery [the Centre for Contemporary Art, see below], and the new interest in contemporary art”, he said’. McCaughey, quoted in M. Bulwar, ‘Graffiti art a stunner’, Sun, 23 February 1984, p. 20.

2      ‘Clearly, much sexual energy is abroad in his work, sexual energy being so powerful a part of our natures that in the healthy world Haring projects there is nothing to hide; indeed, exuberance abounds. Haring is acutely aware of this message in his work and keeps any specifically sexual images in the studio and out of the eye of the general public. “Kids like the drawings and I don’t want to endanger that”.’ H. Geldzahler, introduction to Art in Transit: Subway Drawings by Keith Haring, New York: 1984. For a cogent analysis of Haring’s treatment of sexual imagery, see B. D. Kurtz, ‘Haring’s Place in Homoerotic American Art’, in Germano Celante (ed.) Keith Haring, Munich, 1992, pp. 15–20. Patrick McCaughey’s phallic reading of the NGV mural was doubtless inspired by Haring’s inclusion of snake images and snake-like forms in this design.

3      John Buckley, quoted in Bulwar, p. 20.

4      ‘I realize more and more that New York’s art establishment puts me down a lot – the critics seem to resent me, museums pay no attention to me, and the art world in general kind of looks askance at what I am doing. As I see it, the problem is that I took all these shortcuts. Instead of having been cleared and verified by the art world – instead of having been explained by high culture, I jumped over the whole thing.’ Keith Haring discussing his feelings at the end of 1984, quoted in J. Gruen, Keith Haring: The Authorized Biography New York, 1991, pp. 122–3.

5      Haring’s art also easily traversed borders, and continents, like the flash of an electric spark. During the short tenure of Haring’s Australian visit, for example, his art graced the covers of two international magazines, Flash Art and Vanity Fair. Mark Schaller recalled that while many Melbourne artists had never heard of Haring when he arrived in Melbourne at the start of 1984, both he and his cultural impact were very well known to the musicians and DJs he encountered at the Hardware Club (where Haring hung out at nights during his Melbourne stay, and executed some spray drawings); interview with Mark Schaller, Melbourne, 16 July 2003. As Haring himself noted at the time, ‘I mean, the thing that I went to at the Hardware Club was like being in New York. There’s sort of an international style right now. Things travel really fast because of the media and magazines, so really, in any big cities in the world you can find some people that are tuned into what’s hip.’ Keith Haring, quoted in ‘Oh, Ziggy’, “Keith Haring”‘, Crowd Magazine, edition 3, March 1984, p. 60.

6      For an introduction to Keith Haring’s extraordinarily prodigious Australian visit, see T. Gott and L. Sullivan, ‘Keith Haring in Australia, 1984’, Art and Australia, vol. 39, no. 4. June/July/August 2002, pp. 560–7; and J. Buckley, ‘Keith Haring in Australia’, in Keith Haring (exh. pamphlet), Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Melbourne, 1985, 2 pp.

7      Quotations drawn from Profile of the Gallery. The National Gallery Building at the Victorian Arts Centre, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 1968, p. 5.

8      At the time, Geoffrey Burke was working as Curatorial Assistant in the Department of Australian Art. I am immensely grateful to him for his permission to publish so many of these precious photographs here for the first time. At this same time John Buckley organised the making of a documentary film about Keith Haring’s Australian visit, which records rare footage of Haring at work on the NGV Water Window (Babies, Snakes and Barking Dogs: Keith Haring in Australia. Directed by Robert  Alcock, 1984. Colour film, 40 minutes. Produced for the Australian Film and Television School and the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art). I am also immensely grateful to John Buckley for sourcing this rare film for me.

9      John Buckley, interview with the author, Melbourne, 9 August 2001.

10      Keith Haring, diary entry of 30 October 1984, in K. Haring, Keith Haring Journals, London, 1996, p. 89.

11       R. Pincus-Witten, ‘Keith Haring: The cross against the rod’, in Keith Haring (exh. cat.), Tony Shafrazi Gallery, New York, 1982, p. 13.

12      Buckley, interview, 9 August 2001.

13      K. Haring, ‘Keith Haring’, Flash Art, no. 116, March 1984, p.22. John Buckley stressed how ‘Keith always denied that there was any forethought involved. This, to me, was the remarkable thing about him … He was also an artist who encouraged people literally to stand around and watch while he was doing it. He loved it, he wanted to communicate with people. That’s a very important thing to remember about him … There was a kind of aura of energy around him, that was palpable. Crowds of people were drawn to it. Here was this marvellous thing going on, right before their eyes’. John Buckley, interview with the author, Melbourne, 15 July 2003.

14      T. Maloon, ‘Even Matisse lost his touch at times [and Keith Haring at AGNSW]’, Sydney Morning Herald, 3 March 1984, p. 43.

15      Mark Schaller, interview with the author, Melbourne, 16 July 2003. ‘I am trying to state things as simply as possible, like a prime number. So much information can be conveyed with just one line, and the slightest change in that line can create a totally different meaning. Economy has played a big part in the work from the beginning in all senses – materials, form and function’: Keith Haring, quoted in Barry Blinderman, ‘Keith Haring’s subterranean signatures’, Arts Magazine, September 1981, reprinted in Artwords 2. Discourse on the early 80s, J. Siegel (ed.), Ann Arbor, 1988, p.186.

16     Haring, quoted in P. Donker Duyvus, ‘Elk station is mijn galerie. Gesprek met Keith Haring’, Museumjournal, Amsterdam, no. 3, 1982; reprinted as ‘Every station is my gallery. Interview with Keith Haring’ in Keith Haring: Schilderijen, tekeningen en een velum (exh. cat.), Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, 1986, P. 46.

17      John Buckley remembers how ‘he was so absolutely confident about his mark-making that he could just simply gauge the space, and do it’. Buckley, interview, 15 July 2003.

18     ‘Looking at these works, you think they are painted quite rapidly. But they’re not. He was really quite slow and considered.’ Schaller, interview.

19      R. Rooney, ‘A “space-age baby” makes his statement’, Weekend Australian, 3–4 March 1984, p. 11.

20       S. Caley, ‘Keith Haring. In 1981 artists knew what they were working against’, Flash Art, vol. 28, no. 153, summer 1990, p.125.

21     Haring, ‘Keith Haring’ 1984, p. 20. This accorded strongly with his belief, expressed in the same article (p. 24), that ‘Art lives through the imaginations of the people who are seeing it’.

22     Pincus-Witten, 1982, p. 10.

23     Haring, quoted in Beeby, 1984, p. 1.

24     Haring, diary entry of 7 July 1986; in Haring, 1996, pp. 75–6.

25      Haring, quoted in Blinderman, 1981; reprinted in J. Siegel (ed.), Artwords 2., pp. 184–8.

26      Haring, quoted in A. Crawford, ‘Keith Haring’, Tension 4, July/August 1984, p. 11.

27      ‘Being born in 1958, the first generation of the Space Age, born into a world of television technology and instant gratification, a child of the atomic age. Raised in America during the sixties and learning about war from Life magazines on Vietnam. Watching riots on television in a warm living room comfortably safe in middle-class white America. I don’t believe in solutions. Things are beyond my control and beyond comprehension. I do not have dreams of changing the world. I do not have dreams of saving the world. However, I am in the world and I am a human being. In 1982, with telephones and radio, computers and airplanes, world news and video tape, satellites and automobiles, human beings are still frighteningly similar to human beings 2,000 years ago. I am scared to death.’ Haring, diary entry of 18 March 1982; in Haring, 1996, pp. 75–6.

28      For excellent discussions of Keith Haring and contemporary African-American dance styles, see R. Farris Thompson, ‘Requiem for the Degas of the B-Boys’, Artforum, vol. 28, no. 9, May 1990, pp. 135–41; and, especially, R. Farris Thompson, ‘Haring and the Dance’ in E. Sussman, Keith Haring (exh. cat.), Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1997, pp. 214–24.

29      Unedited video footage, Keith Haring interviewed by unidentified students at Collingwood Technical School, 6 March 1984. Conservation Department, NGV.

30     With respect to the issue of other Australian references in the Water Window, in the autobiographical interview sessions taped with John Gruen just before Haring’s death in February 1990, the artist said that there had been quite intense Australian press criticism of his work over perceived, and unintended, similarities to Aboriginal imagery: ‘stating how insulting it was that I, an American artist, had been hired to come to Australia to make Aboriginal art … Well, what I had painted on the glass wall was exactly what I was painting all over the world. I mean, the imagery contained all kinds of concentric circles and snakes and little figures and patterns. I had no idea they strongly resembled Aboriginal art’. Haring, quoted in Gruen, 1991, p. 112. The full story of this aspect of Keith Haring’s Australian visit remains problematic, however, and deserves fuller discussion elsewhere.

31      ‘Keith Haring’s paintings also convey his interest in modern time mythologies, those generated by the communication and information boom, the East–West conflicts, the blending of cultures, industrial overproduction and, last but not least, the ghastly power of science with its threat of nuclear holocaust, its genetic manipulations and test-tube babies. Is the child in this painting being born, or is he dying caught in a nuclear cloud? Isn’t this man, turning into a serpent, bound to become his very own victim?’ S. Couderc, ‘Le monde de Keith Haring [Keith Haring’s World], in Keith Haring: Peintures, sculptures et dessins (exh. cat.), capc Musée d’art contemporain de Bordeaux, Bordeaux, 1985, p. 37.

32      Advertisement for the NGV, Age (Saturday Extra), 10 March 1984, p.1; ‘Vandals!’, Herald, 10 March 1984, p. 1; ‘Vandals smash gallery pane’, Age, 12 March 1984, p. 3. The Gallery’s reference to Haring’s ‘folk art of the ’80s’ in its Saturday advertisement seems to have been echoing local critic Ronald Millar’s appraisal of the mural as ‘a folk art for the suburbs’. See R. Millar, ‘Graffiti at Gallery!’, Herald, 1 March 1984, p. 21.

33      Beeby, 1984, p. 1.

34      Bulwar, 1984, p. 20. In considering her reference to ‘the still-unfinished painting’ we should remember that Ms Bulwar’s article was researched and written the day before, when the mural was, indeed, still receiving its finishing touches.

35      M. Holloway, ‘Primitive attempt at feeding a myth’, Age, 29 February 1984, p. 14. In the issue of Flash Art that appeared just before Haring left Australia, he himself lamented that ‘in the past two years I have done dozens of interviews and frequently talk about what I think I am doing. Still, I have read very little real critical inquiry into my work, besides the ongoing obsession with the phenomena of money and success’. Haring, ‘Keith Haring’, p. 20. In this same self-authored article he commented further: ‘The use of galleries and commercial projects has enabled me to reach millions of people whom I would not have reached by remaining an unknown artist. I assumed, after all, that the point of making art was to communicate and contribute to a culture’. Ibid., p.24. When asked whether he believed in self-promotion, Haring told one Australian interviewer that: ‘Well I suppose it is a big part of what I am doing, sometimes you can look at the whole thing from that angle and people have used that as a criticism to reduce the whole thing to nothing more than an advertisement. Because it is operating in the same arena as that which the advertisements use, using the same vehicle. In the respect that a lot of people see it and become aware of it. The difference is that up until this point there hasn’t been an actual product to sell, so it’s not so much selling … Whereas with the direction I’m moving – graphics – for instance in New York, I produce posters which I give away for free at shows. Actually the first time I produced a poster for free, was at the anti-nuclear rally, June 12, 1982. I produced 20,000 posters and gave them away in Central Park during the rally. And it was a way of getting the poster out all over the world and people could have it in their house, and it turned up in all these places which made it accessible to a lot of people.’ Keith Haring, quoted in Crawford, 1984, p. 10.

36      Rooney, p.11; Millar, p.21.

37      Haring, quoted in ‘Oh, Ziggy, 1984, p. 61.

38      Haring, ‘Keith Haring’, p. 24.

39      When Geoffrey Burke’s photographs (particularly those which document Day Two of the artist’s work) are viewed in conjunction with Robert Alcock’s excellent film Babies, Snakes and Barking Dogs: Keith Haring in Australia of 1984 (which places a primary focus upon the first day of Haring’s efforts on the NGV mural), the stereoscopic re-enactment of these events some twenty years ago is quite spectacular. Indeed, Alcock’s film captures wondrous footage of something not snapped by Burke – the turning-back-on of the water curtain, that to this day, runs continuously down the enormous glass entrance to the National Gallery of Victoria, and Keith Haring’s reaction to this watery transformation of his transparent but dark Water Window mural. Cinema magic.