They were the kings of the 1980s art world. Yet, they were utterly unpretentious. Their art wasn’t just for those in the art scene. It was for the masses.
Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat, and their radical views, were well ahead of their time. They had something to say about the society they lived in, and used their work to comment on racism, social justice and consumerism.
Defining the 1980s New York art scene, the pair came to be known as two of the greatest artists of the late twentieth century. Their legacies continue today in visual and pop culture.
For the first time, their works will come together at the National Gallery of Victoria’s (NGV) world-premiere exhibition Keith Haring | Jean-Michel Basquiat: Crossing Lines.
La Trobe students will have the opportunity to travel back in time to 1980s New York, and immerse themselves in the world of Haring and Basquiat whilst learning from industry experts.
Here, we’ll get to know five important things you should know about the artists before you visit.
- Keith Haring was an icon of New York City’s LGBTIQ+ arts scene
New York City in the early 1980s was experiencing what would come to be known as the ‘golden age of gay life’ – the period between the emergence of gay liberation and the onset of AIDS. Gay culture was flourishing. A groundswell of possibilities began to open up for LGBTIQ+ artists to express their authentic selves. Firmly centred in this movement was Keith Haring.
The point of making art is to communicate and contribute to culture.Keith Haring
- Their work began in the streets and subways of New York City
Keith Haring’s calling card was often a distinctive drawing left on a subway wall. He favoured bold dancing figures which would later become synonymous with his name. Jean-Michel Basquiat covered street walls, signs and other surfaces with what Haring described as a ‘literary graffiti’. He, and school friend Al Diaz, were the artists behind the iconic ‘SAMO’ tag, which stands for ‘Same Old Shit’. Haring and Basquiat were there at the beginning of the glory days of New York’s underground street art scene.
- Both burned bright and died young
Each artist’s individual success also came with devastating personal loss. Both had their lives cut short, Basquiat’s due to an accidental drug overdose in 1988 and Haring’s to AIDS in 1990. The pair lost many friends to the AIDS crisis, too, and Haring was a vocal advocate for safe sex as he fought the stigma associated with the condition. Commentary on the AIDS crisis can be seen in much of Haring’s works. Included in the NGV’s exhibition is Haring’s final tribute to Basquiat after his friend’s death, A Pile of Crowns for Jean-Michel Basquiat.
- They were both at the centre of New York’s Downtown Scene
Basquiat briefly dated Madonna and mixed with icons of the era such as Grace Jones who also collaborated with Haring on iconic performances. Andy Warhol was Basquiat’s landlord and collaborator. Both artists featured in ‘the first radical art show of the 80s’, The Times Square Show, that brought art to the streets alongside Nan Goldin, Jenny Holzer and Kenny Scharf.
Art is nothing if you don’t reach every segment of the people.Keith Haring
- They challenged the conventions and traditions of the art world
Sharing their creations with fellow New Yorkers in the city’s streets and subway stations at the beginning of their careers underpinned the pair’s belief that art should be accessible to everyone and not, as Haring wrote in his diary, a ‘bourgeois art for the few’. It was this view, combined with their beginnings as underground street artists, that saw some of the biggest forces in the art establishment turn away from their works during their lifetimes. Now, decades after their deaths, their works are tightly held and highly valuable, with one of Basquiat’s paintings listed among the most expensive American paintings of all time. Housed in the world’s best galleries and museums, their works are viewed by hundreds of thousands of everyday people. Not dissimilar to their early works in the streets and subway stations and, perhaps, just as they intended.
Join La Trobe experts as they give pop up talks as part of ‘Bold Thinking by La Trobe’ in the exhibition gallery at selected NGV Friday Nights
Hear from multidisciplinary La Trobe academics about the themes that feed into the works of Haring and Basquiat mentioned in this article.
See the full list of academics, themes and dates here.
Learn more about La Trobe’s Clever Partnership with the NGV.