Between his first major exhibition in 1982 and his AIDS-related death earlier this month at age 31, New York graffiti artist Keith Haring defaced the nation. And for a brief period, the world (not to mention Haring himself, who allegedly died a millionaire) was a richer place for it.
During the short span of eight years, Haring's vibrant doodles--playful pictograms variously described as "urban hieroglyphics" or "comic caveman"--adorned an astonishing array of surfaces, from high-priced gallery canvases, Absolut Vodka ads and the Berlin Wall, to disposable bric-a-brac like coloring books, inflatable pool toys and puffy fridge magnets. (The latter items are still available through a toll-free 1-800-KHARING telephone number, a hotline to his New York-based Pop Shop.)
A modern-day "KILROY WAS HERE," Haring seemingly managed to leave his mark on everything--even Phoenix. But whether Haring's mark will be irrevocably eradicted has left the city in something of a pickle.
At the center of this issue is a 150-foot-long mural that wraps around the southeast corner of a condemned building at the intersection of Central Avenue and Adams. In town to conduct a drawing workshop at the Phoenix Art Museum in mid-December 1986, Haring reportedly became so enamored with the city that he offered to supervise the painting of the mural by inner-city high school students. Seizing the opportunity to dress up Central Avenue for the upcoming Fiesta Bowl Parade, the city agreed to foot the bill.
Although Haring reportedly received no money for the project, the artist demanded that the city sign a contract designating the artwork as a "temporary" project--street art that would be destroyed when the building was eventually demolished. "He was very much concerned that someone might steal and panel and sell it," reports Mike Prepsky, a South Mountain High School art instructor who recruited the thirty students who actually painted in the design Haring had outlined in black paint. According to Prepsky, Haring had participated in a similar project in another city and was angered when one of the panels eventually found its way to an art auction, where it sold for $6,000.
"He felt that if it were disassembled, the aesthetic integrity of it would be destroyed," agrees Bruce Kurtz, curator of twentieth-century art for the Phoenix Art Museum. "He wanted to retain ownership of it because he did not want fragments of it to end up being sold as `Keith Haring originals.'" But Haring's homage to Phoenix turned out to be a good deal less temporary than anyone dreamed when the contract was signed back in 1986. And today, more than three years later, the Phoenix faction is having second thoughts about the agreement, particularly since the building that bears the mural is scheduled to go under the wrecking ball later this spring to make way for Square One.
Prompted by a request from City Councilmember Mary Rose Wilcox, who hoped to sell the Haring piece to fund a city mural project, the city contacted Haring's representatives several months ago, asking permission to salvage the mural. "They said they'd be open to the idea if it was divvied up in thirds," says Denee McKinley, project manager for the city's Department of Community and Economic Development. According to the proposal, the mural would be sliced up and evenly divided among the art museum, South Mountain High School and the City of Phoenix. Although the proposal has yet to be approved by Haring's estate, the Phoenix Art Museum has already waived its claim to the piece, offering its third to South Mountain High School. "I don't think it's a very good idea to break this thing up into pieces like a jigsaw puzzle," reports Kurtz, who is currently organizing a Haring exhibition tentatively scheduled for early 1991. "There's a lot of Keith's work in existence that's in very good condition and that's strictly by his hand," says Kurtz. Noting that the work is unsigned, was painted by committee and is in rather dilapidated condition (a car crashed into the mural several months ago, smashing an entire panel), he says, "I think any value it has is more sentimental than monetary. The kids who were there painting it with Keith had a better claim on it than we do. We even told the city we thought the whole thing should go to the kids."
South Mountain High School's art department couldn't agree more. "From our standpoint, this mural is invaluable," says Mike Prepsky, who hopes to use the painting as the centerpiece of a new arts center to be built on campus within the next few years. "You can't put a price on something like this. It was a great opportunity for us to work with Keith. He was a genius." But even if the mural never finds its way to the South Phoenix campus, Haring's influence lives on in the school's art department. On one door is a Haring Magic Marker rendition of the Statue of Liberty. A billboard is feathered with newspaper clips about the mural-in-progress. Several students wear Haring tee shirts and pins and another student proudly displays a collection of autographed Haring Swatch watches. Even art instructor Betty Braig shows up for class in mocassins that Haring emblazoned with spontaneous doodles. Everyone, it seems, has some souvenir of Haring's visit to the school.
Well, almost everyone. "Keith drew a little picture on my hat," laughs one teenager. "But I had to throw it away. My dog peed on it."