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Graffiti on the Concourse: Keith Haring’s 1984 Walker Mural

By Paul Schmelzer

The image was both confounding and comical: a multi-armed creature with a computer for a head. The year was 1984, the site was the Walker Art Center’s Concourse, the hallway between the museum and the Guthrie Theater, and the artist—then the toast of New York’s graffiti and gallery scene—was Keith Haring.

Twenty-eight years ago this month, from March 12 to 16, Haring was an artist-in-residence at the Walker, where he created the giant mural. Now existing only through photographic and video documentation, the orange and green wall piece was created to commemorate the completion of the Walker’s then-new underground education center, and remained on view through December 1985. In addition to Haring, artists including Skip Blumberg, Richard Lerman, David Moss, Mark Coleman, Susan Keiser, Donald Lipski, Chris Osgood, Debra Frasier, Jacques d’Amboise, and Isaac Bashevis Singer were invited to participate in the festivities.

Longtime education staffer Susan Rotilie, then manager of the Walker’s school programs, recalls Haring as “energetic, creative, and open.” Not to mention quick: he completed the mural in one day. “I remember how incredibly fast he could draw and paint,” Rotilie says. “I don’t remember any preliminary sketches or plans—he just started drawing.”

Perhaps that had to do with his familiarity with the image. Around the same time, he created a nearly identical image with white chalk on black paper; that work is included in the Brooklyn Museum of Art’s current exhibition, Keith Haring: 1978–1982. A similar piece is featured in This Will Have Been: Art Love & Politics in the 1980s, the MCA Chicago exhibition that opens at the Walker June 30: In a 1984 photo series documenting the artist’s work, Tseng Kwong Chi captures Haring seated in a New York subway car; through the open doors, an image of a Haring chalk piece can be seen—a many-legged bug with a computer for a head. Likewise, the same year of his Walker visit, Haring made creatures with computers for heads in various forms as paintings and on sculptural works. (It could be argued that the artist’s fascination in 1984 with all-in-one computers had to do with the introduction in January of the first Apple Macintosh.)

During his stay in the Twin Cities, Haring was commissioned to create a poster promoting ArtFest, a celebration of the new education center spearheaded by the Walker’s education director at the time, Adam Weinberg, and held May 20 through June 3, 1984. Haring also worked with children from the Alice Smith School in Hopkins to create set pieces for a dance-theater work by d’Amboise, which looked at the theme of “the underground” and was performed on May 27 of that year as part of the festival.

It was Rotilie’s job to drive Haring to Hopkins each day to work with students on their contributions to the performance. Haring, who was only 31 when he died of AIDS just six years later, preferred to work with music on. “He had a classic ’80s boombox painted by his friend, artist Kenny Scharf, and he kept the music playing all day,” she recalls. “Toward the end of the week, we were taking a break and Keith was taking requests for drawings from the kids. They would take his drawings—radiant babies, barking dogs, dancing people—and color them in themselves. At one point, he noticed that I was a little appalled at how the kids were casually coloring in his drawings. He smiled and said, ‘That’s why I’m giving these to them.’”

Haring’s ArtFest poster featured creatures similar to those the junior high students created for the dance-theater piece. Fittingly, they were reproduced in black and white, like a page from a coloring book, awaiting completion by children.

This kind of ephemerality was key for Haring, who by his own estimate created some 5,000 chalk drawings in New York’s subway system by 1985. The works appeared on the matte black sheets of paper the transit authority pasted over expired ads. As Claire Grace writes in the This Will Have Been exhibition catalogue, the work positioned Haring alongside his friends who were graffiti artists, but in his work there were some key differences:

Whereas graffiti aspires to some semblance of permanence (spray-paint is costly and difficult to remove), Haring could hardly have chosen a more fugitive medium (chalk brushes off with the slightest touch, and the drawings were continuously papered over by new advertisements). And while graffiti most often takes place in secret under the cover of night, Haring worked by day, his activities attracting as much attention as their material result. The live audience and ephemeral nature of these hybrid works identify them not only as drawings but also as performances. They perform or “demonstrate” (in the democratic tradition of street demonstrations) an alternative spatial occupation of the public sphere, rethinking its terms and conditions, limits and possibilities.

That sentiment has spoken to a generation of younger artists, including one right here. In 2003, South Africa’s Robin Rhode, in Minneapolis for the exhibition How Latitudes Become Forms: Art in a Global Age, made an unsanctioned artwork on the same wall, knowing Haring had created a work there before him. He spray-painted the outline of a car, then hauled cinder blocks in where the wheels should’ve been. His impromptu mural was eventually given its own artwork label and stayed up for the duration of the exhibition.

While both performance and transgression seem to link Rhode and Haring, it was transience that stuck with Rotilie from her experiences with Haring.

“My favorite memory was about the drawing he did on my car,” she remembers. “It was winter and my car was really dirty. He drew a radiant baby in the schmutz on the back of my hatchback.”

Keith Haring in front of his mural, Walker Art Center, 1984

Photo: Glenn Halvorson, Walker Art Center

Keith Haring installing his mural in the Walker Art Center concourse, March 15, 1984

Photo: Glenn Halvorson, Walker Art Center

Keith Haring working with students from Alice Smith School in Hopkins, Minn.

Photo: Glenn Halvorson, Walker Art Center

Haring’s ever-present boombox, decorated by artist Kenny Scharf

Still from Walker video documentation

Keith Haring poses with his poster for Artfest, a two-week celebration inaugurating the Walker’s new education spaces

Photo: Glenn Halvorson, Walker Art Center

Keith Haring participating in Children’s Festaville, March 1984

Photo: Glenn Halvorson, Walker Art Center

Keith Haring Mural, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, 1984

Photo: Glenn Halvorson, Walker Art Center

Video: Keith Haring at the Walker Art Center in 1984