Last week, ArtCenter College of Design presented a panel conversation and debuted a short film about artist Keith Haring and the mural he painted on ArtCenter’s Hillside Campus in 1989. Ten weeks after completing the untitled work, Haring died of complications related to HIV. The mural at ArtCenter—which today, stands as a literal centerpiece of the College’s campus—remains Haring’s only public art in Los Angeles.
Moderated by ArtCenter President Karen Hofmann, the panel portion of A Public Thing: Celebrating Keith Haring’s ArtCenter Mural and its Place in a Legacy of Art, Activism and Social Change included Haring’s youngest sister, Kristen; The Broad curator Sarah Loyer; Keith Haring Foundation Executive Director Gil Vazquez; ArtCenter Illustration Associate Chair Aaron Smith (BFA 88); Los Angeles Times Art Director Patrick Hruby (BFA 10); and muralist and recent ArtCenter alum Danny Brown.
I always tell my students to pay attention, because [sometimes] you don’t know what you’re witnessing, and you don’t know how it’s going to affect you later on.Aaron Smith (BFA 88)ArtCenter Illustration Associate Chair
In 1989, Haring was invited to paint a mural at ArtCenter’s Pasadena campus—located in the hills above the Rose Bowl—in honor of the second annual World AIDS Day (then called AIDS Awareness Day) and as part of the first-ever Day Without Art. Haring agreed and spent two days painting freehand in front of an audience of students awed by the vision that unfolded before their eyes.
“I always tell my students to pay attention, because [sometimes] you don’t know what you’re witnessing,” said Smith, one of those students in the audience when Haring painted his mural in November 1989, during finals week of Smith’s last term at the College. “And you don’t know how it’s going to affect you later on.”
Smith recalled that Haring’s painting of the mural created a logistical challenge for students those two days. The College had put a panel in place for the mural to be painted on, and the upper landing had been covered with scaffolding. “How am I going to get to my final?” recalls Smith with a laugh. “That was the big concern.”
According to Smith, that panel created some drama when Haring arrived. “We witnessed [Haring] being shocked because there was a panel in place. He said, ‘I came here for a mural’ and it was awkward,” said Smith. “BUT [Haring] said, ‘I’m here. I’m making this for the students.’ And I think he was thinking that [his work] was going to stay. He really wanted it to stay.”
Despite being initially upset that he wasn’t painting directly on a permanent wall, Haring was determined to create a work of lasting importance and went straight to work. “This [mural] was [painted] just a few months before his death at the age of 31,” said Loyer, exhibitions manager at The Broad and curator of Keith Haring: Art is for Everybody, the first ever Los Angeles museum retrospective of Haring’s work, which is on view at the museum through October 8, 2023. “He was thinking about his artistic legacy.”
This [mural] was [painted] just a few months before his death at the age of 31. He was thinking about his artistic legacy.”Sarah LoyerThe Broad Curator
Looking at the work’s formal qualities, Loyer pointed out that the mural echoes the type of work Haring was doing towards the end of his life. “He’s doing this color block technique and you can see so many images that you’ll see repeated throughout his work,” said Loyer, who also edited the exhibition’s catalog—designed by ArtCenter Professor Tracey Schiffman—which includes new scholarship and reflections from many of Haring’s contemporaries. “He’s going back to some of the earliest imagery he made before he even started making figurative works.”
Speaking of the five-minute film—created by the College’s digital content and media group, directed and edited by Lauren Mahoney and executive produced by Christine Spines—Haring’s sister, Kristen, says the black-and-white footage captured by Hadi Salehi (BFA 91) of the mural being created shows her brother’s methods of working rarely involved drawing an outline and then filling that outline in with color.
“You see in the film that [he’s applying] large blocks of color, what might have been the more abstract representations of that red monster, for instance who’s wearing the crown on the left—that was done first, before the black lines that you might say are outlining him,” said Kristen, a trustee of the Keith Haring Foundation since 1989.
“[In the film], you hear [him say] he didn’t want this mural to be about AIDS, but in some fashion, it ends up being about it anyway.Gil VazquezKeith Haring Foundation Executive Director
“Keith did not work by creating a sketch first, neither on a piece of paper, nor on the canvas or wall of which he was painting—he had the whole image in his head,” she added. “That’s something I always like to draw people’s attention to, especially when [they] have the privilege of seeing his work in person, when you can see the scale, the brush strokes.”
For Vazquez, the context in which Haring was asked to create this mural is important to remember. “[Haring’s] obviously aware that he is sick—the article in Rolling Stone had recently come out [in which he] proclaims that to the public for the first time,” said Vazquez, who was just 17 years old when he became friends with Haring. “He was really quite sensitive and did not want to speak further about what he had just shared with the world.”
“[In the film], you hear [him say] he didn’t want this mural to be about AIDS, but in some fashion, it ends up being about it anyway,” added Vazquez, whose role as executive director of the Keith Haring Foundation includes working with nonprofit organizations involved in education, prevention and care related to AIDS. “The example that [jumps out to me] are the dolphins that are becoming birds—one of them is caught and its life is truncated before it becomes a bird and gets to soar.”
I think Keith would tell all artists and designers that they have the power to move society, and to use that power with heart and intention.Patrick Hruby (BFA 10)Los Angeles Times Art Director
Hruby, whose passions outside of his work at the LA Times include being active in the LGBTQ+ community and advocating for mental health, shared that he and his husband saw the exhibition at The Broad the weekend prior and found it incredibly moving. “In fact, I’m feeling slightly emotional right now thinking about it, especially hearing how young he was when he passed away,” said Hruby, his voice beginning to break, adding that he came out as gay as a student at ArtCenter. “The thing about Keith’s work is it’s so unapologetically gay. He doesn’t get at it from an angle—it’s right there.”
Hruby went on to explain how he initially knew Haring’s work through pop culture, but that The Broad exhibition put in a bright focus another side of the artist. “My husband and I had a similar experience in realizing how political [Haring’s] work is, how powerful and deliberate it is with its message, and yet still so joyful,” said Hruby, whose work has been recognized by American Illustrator, Communications Arts and Wallpaper Magazine. “That those two things can coexist together has really had an effect on me personally and in my trying to figure out my own voice and identity as a queer artist. There’s just a bravery in it when you think about the time [in which Haring] was working.”
“I began to really feel for him as a person when I researched the mural two years ago. And just putting myself…,” a visibly moved Hruby added, pausing for a moment. “Trying to imagine that he knew he was dying, and he still had so much work to do, and he didn’t stop. There’s something incredibly powerful in that.”
I’d never really thought of making art interactive, but [Haring] spoke about [drawing in the subways as] being very performative. People can see the process and it’s very freeing.Danny BrownMuralist and recent ArtCenter alum
Brown, a painter, muralist and teacher, shared how some of his earliest art experiences were spray painting in public spaces in the early hours of the morning. He said his initial admiration for Haring began when he learned how Haring famously drew with chalk in the New York subways—something featured prominently in the short film screened at the event.
“I’d never really thought of making art interactive, but [Haring] spoke about [drawing in the subways as] being very performative,” said Brown. “Usually, when you [spray] paint, you have maybe an hour or two, and you’re out in the outskirts during a very quiet time when everybody’s asleep. So to do that in public, [where] even if you mess up—your just going to fix it and, in the end, it’s going to turn out fine. People can see the process and it’s very freeing.”
Brown added that he uses Haring to inspire his own students. “I teach youth in MacArthur Park and lot of them are very intimidated to draw, so they draw stick figures,” said Brown. “I’ve shown my student’s Keith’s work and how he was able to draw anatomy, and a lot them felt like they can accomplish that because it’s very easy to replicate. I admire [Haring] for showing me a better way that I’m able to pass on to my students.”
Towards the end of the panel, Hofmann asked the speakers what they thought Haring would say to the next generation of artists. “I think he would want artists to keep producing and to make work with substance,” said Brown. “[Make] something that means something to you and it might resonate with other people.”
Hruby concurred, and added, “I think Keith would tell all artists and designers that they have the power to move society, and to use that power with heart and intention. Do the work for the right reasons, and keep doing it.”
Keith Haring: Art is for Everybody is on view at The Broad through October 8, 2023. Keith Haring’s mural at ArtCenter’s Hillside Campus is available to view from 9 am–6 pm when classes are in session. Guided tours of the mural are available at noon on the fourth Saturday of each month through August 2023. For more information, contact email@example.com.