Published: November 26, 2019
It was the summer of 1986. Without any legal permission, 28-year-old Keith Haring (1958-1990) climbed a ladder and painted his famous “Crack Is Wack” mural on the concrete wall of a handball court at East 128th Street and the Harlem River Drive. It took Haring just one day to create the work that is alive with the colors, lines and kinetic, hedonistic symbology immediately identifiable as his graffiti-style vocabulary. Fast forward more than three decades later, and two artists this past October completed hundreds of hours in recreating Haring’s bold statement. Jonathan Kuhn, director of art and antiquities for the New York City Parks Department, provided some insight into the mural and its recent recreation, a joint project with the Keith Haring Foundation.
This project was a bit out of the norm of what the parks department does. How did it come about?
The work is not an official, permanent artwork in our collection, but we treat it as such, given the magnitude of the artist and the fact that there’s a foundation established to preserve his legacy. We have no permanent outdoor painted murals because of their physical properties. You can’t ensure their permanent longevity. This one was painted, as you know, originally illicitly on an active handball court – concrete walls that are now many decades old.
How do you keep apprised of how such works are holding up?
We inspect all of our works on an annual basis and we keep our eye particularly on works of the greatest significance. This work is not far from our monuments field crew shops on Randall’s Island, three blocks away. We keep an eye on it always. We’ve worked with the Keith Haring Foundation now for 25 years or more to preserve the two murals that he did within our parks – the other being in the Tony Dapolito Recreation Center – formerly known as the Carmine Street Recreation Center, a lengthy mural he created on the swimming pool wall with a sea theme.
When was the last time the East Harlem mural was attended to?
The last time was in 2012, each time with the authorization, preapproval and sponsorship of the Keith Haring Foundation.
How did that repainting compare with what was just done recently?
It was a very thorough job in 2012. With some hindsight, the issues of the wall breathing, flaking off of the paint due to weathering were factors. Walls breathe. It’s a concrete wall, and the material expands and contracts – imperceptibly to the eye – but moisture gets in and then evaporates from the sides of the wall. As it does so, the paint becomes compromised. It’s the same reason why houses get repainted.
Who pays the bill?
The Keith Haring Foundation, in its entirety. The work commenced in late July or early August and finished on October 17. The artists – Louise Hunnicutt and William Tibbals – worked 648 hours on the restoration. This time, our in-house conservator, John Saunders, suggested a more durable paint system and preparation of the wall surface by the German company Keim. We’ve actually used their product on historic pieces – for example, the Heinrich Heine monument near the Bronx County Courthouse, which is a sort of white Tyrolean marble fountain, carved late Nineteenth Century. There we used the product to disguise the graffiti that could not be removed by any other means.
How was the restoration of the “Crack Is Wack” mural accomplished?
They had to remove much of the top layer. Any original paint was sealed. Before they did all that, they traced it out in sections across the entire mural in three tiers. They also had pictures provided by the foundation. There wasn’t much of the original left because of previous campaigns and flaking off. It is then a very precise recreation of the work with these paints and color matching exactly based on photographic evidence – each time in consultation with the Keith Haring Foundation.
How did the two artists come to be selected for the project?
Louise and William are what I’d call scenic artists. Louise has worked with the Haring Foundation previously. She was recommended to them quite a number of years ago, having done work on behalf of the New Museum. She had worked on a different outdoor mural by Keith that I believe was on Houston Street. William works with her frequently on interiors and wall preparations. They came in, took tracings, knocked off mechanically anything that wasn’t adhering on the mural, sealed in the small remnants, filled gaps in the wall and reestablished what was the original profile of the drawing.
Any insight as to why Haring chose this particular spot for his mural?
He may have been thinking about how the crack epidemic disproportionately affected disadvantaged communities such as East Harlem. This playground was also highly visible to passing motorists. Back then, there was nothing, not even a fence, between it and the highway. Interestingly, the park itself has undergone some renovations. The highway next to it underwent four years of restoration. They actually raised the profile of the Harlem River Drive to bring it up above the flood plain. It means that today you have to exit the highway to see it. There is an access ramp off the new highway construction where people exit into city traffic. I noticed when I was there the other day that virtually every car paused for a moment as phones were whipped out to take a picture.
How long do you expect the restoration to last?
That I can’t say with certainty. But the mural is a testament to the enduring power of his art, and the restoration is already getting a lot of attention. It’s on the unofficial tour of New York sites. It represents the era of the 1980s. Keith himself was involved in championing causes, an early advocate for AIDS research. We are grateful to the conservators and the Keith Haring Foundation for its continuing support to preserve this mural’s vibrancy and flair for all to see.
A Keith Haring mural that was removed from the walls of a New York youth center sold at Bonhams recently for $3.86 million – the first site-specific work by the artist to hit the auction block. On the same day, at a fashion and textiles auction in New York City, the top lot was a textile piece, “Jesus and His Children” with Keith Haring squibbles, 1988, which the artist did for punk and pop fashion designer and artist Stephen Sprouse. It sold for $20,000. Are we witnessing a Keith Haring season?
I can’t say for sure, but I think Keith’s art has never gone out of fashion and, if anything, interest in his work has grown over time.
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