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It’s not uncommon for murals by New York artist and activist Keith Haring to surface in unlikely circumstances, sometimes after spending years covered up or unknown to the wider public. Part of the magic of Haring’s work, whose unique blend of Pop and graffiti elements and squiggly, animated forms often transmits important sociopolitical messages, is its ability to be rediscovered and made newly meaningful, again and again.
Such is the case for “Fiorucci Walls,” a massive panel painted by Haring and artist LA II (Angel Ortiz) in 1983, now unexpectedly on view at the New York City Center in Midtown Manhattan — the first time it’s ever been seen in NYC. On loan from the MACo Museum of Chang Mai for the theater’s 2021-2022 season, the mural has been installed in the Shuman Lounge near the entrance, where audiences can admire it before a show or during intermission.
Haring began collaborating with LA II, short for “Little Angel Two,” in the early 1980s. There was something about the Lower East Side graffiti artist’s tag style that stood out to Haring; it was “as close as the Western World has gotten to a stylized form of writing similar to Eastern calligraphy,” he wrote in a journal entry. Approached by the late Italian designer Elio Fiorucci to take over his 5,000-square-foot Milan outpost, which functioned as both a store and an exhibition space for avant-garde artists, Haring enlisted the then 16-year-old LA II to help strip its walls and transform them into art.
“We began combining our styles to create an overall surface of intermingling lines,” Haring continued. “Our first visit to Milano in 1983 was to spray-paint the entire Firoucci store. We painted it in 13 hours.”
The installation, whose central motif features twin figures reminiscent of the designer’s double-cherub logo, came down in 1984. Fiorucci kept the panels in storage for decades; the piece on view at City Center was restored in 1991.
Haring is perhaps best remembered for his interventions in NYC subway stations and outdoor murals addressing social issues, from the AIDS crisis to drugs and inequality — such as “Crack is Wack,” painted on both sides of a handball court wall in Harlem River Park in 1986.
But he also completed many site-specific works in public interiors, such as the Fiorucci panel and his famous 1986 “Pop Shop” boutique in downtown Manhattan. As art historian Amy Raffel writes in her monograph on the artist released this year, Haring “believed installation was a universal way to experience art that could be enjoyed by anyone, anywhere, regardless of education or status, because of its ability to affect an individual bodily.” This summer, the government of Barcelona stepped in to help salvage a Haring original that was tucked behind a DJ booth in the former Ars Studio club, made impromptu using red paint leftover from a larger mural commissioned by the city in 1989.
Outside Shuman Lounge, a series of black-and-white portraits of Haring by Jeannette Montgomery Barron complement the mural’s presentation. Barron photographed the artist in his Lower Broadway studio in spring 1985. She captures Haring immersed in his own artwork, surrounded by his distinctive designs and wearing a t-shirt printed with the message “Free South Africa,” based on a painting supporting the anti-apartheid movement. His expressive personality is also on display.
“Every inch of the walls was covered with his drawings, done with magic marker, so it couldn’t have been easier to decide on the setting,” Barron said. “He immediately went through the motions, like a model, without prompting. All I had to do was catch the right moment.”
Unveiled just in time for the theater’s Fall for Dance Festival and the anticipated return to in-person performances after over a year of pandemic-related challenges, “Fiorucci Walls” and Barron’s photographs will be up through 2022. All ticket holders attending a show at City Center can experience the mural, but the venue will also open its doors to the general public for viewings from noon to 6pm on October 29-30 and November 5-6.
“New York City Center has served the city of New York for nearly 80 years by providing access to the performing arts for all,” NY City Center President and CEO Arlene Shuler told Hyperallergic. “As we make this momentous return to in-person performances this season, we are so fortunate to be exhibiting the work of an icon of the New York art scene who also sought to make his art accessible to everyone.”
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