By Bill Warren
The National Gallery Victoria’s current major show is an exceptional creation. Basquiat/Haring: Crossing Lines is a comprehensive look at two of the greatest street artists of the twentieth century: Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat.
The show was conceived and curated by the NGV—that is to say, this is not a exhibition touring the world that happened to come to Melbourne. It is a world-class exhibit in itself, the sort of thing you’d expect to see at New York’s MOMA and a sensational example of the form.
The show looks at the life and work of two similar yet disparate characters who practiced their art on the streets. This is a powerful metaphor for how both grew up out of the norms of quote-unquote society; Basquiat was bisexual and Haring gay, and of course Basquiat’s mixed-race background created other barriers for him.
Haring’s work is something like cartooning, but he found in his rounded abstract figures great emotion, humanity and meaning. By contrast Basquiat’s initially crude and then increasingly intricate and mysterious concoctions seem built out of ugliness and chaos but still produce haunting beauty and, finally, clarity.
The art is intoxicating; the exhibition, which seems to go on for kilometres, gives a great deal of space for each artist’s work to breathe. The show is keenly attuned to the worlds the pair grew famous in, and there are immensely fun sideshows, like a music-video room capturing the ’80s pop-dance-hip-hop mix of the time.
There are rooms that re-create something similar to the back alleys where the men honed their art, and even a black-light disco to capture the downtown demimonde that ultimately celebrated them, until their tragic, too early deaths—Basquiat of a heroin overdose in 1988, Haring a few years later of AIDS. This is a brilliant, caring, deeply moving show, well worth the $35 ticket.
The pairs’ lives are fittingly celebrated as well every Friday at the museum, with cocktails, street food and guest DJs on the scene. That’s every Friday evening through April 11, with a final session Saturday evening, April 12, as well.