Keith Haring's Cranbrook mural

By Peggy Roalf   Friday August 26, 2022

Keith Haring became a widely-celebrated artist for his comic-like drawings and paintings in the New York subways in the 1980s. At his lecture at Cranbrook on September 25, 1987, in conjunction with the museum’s commission of his Detroit Notes mural, Haring discussed his intentions in these early subway explorations: “I started making drawings that were figurative after doing abstract work for almost five years, and for the first time, it seemed like I had made something that made sense to be in public because it had a kind of communicative power. [It] seemed like they should be in places where people could see them and think about them.” Photos by Tseng Kwong Chi 

In his journal, Haring wrote, "Cranbrook was pretty cool. I did probably my best painting to date! The room had 16-foot-high ceilings and the walls were 35 feet long. I did a fast Gysinesque color 'calligraffiti' background with big Chinese brushes and then the next day painted with Japanese brushes with black (ink/paint mix) with different size lines and brushes.

Each brush I used was nailed to the wall at the end of a line. The big Chinese brushes looked so cool after using them that it seemed like a good idea. I went there with no materials and decided what to do after seeing the space. So I bought all these brushes with Cranbrook money that weren't very expensive and weren't very reusable after the abusive painting of the color, so it seemed like a good idea and also, since this was a temporary installation, it was a chance to experiment. I'm obsessed with brushes, so somehow to sacrifice them to the painting was a kind of homage to the brushes themselves. The whole thing was a kind of sacrifice anyway. The room will be repainted in one month. I took Kwong along to take pictures. Photography has become such an important part of my work since so much of it is temporary." Thanks to @poparttrio for the quote

The End of The Line, a 2017 exhibition at the Cranbrook Museum, concentrated on the last years of Haring’s life, when his work and activism got intensely personal after being diagnosed with AIDS. The Cranbrook mural introduced stylistic shifts of intentional drips and blotches, but it also depicted characters he continued to explore in Apocalypse and The Valley, such as jesters, masks, skulls, martyrs, and other religious icons.

“He’s officially diagnosed in ’88 or ’89 with AIDS,” said Cranbrook director Andrew Blauvelt. “But I think he understood that he was going to succumb to it, because most of his friend by that time were diagnosed.” Though Haring’s themes were often political and social, the work at the end of his life and career took a turn toward the deeply personal, and the scale reconstruction of “The Detroit Notes”—including a video of Haring executing the project—captures some of this new style.

Entrenched in thoughts and philosophies about the end of times, Haring’s later works have art historical kinship with the chaotic storytelling of Hieronymus Bosch and violent playfulness of his friend and contemporary Jean-Michael Basquiat. The ominous texts by Burroughs stationed alongside them complement the energy of Haring’s drawings, which have the frenzy of an artist trying to process life before its end.