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ART New Chicago exhibit celebrates the magic of Keith Haring
by Tony Peregrin

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The buoyant work of Keith Haring—with his "radiant" babies and barking dogs, highlighter-bright palette, and recurring themes of social injustice—is the subject of a new exhibition at the Chicago Cultural Center celebrating one of the largest collaborative public art projects in Chicago's history.

"Keith Haring: The Chicago Mural Exhibition" features 36 original panels from the 488-foot mural created by Haring and 500 Chicago Public School students in 1989. The Masonite panels originally stretched along the edge of Grant Park at Michigan Avenue between Randolph and Madison streets.

Working without a specific plan in mind, Haring painted black outlines of some of his signature figures on the panels. The students were then assigned five colors—red, orange, sky blue, light green and yellow with minimal instructions to paint each section in a solid color and adjoining sections in different colors. Many students took creative license and included personal messages, from their own initials to support for their schools, to social messages.

For a number of years, these 36 panels resided at Chicago's Midway Airport. Following the exhibition at the Chicago Cultural Center, the panels will be returned to the Chicago Public Schools for conservation and distribution to select schools. Other panels have already been placed at various schools and other locations throughout the city.

"About a year ago, in talking with Midway airport, and the fact that they are undergoing some extensive remodeling, it came up that these Keith Haring mural sections needed to be removed and go back to the schools," said Nathan Mason, curator of exhibits and public art for Chicago's Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events. "And so it just occurred to us that as the mural would be in motion, it was an ideal time to do an exhibition about that project here."

Mason said the exhibit has the full support of Irving Zucker, a now-retired teacher at William H. Wells Community Academy, who project-managed the effort in Grant Park after meeting Haring in New York in the late '80s.

"I was introduced to Keith Haring on a Saturday afternoon at the Tony Shafrazi Gallery in New York City by my friend Diego Cortez back in early 1987," said Zucker. "Keith had a show in the lower gallery at the time. Diego suggested that I try to work with Keith on some type of arts-in-education project in Chicago, since I was teaching at the CPS and was always looking for ways to integrate the fine arts into my pedagogy. I was looking at Keith's show when Diego introduced us."

Zucker and Haring met the next day at the artist's studio, where they began brainstorming ideas for a potential collaboration in the Windy City.

"Keith had never been to Chicago and was quite excited about the opportunity to work with students," said Zucker. "For someone of his stature in the art world, he was really very humble and appreciative of any effort I made [to organize this project]. He was astute and intellectual with a great sense of humor. We just had an instant rapport and I can say that Keith was one of the easiest people I've ever work with. As an artist, his commitment to the causes he believed in, especially to urban youth, was exemplary."

Mason described the historic collaboration between Haring and Zucker as inevitable.

"Irving Zucker was sort of a cultural impresario for the Chicago public schools back then, and he was used to organizing large projects," said Mason. "Irving had been in New York and met Keith, who mentioned that he really wanted to do a do a project in Chicago. So, it's one of those things where Keith had a personal passion for doing large projects and working with youth, and Irving had the Chicago high schools. And that, I believe, is the simple origin story."

The exhibit—which will also feature a collection of photographs, correspondence, and T-shirt drawings—is part of the City of Chicago's Year of Creative Youth program, a citywide, $2 million project celebrating young artists in Chicago.

"Haring always loved working with kids," said Julia Gruen, a friend of Haring's and Executive Director of the Keith Haring Foundation." He enjoyed their honesty and directness, their humor and lack of pretense and judgment. Working with kids on a multitude of pro bono international projects was one of the ways he gave back."

"Keith worked for about nine solid hours painting the outline of the 488-foot long mural, and then for the next few days he worked all day with the approximately 500 students bused in from 48 different high schools," said Zucker. "His energy, his patience, his joy was infectious and deeply felt by all of the students. While all of this was going on during the week, he was constantly interrupted by people asking for a sketch or autograph for which he always kindly obliged."

Nine months after completing the mural in Chicago, Haring died of AIDS-related complications at the age of 31 on February 16, 1990.

"At the time, Keith had not made his AIDS diagnosis public, [although] all of his friends and associates knew," said Zucker. "When I first met with Keith in New York to discuss a possible project with students, he told me that he had AIDS. He asked me if that might be a problem. We actually started joking about it. 'We are organizing an arts project, not an orgy,' was my response. My partner of many years also had AIDS, so I was personally dealing with this disaster. Keith Haring's impact on our community is still ongoing. His art speaks to us powerfully and directly and will continue to do so."

"To me, Keith was an artist entirely and truly of his own era," said Gruen. "The themes he addressed in his work ranged from mass technology, televangelism, and sexuality to greed, poverty, violence, and racism. Watching him draw or paint in the studio, which I did on a daily basis, or observing him atop scaffolding or a hydraulic lift or cherry-picker painting a public mural, I was awed by the incredible fluency and confidence of his line and the unadulterated pleasure he took in expressing himself, regardless of scale. Accessibility was his goal. With a passion to reach out and to be completely honest, to expose his feelings, beliefs, and his obsessions, Keith was driven to explode established means of visual communication. I believe that, in this, he succeeded brilliantly."

The Keith Haring exhibit runs March 3-Sept. 23 at the Chicago Cultural Center in the Sidney R. Yates Gallery, 78 E. Washington St. Admission is free.

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