Solving the riddles of Keith Haring’s legacy

By Will Shank

Will Shank is a conservator of modern and contemporary art, including murals. He has been called upon to help restore the mural Keith Haring painted in Amsterdam in 1986. Shortly after Haring painted it, it was covered over with insulation panels for decades – until it was revealed again last year. So now what?

Keith Haring in Amsterdam in 1986 by Patricia Steur (Keith Haring artwork copyright the Keith Haring Foundation)


“You do WHAT for a living?” I see the question coming as soon as I explain that I’m an art conservator who specializes in taking care of modern and contemporary paintings. “Why?” Most people, if they consider art conservation at all, picture someone in a lab coat sitting in a quiet corner of the Rijksmuseum patiently using a cotton swab to remove yellowed varnish from the surface of a Rembrandt.

And yet anyone who has been paying attention to how artworks have been made in the post-war era will realize that it’s the experimental artists of the 20th and 21st centuries (think of Duchamp’s or Rauschenberg’s found objects) whose works need the most attention, not those of a Botticelli. After all, he had a whole workshop to ensure that each precious panel painting was perfectly crafted.

I have been lucky to be called upon to make sure that some of the past century’s most important artworks will have a long life in spite of the ravages of nature. As head of conservation at SFMOMA (the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art) for a decade, I had my hands on paintings by Matisse and DeKooning, looked through the microscope at the brushwork of Picasso and O’Keeffe, and worked side-by-side with artists from Jeff Koons to Jasper Johns.

Will Shank retouching missing paint on Keith Haring’s TOWER (1987) in Paris (Sarah Braun/Haring Foundation, Noirmontartproduction, Paris)

Tricky business

More recently, collaborating with the Keith Haring Foundation, and with the support of private and public funders, I have worked in tandem with my Italian colleague Antonio Rava at a church in Pisa, at a children’s hospital in Paris, and now at a warehouse in West Amsterdam, in order to undertake studies of how the 1980s American wonder boy created his large-scale murals, and to understand how they’ve aged.

It can be tricky business. When Haring chose the exterior wall of what was then an art storage warehouse of the Stedelijk Museum as a site for his mural in 1986, he did little preparation.

This news video from Dutch tv shows the moment Haring’s mural in Amsterdam was revealed after three decades: 

Will Shank at work on the scaffolding at Pisa’s church of Sant’Antonio dell’Abate. Keith Haring painted the mural ‘Tuttomondo’on the church in 1989, the last year of his life. (Keith Haring artwork copyright the Keith Haring Foundation)

Bright superstar

One of the hallmarks of his genius was his spontaneity. The trail-blazing American artist burnt a path through the worlds of art and pop culture whose trajectory was difficult to keep up with. A tireless worker and creative genius who found himself in the heady company of the 1980s glitterati after dropping out of art school and painting in Manhattan’s subway stations, Haring catapulted to fame after meeting Andy Warhol. His superstar shone brightly and led him on an exhausting path around the world where he left a legacy of a long trail of museum exhibitions and public works of art.

Haring worked in a frenzy, especially after being diagnosed with HIV, which would result in his untimely demise at the age of 31. And while he thought about his posterity, his focus was on creating as many works of art as possible.

The results, thirty years later, are that conservators must solve the riddle of what he painted with and what he painted on. In the case of his outdoor murals, he used whatever was handy that he thought would be durable. While it might seem like a head-scratcher to consider the fate of 1980s acrylic paints thirty years after they were applied to a wall, the reality is that without the scrutiny of conservators in such cases, this legacy would be lost. We learned that the 1987 Paris mural was in such bad shape when we first viewed it in 2011, that the building that held it had been considered for demolition.

Consolidating the peeling paint on Keith Haring’s deteriorated 1987 mural at the Hopital Necker des Enfants Malades in Paris ((Keith Haring artwork copyright the Keith Haring Foundation)

Rain and dirt

In the case of the Amsterdam mural, some of Haring’s brushstrokes held tightly to the bricks, and some did not. For various reasons (the rain that was falling while he painted, the dirt on the wall, and the varying firing temperature of the bricks themselves) there are areas of the painting that have only tentative adhesion to its support. We learned these facts in June of 2018 when Rava and I ascended on a hydraulic lift to take a close look at the aging painting, and to take samples for analysis of both the wall and the paint.

There is a misconception in Amsterdam that when the aluminum panels were removed last year with much press hoopla to reveal Haring’s hidden work, that the “ta-da!” moment was the end of the story. In fact, it was the beginning. At the time of this writing, funding is still being identified for the conservation project, which will have the experts up on scaffolding for a period of a few weeks to a few months. Because the paint remains fragile, our work remains to be done, in order to make sure that Haring’s destiny shines on.