Reconnecting With Keith Haring’s Grace House Mural (in 13 Pieces)

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DENVER — The exhibit “Keith Haring: Grace House Mural” may not add up to the happy ending the Keith Haring Foundation envisioned for the sprawling 85-foot-long masterpiece the artist painted nearly four decades ago at a Manhattan youth center.

Though it might be, at least in the short-term, happy enough.

After all, the show does return to public view the action-packed artwork Haring installed in one evening along the Grace House’s three-story stairwell, a gift for the teenagers who frequented the Catholic-run nonprofit on the Upper West Side.

Working for just two hours, the artist left behind several of his signature moves. Radiant baby, barking dog, dancing man — they were all included in this upbeat parade of faceless figures ascending the steps. The mural’s future fell into doubt when the shelter closed in 2016 and its operator, the Church of the Ascension, sold the building, rejecting pleas by the foundation to secure a buyer who would maintain the work.

Instead, it paid an excavation company $900,000 to extract it in sections, sending it off for auction at Bonhams in 2019. The work fetched $3.86 million, a record for a Haring mural. Because the buyer chose to remain anonymous, concerns emerged that an object intended to bolster youthful spirits would land in the home of a wealthy collector, out of sight for everyone else.

But here it is, at the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver, sliced and diced and a bit worse for wear, but still bearing prime examples of an important painter’s work. Nora Burnett Abrams, the museum’s director and the show’s curator, has a personal connection with the buyer, whose name she is not revealing. The owner offered to loan the work to the museum, and Abrams agreed. In Denver, original works by the artist, who died of AIDS in 1990 at age 31, are rare.

Visitors this summer will find it difficult to forget, however, that the mural was dissected into 13 chunks, disrupting the flow that was so integral to its placement. Haring painted it — in 1983 or 1984, neither Abrams or the foundation are quite sure — as a continuous piece, snaking around doors, corners and pipes.

The odd-shaped mural sections reflect their original site; some have angled tops or bottoms mirroring the slanted stairwell’s ceilings or floors; one still has a light switch embedded; another has a “fire extinguisher” sign attached.

EverGreene Architectural Arts, the firm that excavated the pieces, did so with care, salvaging just a few inches of the wall’s concrete block face and reinforcing it with metal framing along the back. The painted surface was untouched, and the original scuffs, scrapes and cracks remain.

So do Haring’s mesmerizing brush stokes in black house paint. His figures, rendered as simple line drawings, still have a fluid painterly quality about them. Working quickly and without sketching or underpainting, Haring wielded his brush with precision, turning sharp corners around elbows and ankles without mucking up the depth of his surfaces — picking up and dropping his brush again and again to create those movement-implying dashes, leaving only a few casual drip marks behind.

The Denver museum has worked thoughtfully to make the mural look comfortable in its new setting. The individual sections are awkward to display, weighing hundreds of pounds and stretching as much as 9 feet in height and width. Some have six sides. The museum has built out its own walls out around them so that they appear embedded in the building. Original doors, mailboxes and a Grace House building plaque are included in the arrangement for context.

Still, the display has its limitations. Even with the add-ons, viewers strolling through the exhibition’s four rooms can’t help but feel they are looking not at the original Grace House mural, but a chop-shop version of it. Removing this work from a stairwell fatally obscures its narrative of climbing stairs. The story is lost.

Gil Vazquez, acting director of the Keith Haring Foundation, calls the final result “bittersweet.” He knows it could have been worse; in the multimillion dollar real estate shuffle of Manhattan, the mural could have been destroyed. As the museum notes, Haring created 45 murals during his lifetime and less than half are still around.

But, Vazquez said, the Grace House mural also could have been saved in its original form. The foundation worked to foster a sale of the building between the church and Ali Forney Center, an organization that serves homeless L.G.B.T.Q. youth, though the deal fell through.

“At least the thing exists so it can be studied,” Vazquez said. For now, plenty of young people will have a chance to see it. The Museum of Contemporary Art Denver welcomes children, and for anyone 18 or under, admission is free. The mural will be on display there through Aug. 22, and has been booked for one additional public viewing: a stop at the Schunck Museum in Heerlen, the Netherlands, in March. Beyond that, Abrams said she didn’t know the owner’s plans. Happy enough will have to do for now.

Keith Haring: Grace House Mural

Through Aug. 22 at the Museum of Contemporary Art, 1485 Delgany Street, Denver, Co.; 303-298-7554, mcadenver.org.

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