Keith Haring mural on public display for first time in Stanley Museum of Art exhibition

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Keith Haring mural on public display for first time in Stanley Museum of Art exhibition
Keith Haring at work on the mural at Ernest Horn Elementary School, 1989. Photographer unknown. © Keith Haring Foundation.

IOWA CITY, IOWA.- At the height of his career, Keith Haring visited students at Ernest Horn Elementary School in Iowa City and painted the mural “A Book Full of Fun” (1989). The University of Iowa Stanley Museum of Art uses this mural as a lens to reconsider Haring’s broader impact as an artist in “To My Friends at Horn: Keith Haring and Iowa City.” The exhibition, on view May 4, 2024-Jan. 7, 2025, opens on what would have been Haring’s 66th birthday and celebrates the artist’s legacy through works of art on loan from the Keith Haring Foundation, photographs and archival ephemera.

Haring’s relationship with Horn Elementary began in the early 1980s after teacher Colleen Ernst, affectionately known as “Dr. Art,” introduced her fifth- and sixth-grade students to his work. At the time, Haring was famous for his spontaneous chalk drawings created on sheets of black paper that were used to cover advertisements in New York subway stations. An introductory postcard from Ernst in 1982 grew into an ongoing exchange of letters and care packages between Haring and the grade-schoolers. Haring traveled to Iowa City in March 1984 for “Keith Haring in Iowa City,” a three-day artist residency developed in partnership with the University of Iowa. He conducted drawing workshops, created a tarpaulin painting as part of a public performance and shared insight into his practice during a public lecture. After that visit, he remained in touch with the students and addressed his correspondence, “To All My Friends at Horn,” a greeting that inspired the name of the exhibition.

“Keith Haring envisioned a world where art functioned as a pillar of education and civic life,” said Diana Tuite, the Stanley’s visiting senior curator of modern and contemporary art and the exhibition curator. “He appreciated children for their sense of wonder and their unprejudiced natures and saw how meaningful it was for him, an openly gay man, to be in these spaces.”

Haring’s relationship with the community endured even as his international fame grew. At the invitation of Ernst and Horn Elementary School principal Paul E. Davis, Haring returned to Iowa City for a single day on May 22, 1989. Proclaimed “Keith Haring Day” at the school, the artist painted “A Book Full of Fun” in the school library, asking for students’ suggestions in real time. Depicting a thought bubble above an open book, the symbolic mural overflows with creative characters, visual puns, letters and numbers in a tribute to the students’ literary imaginations.

Haring credited his work with children as one of the most satisfying parts of his career. “What I like about children is their imagination,” said Haring, as reported in John Gruen’s authorized biography of the artist. “It’s a combination of honesty and freedom they seem to have in expressing whatever is on their minds – and the fact that they have a really sophisticated sense of humor.”

Planned construction at Horn Elementary School necessitated the mural’s temporary relocation. In July 2023, the Stanley partnered with the school to conserve the artwork. To do so, conservators removed the mural, along with a portion of the wall to which it was attached, and safely transported the 4,000-pound structure to the Museum, where it will remain until it can be safely reinstalled at Horn Elementary School in 2025.

The Stanley’s exhibition marks the public debut of “A Book Full of Fun” and the artwork’s first appearance alongside the 12-foot-long mural Haring painted on tarpaulin during his 1984 artist residency in Iowa City. The untitled work was completed in the city’s Old Capitol Center on March 27, 1984 to the accompaniment of the Johnson County Landmark jazz ensemble. It was also featured in an exhibition of his work at the Stanley (then the University of Iowa Museum of Art) during the same time period. Featuring a menacing computer-headed caterpillar – one of Haring’s recurring tropes – the symbolic mural echoes sentiments about technology that Haring was known to write about in his journals: “The human imagination cannot be programmed by a computer. Our imagination is our greatest hope for survival.”

Additional works by the artist serve as signposts, contextualizing his visits within his meteoric career. An early experimental video, “Painting Myself into a Corner,” explores the connection between painting, movement and performance and invites comparison to the performativity of artist Jackson Pollock, whose monumental 1943 work “Mural” is on view in an adjacent gallery. Produced in the same year as “A Book Full of Fun,” the print “Ignorance=Fear, Silence=Death” was created for political action group ACT UP, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power. The poster combines symbolic visuals to urge increased compassion and education around the AIDS epidemic, demonstrating how Haring’s work often operated as a vehicle for activism.

Stories from the community will also be incorporated into the exhibition, including interviews with former students, related photographs, drawings and other mementos that reveal the artist’s lasting impact on Iowa City.

“Artmaking was an inherently social activity for Haring, as his trips to Iowa City demonstrate. He lived his values and believed that entering into dialogue with people could produce change,” said Tuite.

Haring reimagined art’s role within society and devoted much of his time to public works, many of which were created for charities, hospitals, children’s daycare centers and orphanages. He continued to balance high-profile projects with his dedication to accessible public art and social activism throughout his acclaimed career. His work promoted racial and sexual tolerance while confronting social and political issues, including nuclear proliferation, homosexuality, environmental devastation and the AIDS epidemic. Haring was diagnosed with AIDS in 1988, and he established the Keith Haring Foundation the following year. He died from complications related to the illness in 1990, less than a year after painting “A Book Full of Fun” in Iowa City.

“We’re grateful to have been given the opportunity to save ‘A Book Full of Fun.’ This rescue mission reflects our community’s embrace of the arts and the love shared towards Keith Haring and his work,” said Lauren Lessing, the Stanley Museum of Art’s director. “Much like the mission of the Stanley, the mural demonstrates the power of education, the reciprocity of inspiration and the role that creative artists play in helping us to see one another and know ourselves.”

“To My Friends at Horn: Keith Haring and Iowa City” is made possible through generous grants from the Henry Luce Foundation and the Keith Haring Foundation. Additional support is provided by the Beth and Nate Tross Stanley Museum of Art Support Fund, the Tom Rocklin and Barbara McFadden Program Fund, the Don Heineking Fund for Exhibitions and Programs, the Friends of the Museum Fund, the Members Special Exhibition Fund and the Foundation for Advancement in Conservation.

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