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MCA Denver Brings an Elusive Keith Haring Mural Back to Life

Grace House Mural originally adorned the walls inside a former Catholic youth center in Manhattan. Now, the large-scale work is on display at MCA Denver.

Keith Haring, Figure IX, Untitled (The Church of the Ascension Grace House Mural), circa 1983/1984. Oil-based house paint on cement wall. Keith Haring artwork copyright Keith Haring Foundation. Image courtesy of MCA Denver

Even if you’re unfamiliar with Keith Haring’s name, you’re likely to recognize his expressive work. The innovative artist, who died from AIDS-related complications in 1990, is widely recognized for his vibrant, cartoonish figures that touched on cultural criticism.

Starting February 26, the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) Denver will display one of the famed artist’s most elusive works, Grace House Mural—a site-specific painting that originally adorned the walls of a stairwell inside a former Catholic youth center in Manhattan. Haring, who enjoyed working with children, created the mural in 1983–84 to uplift the spirits of New York’s at-risk teens. According to Nora Burnett Abrams, MCA Denver’s Mark G. Falcone director and the exhibit’s curator, some Grace House residents befriended Haring through New York’s downtown dance scene and begged him to create a work at the home.

“He had a very special relationship to working with children, since he always thought that children were kind of unbiased, unfiltered, and extremely curious,” says Abrams. “He always enjoyed working alongside them, and the fact that he made this mural for a youth home, to inspire and bring joy and creative ideas to those who were living there, really connects with that aspect of his practice.”

The mural was excavated from the site in 2019 and sold at auction for $3.86 million. Originally spanning nearly 85 feet, the mural is now contained within 13 separate panels that showcase Haring’s vibrant, androgynous figures, including some of his most iconic characters, like the crawling baby and barking dog. The work’s original plague and two doors that Haring incorporated in the design will also be on display, as will exclusive Polaroid photographs that captured a variety of Haring’s other mural projects, his subway drawings, and some performance documentation that inspired his work. The photos were taken both by Haring and photographer Tseng Kwong Chi, the artist’s longtime collaborator.

Haring, who was considered both an artist and activist, often intertwined cultural commentary into his art with themes of sexuality, AIDS, and politics. He’s perhaps best known for his Crack Is Wack public mural, which Haring painted on an East Harlem handball court in 1986. According to the Keith Haring Foundation, the work was inspired by the crack epidemic and was initially painted without permission from the city. It was restored in 2019 and still exists today.

With the mural’s exhibition at MCA Denver, Abrams sees an opportunity for visitors to get an intimate look at a rarely seen piece of Haring’s work. “It’s a way to bring him back to Earth, and it’s a precious way,” Abrams says. “There have been huge, monographic exhibitions of his work that bring together thousands, if not hundreds of objects that he made in that large-scale grouping. But you don’t necessarily get into it in the same way, and I think this is going to slow us down as visitors and allow us to spend more time with each thing, and I think that’s really special.”

If You Go: Haring’s exhibit will be available until Sunday, August 22. Due to COVID-19, tickets are recommended to be purchased in advance. MCA is offering “Penny Saturdays” for its guests to have the opportunity to visit the museum at the cost of a penny on the first Saturday of every month.

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