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Off the Wall: Keith Haring and the Kids

by Analú Maria López

Analú Maria López

Teenagers in shorts paint a mural of graphic designs as a young man in glasses stands with arms folded looking at the camera.

Keith Haring and CPS students working on Untitled, 1989

© Keith Haring Foundation


“Keith Haring Week” garnered quite a bit of media coverage, including a short documentary narrated by Dennis Hopper, Off the Wall: Keith and the Kids, which was partially sponsored by Martin Lawrence Limited Editions and aired on WTTW-TV. Mary Richardson, librarian at the MCA, also discovered an original T-shirt created for the event, as well as a flyer invitation for an after-party at Metro Chicago. The mural was eventually moved, and today only a portion of it can be seen hung on the walls of the walkway connecting the Orange Line train to Midway International Airport.

As one of the most visible outreach programs in the museum’s history, it stands as a testament to the MCA’s integral role in promoting arts in the Chicago community as well as to Haring’s longtime commitment to arts education. Sadly, on February 16, 1990, just under a year after creating this mural, Keith Haring passed away in New York City.

Untitled, 1989

© Keith Haring Foundation


In 2009, when I was an intern at the MCA, I came across an image of Keith Haring in the museum’s photo archives. It was a low-resolution 35 mm scan of the artist painting an outdoor mural, with the Chicago lakefront visible in the background. Excited by what this could be, I started researching potential collaborations between Haring and the MCA. Amazingly, I was able to locate three rolls of black-and-white negatives of this project, which was a collaboration between Chicago Public Schools and the MCA, in the museum’s archives.

Haring directed the painting of this massive mural in Chicago's Grant Park in Spring 1989 from May 17–19. John Gruen's book, Keith Haring: The Authorized Biography, tells the story of its making, including how the then mayor Richard M. Daley declared that week “Keith Haring Week.” The project was overseen by a longtime Chicago Public Schools teacher named Irving Zucker. A great admirer of Haring's art, Zucker approached the artist about doing a project with Chicago youth. When Haring agreed, Zucker won the support of MCA trustee Helyn D. Goldenberg, who helped develop instructional materials and recruit corporate sponsors. The MCA's education department also sponsored a talk at the MCA in November 1989 titled “The Mural and Large-Scale Painting from Pollock to Haring” in association with Haring's project.

The project was a collaboration between Haring and more than 450 students from Chicago public schools such as Wells Academy and Benito Juarez, to name just a few. For their work, the students received compensation through the Mayor’s Office of Employment and Training. The 520-foot mural consisted of several panels on which Haring painted a series of black-outlined figures that were then filled in by the students, with a few rules from Haring: be as creative inside the shape as possible, and do not use the same color as the person next to you.