Haring work dances again in SF

  • by Matthew S. Bajko
  • Tuesday July 3, 2012
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Keith Haring's whimsical figures are dancing once again in San Francisco's South of Market district.

After undergoing an extensive makeover, the artist's 3,200-pound sculpture "Untitled (Three Dancing Figures), 1989" has returned to its prime corner spot on Howard Street at Third. It was reinstalled outside of the city's Moscone Center early in the morning of Saturday, June 30.

The piece depicts a trio of enmeshed figures that resemble larger-than-life characters that have escaped from the children's board game Candy Land. Their limbs intertwine as the genderless blue, yellow, and red people strut their stuff.

"It is an untitled piece but the subtitle is three dancers. I think that is what I see when I look at it; some people having a really great time," said Allison Cummings, the San Francisco Arts Commission's senior registrar for its Civic Art Collection and Public Art Program.

Workers from Sheedy Drayage Co. and Atthowe Fine Art Services guide the sculpture back onto its plinth at the corner of Howard and Third streets by the Moscone Center Saturday, June 30.

(Photo: Rick Gerharter)

In late April the city agency removed the public artwork and shipped it across the Bay Bridge and several other spans to a warehouse on Mare Island in Vallejo for repairs. After enduring a decade's worth of wear and tear from San Francisco's famously foggy climate, as well as the occasional graffiti scratch or sticker, it needed some TLC.

"We did a bit more than touching it up," said Cummings, who oversaw the project. "The piece was on view since 2001, so it had 12 years of exposure."

The original paint job had faded over time, explained Cummings, and the city agency wanted to revive its vibrancy.

"His work is so bright and vibrant. It is supposed to have a bright and glossy surface, but the red especially fades faster than the other colors," she said. "We wanted to do a full restoration."

The arts commission received a $65,000 grant from the Keith Haring Foundation to pay for the restoration project. An additional $10,000 in private donations to ArtCare, the city's fund dedicated to the care and maintenance of the Civic Art Collection, was spent on the repairs, which should last at least another decade.

"It was a pretty significant restoration," said Cumming. "We had to take the piece apart."

The agency enlisted Oakland-based Atthowe Fine Art Services and ABC Painting in Vallejo for the project. The old paint coating was removed and the aluminum structure's surface was buffed to remove any glitches or damage.

At the SOMA site the city replaced the lighting infrastructure so the sculpture will now be visible once again at night. The pedestal for the 120-inch tall work was also repaired.

Having seen the piece before, and now after the repairs, Cummings said it is as if it has been reborn.

"It was sort of looking dull and lackluster. It almost has been re-animated, it is so much more lively now that it has been repainted," she said. "It is really exciting. People are going to notice it more; it has been reinvigorated."

The openly gay Haring was a famous pop artist in New York City who rose to prominence during the 1980s with his graffiti tags around Manhattan. His life was cut short when Haring died from AIDS complications at the age of 31 in 1990.

Following a retrospective of Haring's work in 1998 at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, which included sculptures placed around the city, the arts commission worked with the Haring foundation to purchase a piece for its collection. The dancing figure sculpture had been on display between the city's Opera House and War Memorial Building on Van Ness Avenue.

At the time the president of the San Francisco Art Commission, Stanlee Gatti, told the San Francisco Chronicle that the agency was eyeing the three dancers artwork to purchase because it "would be significant to San Francisco because our ballet company is tremendous and there are so many other local dance groups that represent the city in such a wonderful way."

The dancing figures piece was part of a series that Haring did, with the different versions identified alphabetically. The city bought the piece shown during the SFMOMA show in 2001 at a discounted price for roughly $240,000, which included installation costs.

Julia Gruen, the Haring foundation's executive director, estimated that the artwork is now worth between $1.5 and $2.5 million.

"Even in 2001, the opportunity to have the sculpture that prominently displayed in one of the major cities in the U.S., and in such a prestigious location with its connection to the gay community, it was in our interest to make it as affordable as possible," said Gruen.

There are three copies and one artist's proof of the city-owned piece, all of which are in private collections, said Gruen.

"There hasn't been one on the market in quite a long time," she said.

The works are cartoonish depictions of Raymond Duchamp-Villon's 1913 oil on canvas "Untitled (Three Figures Dancing)," owned by and on display at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Version C of the Pennsylvania-born Haring's sculptural dancers can be seen at the Pappajohn Sculpture Park in Des Moines, Iowa.

The Haring foundation collaborated closely with city staff on the restoration of the San Francisco-owned piece. Gruen said she is most excited about seeing the artwork aglow at night.

"I have not have seen the repairs yet," she said in a phone interview from New York last week. "I am confident it will look absolutely spectacular."

There is a special poignancy in having one his artworks permanently housed in San Francisco, said Gruen. Haring traveled several times to San Francisco and was enamored by the city-by-the-bay, she said.

"As most people fall in love with the city as they visit it, so did he because it is so damn beautiful. Keith's gay identity, this continues to resonate enormously in our appreciation of having that sculpture there," said Gruen, who worked for the artist for six years before he named her the executive director of his foundation a year prior to his death. "Having it in front of a convention center named Moscone has another resonance, and it being across the street from SFMOMA has another resonance."

Gruen also added that, "The fact the sculpture is being re-installed during Pride month is pretty fantastic."