Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat were bound by a friendship forged on the streets of ‘80s New York. Each understood the other’s experience – which was kind of specific – as DIY artists turned art-world sensations.

“They were close friends and also rivals – but it was a very fruitful rivalry,” says art historian Dieter Buchhart, curator of a stunning new joint exhibition at the NGV, Keith Haring | Jean-Michel Basquiat: Crossing Lines. “They brought out the best out of each other.”

They also died painfully young: Basquiat in 1988 at the age of 27 and Haring just 18 months later, in 1990, aged 32. Despite their brief lives, each left behind a rich creative legacy. Crossing Lines explores the intersection between these two artists’ lives, work, ideas and friendship across more than 200 works. We asked Buchhart to guide us through six key works in the exhibition.

Jean-Michel Basquiat, Irony of a Negro Policeman (1981)

Born to a Haitian father and a Puerto Rican mother, Basquiat frequently encountered racism, and often explored the experience, as well as its socio-political and cultural dimensions, in his work.

Here, he highlights the apparent absurdity of an African American working as a police officer, enforcing the very rules that create oppression. “This painting is the size of an adult human, standing like a warrior ready to defend his or her rights,” says Buchhart. “It’s a very powerful piece. Basquiat couldn’t fathom how an African American could be a part of the police force, when it was known the police would beat and even kill African Americans.”

The artist deploys his characteristic wordplay to reinforce the point: the word “Irony” floats cloudlike by the figure’s head, while an echo of the title – “Irony of Negro Plcemn” – is scrawled at eye level, below the brim of his hat. Near the bottom of the frame is the word “Pawn”.

“Basquiat couldn’t even hail a cab in his own city of New York,” says Buchhart. “He needed a white friend to do it for him. Basquiat’s art was all about African American identity and the questioning of that identity.”

Keith Haring, Untitled (1982)

This is one of the most important artworks Haring created says Buchhart. It contains several of the signs from what Buchhart calls Haring’s “image language” or “alphabet of symbols” in a commentary on nuclear weapons, a hot topic in the early ‘80s and a development Haring vehemently opposed.

At the centre of the work is Radiant Baby, a figure Haring often used as an emblem of purity and hope. But here, Radiant Baby is in the midst of a mushroom cloud – the fallout from an atomic explosion. The dogs – another signature motif and usually representing power and authority – here stand guard. The abundant red crosses are targets, while angels represent the dead. It seems no one, not even Radiant Baby, is safe from the threat of nuclear war.

“That year Haring supported a rally against the Cold War and the threat of nuclear war,” says Buchhart. “The black tarp he’s used [to paint on] is unusual – it’s a very solid, very tough work. He’d been experimenting with plastic paint, mixing it himself to get the right chemical reaction. The texture of the work is fascinating, definitely one to see in person.”

Jean-Michel Basquiat, A Panel of Experts (1982)

Many critics think this raw mixed-media piece depicts a real-life encounter between two women in a New York nightclub: Basquiat’s girlfriend Suzanne Mallouk (whom he nicknamed Venus) and his lover Madonna – who, though not yet a superstar, was already part of the Downtown Manhattan scene. The image is covered in a thick layer of black paint and used as a surface to inscribe names, words in both English and Haitian Creole, and symbols like arrows and Basquiat’s iconic crown.

“What Basquiat does in his copy-paste method of working and compiling information is connect things you might not otherwise connect,” says Buchhart. “This offers the younger generation easy access to his work; it’s comparable to having multiple internet browsers open.” This dense application of information also lends itself to revisiting. “I’m always being surprised by Basquiat,” says Buchhart. “His work is so layered and complex, I’m always discovering new things, despite having studied him for 20 years.”

Keith Haring, Untitled (1982)

Along with Radiant Baby, the Barking Dog is one of the most recognisable images in Haring’s lexicon. It’s thought to be an indication of action, suspicion or, at times, authoritarianism and abuse of power. This dog is a partying or dancing dog, and nicely illustrates one of Haring’s key aesthetic inspirations: Egyptian hieroglyphics.

“The dot action we see in this dancing dog marks someone as being different for Keith Haring,” says Buchhart. “In many of his other dancing dog paintings, the dogs are dancing on people – killing them, as a monster would. I picked this work because I like how he isolates this dog; it is an activated image with multiple meanings.”

Buchart says that for Haring everything revolved around communication. “He was in dialogue with everyday people and in the art world – at the time – this was a very contemporary idea,” says Buchhart. “Getting his messages across was a major motivating factor for his intervention in public spaces, so he created an image language – a kind of universal alphabet of symbols – to do it with.”

Jean-Michel Basquiat, Hollywood Africans in front of the Chinese Theatre with Footprints of Movie Stars (1983)

Jean-Michel Basquiat’s career began in the late 1970s when he worked as a street artist tagging Manhattan’s Lower East Side with mysterious, subversive messages under the name SAMO©. His highly expressionistic style mixed classic graffiti with a peculiar stock of signs, symbols and words. It quickly attracted attention from New York’s burgeoning art scene, and Basquiat soon became one of the era’s most revered (and profitable) artists.

In this piece, Basquiat depicts himself alongside fellow rising artists and collaborators Toxic and Rammellzee in Los Angeles. Finding themselves together for a brief time on a trip to LA, the three labelled themselves “the Hollywood Africans” – a rueful, joking reference to the stereotyping and marginalising of African Americans in the entertainment industry.

The work is a good demonstration of what Buchhart calls Basquiat’s “knowledge rooms”: “He took everything surrounding him – words, images, ideas – and united it in the spaces he created in his paintings and drawings,” says Buchhart. “This painting, and the words in the painting, make it seem easy to read, but it’s not; it’s a highly complex work.”

Keith Haring, A Pile of Crowns for Jean-Michel Basquiat (1988)

Both Haring and Basquiat are acclaimed for creating distinctive visual languages that make unconventional use of signs, symbols and words to convey social, political and sometimes personal messages.

Haring produced this large bittersweet painting shortly after Basquiat died from a heroin overdose. In it, he pays homage to his friend with a tottering pile of Basquiat’s trademark crowns.

“Haring was absolutely shocked when Basquiat died,” says Buchhart. “The crown was one of Basquiat’s signature symbols; the copyright sign was, too. The two were not just friends or rivals – they had great respect for each other. It’s one of the core works of the exhibition in that it connects the two artists and helps us to understand their relationship. It’s also interesting to note that Haring hardly ever gave titles to his works, but he titled this one. There’s no mistaking what it’s about.”

Keith Haring | Jean-Michel Basquiat: Crossing Lines is on now at NGV International, until Mon April 13, 2020. More details and book tickets.

This article is produced by Broadsheet in partnership with NGV.