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In Pisa, Keith Haring’s Last Great Work Is Fading Fast

In Pisa, Keith Haring’s Last Great Work Is Fading Fast

Local culture officials and friends of the artist debate restoration of a giant mural painted just before Haring's death.

Detail (and postcard) of Tuttomondo in Pisa (zak mc)

PISA - Keith Haring, who died in 1990, was an American ‘writer" of a different sort. The most important graffiti artist to emerge from New York's 1980s pop art scene, Haring created the indelible "colored little men," stylized and asexual symbols of peace and brotherhood on canvasses and murals around the world.

But now in Pisa, which has its own leaning cultural symbol for the ages, the final great project Haring completed before his death risks fading away. "Tuttomondo," the giant mural created by Haring in Pisa just months before he died of AIDS, is suffering the effects of time and weathering. The 30 colorful figures that compose the piece seem to have lost their original vibrancy.

But here in the shadow of the Leaning Tower, where one evokes Tuscan battles of the past between Guelphs and Ghibellines, art is always a game played for keeps. And so opposing factions have formed: some argue that the (omini) "little men" need to promptly be repainted to return them to their old brilliance, while others prefer to leave the work as it is, to honor the interaction between art and environment.

The debate was triggered by an article in the local paper "Il Tirreno" that used ‘before-and-after" photos to show how the colors had been transformed: the bright red fallen to a lighter pink and the blue now a noticeably paler hue. Piergiorgio Castellani, who knew Haring in the East Village of New York, convinced him to come to Pisa to realize his greatest work. "It was not a good time because Keith was already sick with AIDS," he said. "But it was nevertheless exciting to see him do it with the help of students and craftsmen. It's a piece that is somehow the sum of all of his previous work."

Moreover, "Tuttomondo" has its own a unique local history: the mural is located on the outer wall of a building owned by the Catholic Church, a rare opportunity of freedom for a gay, HIV-positive man to express himself in such a setting.

As for its preservation, Castellani recalls the artist's wish: "When choosing colors from the palate, Keith opted for these basic ones, saying that in the future, touching up the figures would be much easier."

It would be a different kind of legacy for the artist, but for now the city of Pisa appears skeptical of the idea of intervening now. They are delaying any decision until an agreement is in place with the foundation that owns the rights to Haring's works. "The mural is being monitored regularly by the experts, and according to their opinions we believe that the state of deterioration does not require immediate action," said Silvia Panichi, Pisa's local councilor in charge of culture "Are the colors fading? Yes. That is a fact of nature, but taking action would be dangerous and risk damaging a work that was designed to interact and age with its' environment."

The administration of Pisa, meanwhile, has backed a proposal to submit a request to the Los Angeles-based Friends of Heritage Preservation to finance a long term conservation plan. "We are waiting for a response," says Panichi. "After more than 20 years, we are entering a critical phase: we know that sooner or later you will need some intervention, but perhaps this is still not the moment."

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