Haring began the Chicago mural project in May 1989 with an outline that would be filled in by Chicago Public Schools students. Credit: Marcelino Y. Fahd

When Irving Zucker returned to Chicago from his second home in Guatemala in early March, he was energized. Aside from the obvious rejuvenating effects of a winter spent in a balmy tropical climate, Zucker had decided that, for the first time in a decade, he would attempt to locate a large-scale Keith Haring mural he helped bring into being. He couldn’t have guessed that he’d be told the bulk of the mural was missing.

Zucker, a 68-year-old retiree, has an endearing habit of referring to himself as “just a little old schoolteacher.” For instance, when he talks about the day he met Haring, one of the darlings of 80s New York’s downtown art scene. It was December 1987 in New York City, and Zucker was helping a friend, renowned curator Diego Cortez, in advance of a big opening. A few hours later, the cream of New York’s art and lit scenes would descend upon the Tony Shafrazi Gallery in SoHo for an exhibit of shotgun paintings by noted firearms enthusiast William S. Burroughs—”and here I am, just a little old schoolteacher,” Zucker says. But Cortez introduced Zucker to Haring because he was a Chicago Public Schools teacher. Haring famously loved working with kids and had never been to Chicago, and Zucker was always looking for ways to expose students to the arts. The two got together in Haring’s studio the day after their initial meeting and began planning one of the largest collaborative public art projects in Chicago’s history.

For a week in May 1989, Haring visited Chicago to paint a 480-foot mural in Grant Park with the help of nearly 500 students from more than 40 CPS high schools, as well as a smattering of rebellious suburban kids who played hooky to participate. The media was a perpetual presence—even Rolling Stone came to town. Zucker spent countless hours planning the massive project down to its most minuscule details—insurance, parent permission slips, who would bring the paintbrushes. His work paid off: “Everything was like clockwork,” Zucker recalls.

Haring worked differently. Without so much as a conceptual sketch to refer to, he approached the whitewashed wall of Masonite panels that stretched two city blocks and commenced painting thick black lines to form humanoid, canine, and abstract shapes that would, in the coming days, be filled in by the teenagers, under Haring’s supervision. A headline in the Chicago Tribune read “Teens tap their own creativity to fill in the blanks for Keith Haring”—he’d instructed them not just to cover the empty spaces, but to channel their ideas into personalized patterns and designs. Like a lot of Haring’s work, the mural’s not a cohesive piece that’s intended to tell a story, like a Guernica or the WPA murals of the Great Depression—but it captures a moment in the lives of hundreds of young Chicagoans.

A small portion of the Haring mural.
A small portion of the Haring mural.Credit: Marcelino Y. Fahd

When the project ended, the media attention dissipated, the students returned to their regularly scheduled high school programming, and after a couple additional days during which he painted two more murals at Rush University Medical Center, Haring went home to New York. The Grant Park mural stood for about a week before it was dismantled—and that was the last time it was ever displayed in its entirety. Haring died of AIDS nine months later at the age of 31. The mural project would mark the last time he visited Chicago.

Last month, with the project’s 26th anniversary approaching, it occurred to Zucker that the Haring mural should be remounted. He’d attempted a few times over the years to access the work—for instance in 2005, when a documentary crew was in town to research Haring’s time in Chicago—but never to any avail. The mural is property of CPS, and Zucker had always bumped up against a reluctance on the part of the school system to reveal its whereabouts. He reached out to former Museum of Contemporary Art president Helyn Goldenberg, who arranged for the MCA to cosponsor the project back in the 80s (she’s now a senior international fine art consultant for Sotheby’s) and set up a meeting to talk about the future of the mural. With Julia Gruen of the New York-based Keith Haring Foundation weighing in remotely, the trio decided they’d attempt to exhibit the mural again in its entirety. Maybe they’d do it at Navy Pier, maybe when Expo Chicago returns in the fall. The fledgling three-member committee was excited about the possibilities.

Zucker might’ve expected to encounter some hurdles. For instance, they’d have to reclaim a portion of the mural that’s on loan to the Chicago Department of Aviation. It’s currently on display at Midway, in a pedestrian tunnel between the CTA station and the main terminal.

According to an e-mail Zucker received from an official in CPS’s Department of Arts Education in March, only 11 of the mural’s 61 eight-foot-by-eight-foot sections could be accounted for, not including the Midway portion. The official was apologetic, but said CPS couldn’t be held responsible for the rest. It wasn’t until the Reader submitted a Freedom of Information Act request seeking CPS records and internal communications regarding the Haring work that more of the mural materialized. The day before we went to press, CPS media relations chief Bill McCaffrey reported that, after several weeks of information gathering, he was able to locate 54 of the mural sections plus one eight-foot-by-four-foot panel—though he could not provide records that confirm their whereabouts. The remainder of the mural, as far as CPS can say, is gone.

Murals of this size created by Haring’s hand alone could go for $3 million per section, Cortez says. “It’s kind of priceless. It’s rare,” says Gruen, who adds that appraising collaborative works of this sort is tricky.

For Zucker, news of the missing mural parts resonates on a more personal level. “I devoted two years of my life to this,” he says. “It’s very disturbing for me.”

Zucker and Haring in ’89; Haring with Daley Plaza’s Picasso
Zucker and Haring in ’89; Haring with Daley Plaza’s PicassoCredit: Marcelino Y. Fahd

Irving Zucker began working for Chicago Public Schools in the early 1970s, after an unpleasant stint as a counselor at a mental institution for young people in the Bay Area. Aside from his time on the west coast—and his winters in Central America—he’s a Chicagoan to the core. Born in a displaced-persons camp in Germany after WWII, he and his Holocaust-survivor parents were brought here by his mother’s wealthy cousins when he was three years old; he did the remainder of his growing up in Humboldt Park. He began his teaching career as a substitute at Corliss High School, which he still says was his “most incredible” position, was bounced around the west side for a while, then finally was assigned to Wells Community Academy High School in West Town. He remained there for 25 years, until his retirement in 2006.

He started out as a language arts teacher, but ended up being put in charge of in-school suspension at Wells. The job doesn’t sound enviable, but Zucker liked it. “It was fun being with the bad kids,” he says. “They’re fun, even though they’re bad.” And because he didn’t have to grade papers, he had time to work on developing arts-in-education programs. The self-proclaimed “jazz freak” worked with the Jazz Institute of Chicago to launch the Jazz Express, a system-wide series of performances in CPS high schools by some important figures in the genre. (There’s a great compilation of news footage on YouTube of Wynton Marsalis’s 1986 visit to Whitney Young.) He’s also one of the original coordinators of Gallery 37, a program that trains students in the arts while they earn money.

Zucker met a lot of people through his involvement in the jazz scene, and also through his relationship with Diego Cortez. They went to college together at Illinois State before embarking on divergent journeys. Cortez, who’s probably best known for organizing the hugely influential “New York/New Wave” exhibit at MoMA PS1 in 1981, also was behind the first shows of both Jean-Michel Basquiat and Haring, who came up in NYC as a subway artist. He says it was his idea to introduce Haring and Zucker so they might collaborate.

Once Haring and Zucker had decided to join forces on the mural project, Zucker was tasked with figuring out how they’d do it. CPS bit pretty quickly. Zucker has kept a letter from then schools superintendent Manfred Byrd, dated March 22, 1988, that reads, “Your proposal to develop a mural by Chicago Public Schools students appears to be an exciting and meaningful experience . . . Haring’s credentials are impressive and his experience in other large cities provides us with the confidence we need to carry out a project of this magnitude.”

The next step was finding sponsors and financial partners. Haring didn’t receive any money for the Grant Park mural—or for the other murals he painted while he was in Chicago, including one he designed in advance to be painted inside Wells High School—but there were plenty of other expenses. Marquette Properties donated the mural panels and the braces to hold them upright; Marriott and American Airlines donated hotel accommodations and airfare for Haring; and Joe Shanahan of the Metro (then Cabaret Metro) donated pizza, soda, and a space to hold a wrap party for the kids after the mural’s completion.

The cost of the rest of the supplies was covered by a $15,000 donation from Marquette Properties’ Bruno Bottarelli. In return, after the mural’s removal from Grant Park, it would spend a year as a barrier around the River North site where Marquette was planning to construct a mixed-use high-rise called the Pinnacle. After that year was up, the eight-by-eight sections were to be divided for display at the participating high schools. Bottarelli also stipulated that the project be called “Keith Haring at the Pinnacle,” which appears on all the promotional materials, including the students’ T-shirts and painters’ hats. But the Pinnacle was never built, due to a lack of financing. And the mural was never distributed to the participating schools.

Haring is interviewed in front of the mural in progress.
Haring is interviewed in front of the mural in progress.Credit: Marcelino Y. Fahd

As Zucker describes it—and as it’s vividly portrayed in Off the Wall: Keith Haring and the Kids, a documentary narrated by actor Dennis Hopper that originally aired on WTTW—the week of the project was a whirlwind of well-organized chaos. Over the course of three days, the students came in shifts according to the school they attended and were assigned sections of the mural, which Zucker had numbered in advance. There were five colors of paint to choose from—blue, pink, orange, yellow, and green. One of Haring’s few instructions was not to use the same color as the person painting next to you.

Some kids used the space to rep their school. Others proclaimed their love for their boyfriend or for U2. The humanitarians implored viewers to “stop gangs,” and at least one student painted Amnesty International’s iconic candle logo. Others still opted for abstract designs—in the documentary one girl explains her signature “squirgle,” a cross between a squirrel and a squiggle. Gruen, who was one of the artist’s best friends, particularly loves the film: “It’s always been one of my favorite videos of Keith working with kids. He’s so natural and funny and so engaging—he always was, but it’s nice having it documented on film.”

It turned out that making art with 500 public school students wasn’t as crazy as it sounded. “We were told that it wouldn’t work because the kids wouldn’t be cooperative and they’d do graffiti. There was not one incident,” Goldenberg recalls. “They were wonderful, for one thing because Keith exuded this thing where you wanted to follow him. He made people feel important.”

“The kids were so beautiful and so loving,” Zucker says. “They loved Keith. He was kind of an artist, teacher, big brother, and mentor—he was in heaven.”

Haring made an effort to interact with all the kids, but he became a mentor to Joe Asencios, a 17-year-old Wells junior. Asencios was raised by his dad in the kind of neighborhood, as he puts it now, “where everyone thought you were going to join a gang, become a drug dealer, or get shot in a drive-by.” He’s mentioned in the opening of a lengthy piece on Haring in the August 1989 issue of Rolling Stone, in which he told reporter David Sheff that he hadn’t taken many art classes, but that he would the next year.

Asencios is now 42, lives in Addison, Illinois, and when he’s not working his full-time job in IT, runs his own freelance photography business. The Haring project is mentioned in a bio on his website: “[Joe’s] greatest inspiration artistically came at the young age of 17. Keith Haring was visiting Chicago and Wells Community Academy. He took Joe under his wing for the week he was in Chicago . . . The encounter Joe had with Keith Haring would inspire him to create art in a photographic sense.” After high school Asencios joined the military and served in the first gulf war, which he used as an opportunity to hone his picture-taking skills abroad. He recalls being saddened when he heard about Haring’s death: “I didn’t know him that well, but I know how much of an impact he had on my life.” He also remembers Zucker, whom he calls one of his positive role models. “If it weren’t for those individuals [Haring, Zucker, and Wells art teacher Tony Aborreno], like my aunt says, I’d probably be in prison. My family is really proud of me and what I’ve accomplished. I have art to thank for that.”

A portion of the mural is on display at Midway in a pedestrian tunnel between the CTA station and the main terminal.
A portion of the mural is on display at Midway in a pedestrian tunnel between the CTA station and the main terminal.Credit: Parker Bright

On a recent afternoon, Zucker took the Orange Line to Midway to take a look at the sections of the mural on display there, which he hadn’t seen in several years. He didn’t like what he saw. Paint has peeled from the edges of the panels, and from around the screws that fasten them to the wall. They’ve been rubbed against, splattered with liquids, and vandalized in various ways. On one of the boards, smack between a shining sun and a smiley face, someone carved kiss my ass.

“The Chicago Department of Aviation should be ashamed of themselves,” Zucker said afterward. “If they aren’t going to take care of it, then they should return it to CPS before it reaches the point of no return.” But CPS hasn’t been the best shepherd of the Haring mural either.

While CPS’s McCaffrey says there are currently 33 and a half sections of the Haring mural on display at Midway, the Reader was only able to verify that 18 sections are hanging in the pedestrian tunnel at the airport. (The Chicago Department of Aviation’s communications department didn’t reply to requests to specify the location of the other sections.) Six sections of the mural are on display at CPS’s central office on Madison, McCaffrey says, and one more is hanging at another CPS office in Garfield Park. Ten are on display at North-Grand High School in West Humboldt Park, he says. And four are in storage at a CPS warehouse, the location of which McCaffrey wasn’t able to provide. A photograph of the portion of the mural that’s hanging in North-Grand High indicates that only seven sections are currently on display, along with the original signage, also painted by Haring, which reads keith haring at the pinnacle.

Back in 1990, after the Pinnacle construction project failed to materialize, the mural was put into storage in a warehouse at 1304 S. Canal, or at least that was Zucker’s understanding at the time. In the summer of ’91, he arranged with the Department of Cultural Affairs for the mural to serve as a perimeter around Gallery 37, a summer arts program for young people that was located on what’s now Block 37; Zucker was the “site principal.” The mural was displayed that summer and the next—and then Zucker lost track of it.

In 1996, CPS spent $360,000 to secure the services of art consultant Kathy Bernhardt and a team that ranged between six and 12 people, who spent two years scouring 650 buildings in the CPS system for valuable works of art. Their curiosity paid off: the treasure hunters found an E. Martin Hennings painting Bernhardt says is worth $650,000 hanging in one school’s boiler room (a janitor had saved it when he noticed it propped up against a Dumpster). In a closet in another school they found original sketches by Salvador Dali, one of them with a big shoe print on it. And in a chain-link cage in the leaky, dank basement of CPS’s old headquarters on West Pershing Road, they found the Haring mural. “It was an excruciating amount of work,” Bernhardt says. “We would start in the attic, go through every single floor, every single room, and end up in the basement or subbasement. If doors were locked, we had to wait till we were allowed entrance. In a couple of instances we had to break in [because no one had keys to the doors anymore], and when we did we’d sometimes find 30 museum-quality paintings.”

Haring with some of the 500 CPS students who were his collaborators on the mural
Haring with some of the 500 CPS students who were his collaborators on the muralCredit: Tseng Kwong

Several knowledgeable sources, including Bernhardt, say the Haring mural was professionally restored on CPS’s dime sometime in the early 2000s. A few years prior, in 1999, the Museum of Science and Industry exhibited Haring’s sculptures on its lawn while inside, a new generation of CPS students painted a replica of part of the 1989 mural.

In 2005, in anticipation of the arrival of an Italian film crew making a documentary about Haring, Zucker tried to locate the portion of the mural that wasn’t already hanging at Midway. He arranged a meeting with Armando Almandarez, CPS’s director of curriculum at the time; Bernhardt, who was acting as curator of the schools’ newfound art collection, also attended. Zucker says he was essentially told to buzz off. Just recently Zucker discovered that not long after that meeting, part of the mural was shipped to the Reading Public Museum in Haring’s hometown of Reading, Pennsylvania, for an exhibit. No one at CPS has been able to say when or how the sections were returned to Chicago, or whether their location is known now. The Reading Museum’s current curator, Scott Schweigert, provided pictures from the exhibit, but said he didn’t have any knowledge of the terms of the loan since it predates his tenure.

Besides playing treasure hunter, another of Bernhardt’s functions when she was contracted by the school system was to create a system to catalog CPS’s art collection. But McCaffrey says Haring’s work isn’t cataloged because it was created before the system was put into place, although that’s likely the case for much of the catalogued art.

Chicago’s is one of only two existing murals that Keith Haring created with kids. The other, We the Youth, decorates the side of a residential building in Philadelphia’s Point Breeze neighborhood; it was painstakingly restored in 2013 as part of that city’s mural arts initiative. Most of the Haring murals that have disappeared over the years did so when their host buildings were demolished. But Gruen says Haring, who began as a street artist, anticipated that some of his murals would be impermanent. “There were not very many murals he did where the intent was for them to be permanent,” she says. “In many cases they were not permanent, but they’ve been saved.” For the Keith Haring Foundation’s purposes, that’s the best-case scenario.

Of Haring’s Chicago work, Gruen says, “This type of mural on plywood is not very durable, but if it was possible to assemble it and exhibit on Navy Pier, wouldn’t that be fantastic? In a perfect world I’d like to do what we originally intended and have them distributed to the schools.” North-Grand High, which opened in 2004, is currently the only school that’s in possession of any sections.

But Haring’s legacy lives on in other ways in Chicago’s schools. Ricardo Cervantes, an art teacher at Lara Academy in Back of the Yards, was a 16-year-old junior at Bogan High on the southwest side when Haring came to town. The panel he helped paint, one with a pink sliver that contains his nickname, “Rick,” is on display at Midway. “It’s almost like I came full circle,” he says. “Here I am teaching the thing that made a difference in my life many moons ago.” His students are actually in the process of working on a project inspired by Haring’s art, a series of installations created from papier-mache figures stacked on top of one another, each intended to capture motion the way Haring’s work did. When Cervantes was looking up photos of the mural to show his students, he stumbled upon two shots of himself working on the mural, which blew him away. “Who’d have thought that this one moment [Haring] took to paint the mural would take on a life of its own?”

Irving Zucker in his home, 2015.
Irving Zucker in his home, 2015.Credit: Andrea Bauer

Zucker never received much recognition for bringing Keith Haring to Chicago, though he didn’t expect to. His Rogers Park home is chockablock with art. He has a Wesley Willis drawing in his dining room, and a Haring original in a prime location in his living room. A collector by nature, he’s kept nearly every document, bit of correspondence, and clipping associated with the Haring project. On a recent evening he dug out a Xerox copy of an old Newcity article about the mural and Mayor Daley’s declaration that May 15 through 21, 1989, would be Keith Haring Week. Zucker read the first couple paragraphs aloud: “Some local official in a suit gets up on the assembly hall stage of the William H. Wells Community Academy. . . . Haring stands next to him . . . eyes fixed on the floor, a secretive grin stuck on his face.” Zucker was the “suit” to which the writer referred, and you can tell it still bothers him that a reporter would diminish an experience that remains so important to him.

“It was a major thing in my life,” he says. When Zucker found out that CPS had reportedly located additional pieces of the mural, he was more frustrated than relieved, his attention focused on the several sections that are still missing. And as for the sections that CPS reportedly located, he says, “I’d have to see them with my own eyes.” It’s not likely the mural will ever be shown in its entirety, but Zucker still hopes the existing sections can be distributed to the schools whose students helped create them.  v