Two dancing figures, arms gleefully thrown into the air and bodies inextricably conjoined at the hips, emanate a pulsating movement that reverberates in waves over the monumental canvas. In the space between their gyrating bodies, a bursting red heart boldly signifies their jovial coexistence, and on either side of the figures in the same vibrant cherry red color, New York City and Tokyo are written in English and Japanese, respectively. The numbers “25” and “85," rendered in luminous metallic silver and highlighted in electrifying green paint, refer to the occasion which inspired the present work: the 25th anniversary of the 1960 alliance of friendship between Tokyo and New York City, and the weeklong festivities that took place in 1985 to commemorate the occasion. Haring first visited Tokyo in 1983, and his initial trip left such a positive impression that he returned to Japan numerous times over the course of the next decade. Japan deeply inspired Haring, and elements of Japanese culture and history became immediately discernible in his work; in turn, Haring left a profound mark on the physical landscape of the Japanese cities he visited, creating numerous public murals and collaborative art projects that engaged with their communities and left an artistic legacy still visible today. Japan’s influence on the artist can be seen through the mediums and materials that he adopted – in his visits to Japan, Haring made drawings on Japanese folding screens, scrolls, kites, and fans with Sumi ink – and in the deep influence that Eastern philosophy, Tsumi painting, and Zen Buddhist principles had on Haring and his artistic practice. Haring looked not only to Japan’s rich cultural and historical past, but also to Japan’s present: in the mid-1980s, Haring found himself immersed in an electrifying outburst of cultural activity and innovation that followed Tokyo’s economic boom in the early 1980s, and indeed contributed to this modernization and growth. Referring to Haring’s lasting influence on the cultural ethos of Tokyo today, artist Peter Halley states: “You know, when I think about Keith Haring nowadays, I think about Japan – especially Murakami – and all the people in Japan who are interested in the idea that an artist can function between fine art and commercial art. Keith Haring made T-shirts, buttons for your coat, and stuff like that. He was interested in mass-produced objects, as well as in public art. I think Tokyo is where you really see his influence.” (Peter Halley, "Between Politics and Mythology," Exh. Cat., Milan Fondazione, Triennale di Milano, The Keith Haring Show, 2005, pp. 87-90)
In May of 1960, on the centennial of the first treaty of amity and commerce between the cities of Tokyo and New York in 1860, representatives of the two cities gathered to declare one another “sister cities." This proclamation carried political and social consequences, reinforcing a relationship of mutual respect and celebrating opportunities for commercial and cultural growth and exchange between the two metropolises. In 1985, on the 25th anniversary of this union/compact, the mayor of New York City invited the governor of Tokyo to New York to sign a Memorandum of Understanding - a document reaffirming the bonds of friendship between the two cities - and to inaugurate “Tokyo Week in New York,” a thenceforth annual week-long festival in New York City honoring and celebrating Japanese culture. Haring was inspired by this momentous occasion and the week of festivities that followed, and Sister Cities - For Tokyo serves as both an expression of Haring’s excitement and a record of this historical moment in Japanese-American history. Keith Haring sought through his art to create a connection and community, and Sister Cities - For Tokyo is a pure affirmation of the joy the artist found in building communities and forging relationships that transcend borders.
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