The complex preservation of Keith Haring’s 1987 mural at the Hopital Necker des Enfants Malades, Paris by Will Shank + Antonio Rava

Overview of the tower in the context of the other hospital buildings, after treatment in 2017. Photo by Will Shank. Keith Haring artwork . © Keith Haring Foundation

There was some question as to whether the mural could be saved when we were first included in a meeting on this matter in Paris at the Hopital Necker des Enfants Malades, at the invitation of Julia Gruen, the Executive Director of the Keith Haring Foundation. It was the autumn of 2011, and we still had a conservation team on the scaffolding on the church of Sant’Antonio dell’Abate in Pisa, where we were in the midst of restoring Haring’s last public mural, Tuttomondo, from 1989. (The Pisa project was co-ordinated by COPAC--Preventive Conservation of Contemporary Art of Tuscany--and generously funded by the Friends of Heritage Preservation and the Keith Haring Foundation.)
American artist Keith Haring (1958–1990) was at the height of his popularity and success in 1987 when he found himself in Paris as part of an exhibition of American artists at the Centre Pompidou. As was often his custom, he sought out resources to locate a wall on which he could leave a souvenir—free of charge—for his host city. Haring often worked on projects for children, and he frequently chose a wall that he could paint for, or sometimes with, local kids. In Paris, he was offered the quirky exterior stairwell of a surgery centre at the city’s premiere children’s hospital, and he decided, according to his journal, that he would turn the ugly concrete six-story cylinder into a source of joy for the sick children and their families by transforming it into his canvas.
Suspended from a crane in a dangling cage, Haring and his then-boyfriend Juan Rivera spent three days creating the mural. Haring tackled the curved wall without a preliminary sketch, creating an image of an enormous scale at a very close distance (he used paint brushes attached to a stick; he and Rivera filled in the colours with a hand-roller). The two braved chilly and wet springtime weather in Paris, working from a dizzying height (it is 27 meters tall). A series of free-form shapes in red, yellow, blue and green were created first. Thick black lines then went on, and a series of figures emerged: dancing adults, three crawling “radiant” babies, and a large, centrally positioned, pregnant woman, many of them animated by Haring’s signature action marks that give them movement. The modest reception of his work upon its completion disappointed the artist, but after a glittering 29th birthday celebration at the chic Parisian restaurant Le Train Bleu, the young artist moved on to other things.
For decades the untitled mural fulfilled its intended role, its bright colours and cheerful figures bringing joy to a destination that is otherwise often filled with either anxiety or sorrow. Time, however, was not kind to either the structure or the mural painted on it, and by the time the hospital embarked upon a major renovation project in the 21st century, it was an eyesore. The artist had, in the meantime, died of AIDS at the tragically young age of thirty-one, in February 1990.
Thanks to the intervention of Jerome de Noirmont of Noirmontartproduction, working with the Keith Haring Foundation, an effort took shape to save the mural as the centrepiece of the hospital’s renovation plan. A 2013 charity auction at Sotheby’s Paris helped to attract the funding required for the conservation of the mural, and also to raise public awareness about its plight. In the meantime, the conservation team was assembled.
We began to consider the other resources that would be required first to analyse the problems of the tower and the mural, and then to intervene in its preservation. We were lucky to be able to enlist the advice of Elisabeth Marie-Victoire, expert in concrete at the Research Laboratory of the Historic Monuments of France (LRMHF), who analysed the structure of the tower itself. Nathalie Balcar at the Centre of Research and Restoration of the Museums of France (C2RMF) contributed analyses of the paints used by Haring and worked with us painting conservators on an understanding of the factors that had contributed to their deterioration. Conservation scientist Alain Colombini of the Centre Interdisciplinaire de Conservation et de Restauration du Patrimoine (CICRP) in Marseille lent support throughout the project, and the Keith Haring Foundation provided valuable documentation of the processes of the creation of the mural in 1987, including images of the artist preparing and applying his paints. During one on-site assessment of the mural in the spring of 2015, Dr. Richard Wolbers of the University of Delaware climbed the interior stairwell with our team and contributed his observations about the state of the paint layers and the tower, as well as suggestions about materials that we might use to intervene.
The PVAc [poly(vinyl acetate)] paints used by Haring for his mural had indeed deteriorated to varying degrees. Their thermoplasticity had resulted in extreme cracking and curling of the thick black lines that comprised the figures. The expansion and contraction of these linear elements over the course of more than two decades of exposure to the sun, the rain and the snow of Paris had resulted in distortions so severe that not only had a great deal of the black peeled away, but it had pulled with it some of the underlying primary colour field paints, as well as the top layer of the structure itself. Luckily the background colours were otherwise adhering well to the surface, and preliminary cleaning tests gave us hope that we could revive Haring’s palette to a great extent. All of the colours were muted and grey, and the light background was grimy from pollution. The structure itself showed visible signs of interior problems where the rusted iron substructure pierced through the surface in many places, rapturing the concrete substrate, the crépi coating (a layer of PVAc with quartz crystals, as identified by C2RMF) on top of the concrete, and in some places the paint of the mural itself. The larger picture of the rebirth of the mural came from a plan to modernise the hospital and improve its facilities. A shiny new hospital building had already been constructed by the time the conservation project began, and there was a plan in place to demolish many of the mid-20th century structures that had outlived their purpose (the most historic parts of the hospital, which is listed as a Monument Historique of France, were to be retained).
The surgery centre to which the painted stairwell structure was attached by a series of six bridges was one of the buildings to be demolished. Thus, the columnar structure would become a freestanding “totem,” and as such it was to become the centrepiece of a wide expanse of landscaped gardens surrounded by hospital buildings.
So, the work of the conservators was only one aspect of the many activities that were taking place at the hospital concurrently in order to achieve this goal of a new campus for the children’s hospital. The discovery of asbestos and all of the sensitivities around relocating hospital resources in anticipation of a major demolition campaign created considerable delays in the start date of our work. By the spring of 2014 we were able to perform sufficient tests from a hydraulic lift in order to better understand the behaviour of the paint and to come up with some plans to both clean it and consolidate it. We also worked with our colleagues at the C2RMF and the LRMHF as they analysed and tested sample materials from the structure and from the mural.
In the period between Phase One and Phase Two (spring 2014 and spring 2016) major structural changes were taking place during our absence. The bridges were sliced away from the building that was connected to the stairwell, and deep reinforcements were dug into the foundation in order to stabilise the now-freestanding tower. The original glass windows were removed from the west side of the tower, and like the openings for the former doorways to the bridges, they were replaced with wire webbing. During this intermediate stage, access was granted by the hospital for a 3D mapping team from Marseille, MAP (Modeles et Simulations pour l'Architecture et le Patrimoine) a division of the National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) in Marseille, to access the mural and document its surface. By lowering a digital camera in a series of sequences from the top of the tower, they captured a 360-degree series of images that will be an extremely useful tool, through an ongoing chronology of its topography, in forecasting future changes in the mural.
Most pertinent to the conservation of the mural in our absence, the unstable and ruptured areas of the surface of the tower, including some passages painted by Keith Haring, were removed by the construction team, leaving behind various shallow void shapes of squares, rectangles, rhomboids, and linear channels before the conservation team arrived. They also removed the protruding rusted iron elements and treated the iron against future corrosion. (All of these procedures had been reviewed and approved by the conservation team during Phase One, although we did not know exactly what these voids would look like.)
In March of 2016 our team first viewed the wrapped tower and mounted the scaffolding in order to observe (and approve, as it turns out) testing to clean the unpainted background of the building by a skilled worker who would carefully remove dirt using a gentle sand-blasting technique. We were satisfied while observing testing of this material and technique that it could be successfully completed without damage to the mural. The residual material left behind by the cleaning process was thoroughly removed with a gentle water wash.
The bulk of our work took place in earnest in May and June of 2016. The cleaned background was available for colorimetry readings of its precise tone and hue in order to match the colour of the filling material to the surrounding background. Perhaps the most problematic aspect of the project was finding an appropriate and durable material that would compensate for the many areas in which the tower had been repaired by workers, who had created out of a fairly homogenous surface a jigsaw puzzle for the conservators to put back together again. Alain Colombini took readings so that we would have complete information about the background colour, and he was particularly instrumental in coming up with a solution to the question of what would be applied to the losses and by whom. The choice of that material, as well as the decisions about who was best qualified to apply it, became a time-consuming--and at times contentious--aspect of the project, but it was eventually resolved harmoniously.
As the laborious process of filling the shallow losses with a textured material was finally underway, the most labour-intensive activity was being undertaken concurrently.
The many miles (or so it seemed to us) of Haring’s black lines that had lost adhesion to the wall, and which furthermore had in many places acquired a tar-like and ruptured texture like lava, were being slowly reintegrated into the mural. We used heat, pressure, an appropriate adhesive, and a black tint that simultaneously gave the fractured black lines a more continuous appearance. In most areas of cleavage, the adhesive was injected through a hypodermic needle into the ruptures and under the lifted flakes of black paint. This was by far the most time-consuming step.
The flat colours themselves responded well to treatment. Dry cleaning removed an obscuring layer of accumulated airborne grime of almost three decades of Paris air pollution. And after careful experimenting with various solutions and synthetic media, we settled on a clear vinyl resin in ethanol, whose properties mimicked the character of the chalking original PVA medium, but gave the paint layers added stability because of its higher glass transition temperature. The results of the cleaning and the saturation were stunning, and if not all of the colours responded equally (the green was especially non-responsive), the overall effect is a dramatic recreation of Haring’s 1987 palette. Colour was added only in the patched areas of loss (besides the black tint in the ruptured lines). All of these processes were accomplished, it should be added, to the accompaniment of a deafening soundtrack of nearby hospital structures being dismantled, demolished, lifted, smashed and crunched into dumpsters at the foot of our scaffolding. Only at 4 p.m. every day did ambient cacophony stop.
Like Haring, we had difficulties in gaining distance from our work because of the immense scale of the mural, and in our case because of the obstructive presence of the wrapped scaffolding. We were kindly provided images of the unwrapped scaffolding in July 2016, shortly before the demolition of the surgery centre began. At that point we breathed a sigh of relief, to be followed by the total unveiling of the freestanding tower, unencumbered by the presence of any nearby buildings, in March 2017. Two months later the entire tower, both painted and unpainted areas, was finally coated with a transparent layer of a siloxane-based water repellent. The application of this layer resulted in no visible changes in the mural or the background, but it provides protection both from water and from the damaging effects of ultraviolet radiation. And our work was done.
In September 2017, with the landscaping still a work-in-progress, a glittering and celebrity-studded celebration was staged at the Hopital Necker des Enfants Malades, and a press conference was held to introduce the newly-named “Tower” to the public. We were all justifiably proud of this extraordinary collaborative accomplishment. And we think that Keith Haring would be as well.

Grateful acknowledgements to the following individuals and institutions:
Julia Gruen and the staff of the Keith Haring Foundation
Jerome and Emanuelle de Noirmont and the staff of Noirmontartproduction
Director Vincent-Nicolas Delpech and the current and past staff of the Hopital Necker des Enfants Malades, and its renovation project
Sotheby’s Paris
Centre de Recherche et de Restauration des Musées de France
Laboratoire de Recherche des Monuments Historiques de France
Centre Interdisciplinaire de Conservation et de Restauration du Patrimoine
Livio De Luca and the staff of the Modeles et Simulations pour l'Architecture et le Patrimoine of the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique
Karen Lucich
Sarah Braun

About the Authors

Antonio Rava graduated in architecture from the Turin Polytechnic and as a conservator at the Central Institute of Restoration in Rome. Since 1979, while on Fulbright scholarship at New York University, Department of Conservation he has addressed the issue of restoration of contemporary art. He has worked for Italian and international institutions and has been a professor at the Centre for Conservation and Restoration "The Venaria Reale” with a course on conservation of contemporary art.
He is vice president of the Italian group of the International Institute of Conservation, with whom he collaborated on conferences on the subject of restoration in various Italian cities.

Will Shank trained in conservation and art history at various institutions including Villa Schifanoia, Graduate School of Fine Arts of Rosary College in Florence, The Institute of Fine Arts of New York University and The Harvard University Art Museums. He worked at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art as Conservator, Senior Conservator, and finally, for a decade, as Chief Conservator, between 1985 and 2000. He was a Fulbright Scholar/Getty Fellow at the Tate Gallery, London, in 1995 and a Getty Fellow at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid in 1995-96. He was the Booth Family Conservation Fellow at the American Academy in Rome in 2005. He is a Fellow of the International Institute for Conservation and the American Institute for Conservation, which granted him the Conservation Advocacy Award in 2010. He is the co-founder and co-chair of Rescue Public Murals, an initiative of Heritage Preservation in Washington, D.C.