Tourism for Locals: Keith Haring's Permanent San Francisco Art Work

San Francisco has hosted some of the world's greatest and most provocative masterpieces. Currently, the de Young museum is hosting a temporary retrospective collection of one these artist's works: Keith Haring. Now in its final weeks, the collection of more than 150 pieces will travel elsewhere next month, but — you may not know — there's one Haring piece that's been living in San Francisco all along. Haring has a piece that is an important and permanent fixture in San Francisco (and this week's Tourism for Locals feature): “The Life of Christ” adoring the AIDS Interfaith Memorial Chapel in Grace Cathedral. 

[jump] Haring's masterpiece on display in Grace Cathedral is a white, gold-leaf triptych featuring winged angels, human beings, and Christ in an infant form; the piece took its current spot inside the first AIDS Memorial Chapel in 1995, five years after the artist succumbed to AIDS. The chapel is intended not only as a memorial to the approximately 19,400 San Franciscans and others who died of AIDS — the chapel simultaneously honors the many living caregivers and volunteers who have fought, and are fighting, HIV/AIDS despite decades of prejudice, resistance and apathy. According to the cathedral's website, the wider intent of the chapel space is to highlight that the pain and suffering afflicted by the disease is universal: “HIV/AIDS is no respecter of religion, race or sexuality. The AIDS Chapel is a statement that compassion must be at the heart of committed response to the disease.”

The triptych may seem out of place considering the artist's well-known themes and subject matters — his work was often confrontational and sexual. His art also had unabashed activist themes, from “Crack is Wack” to glorification of homosexuality — these are in stark juxtaposition with the themes found in buildings of worship. 

According to a 1995 interview with former dean Alan Jones of Grace Cathedral with The Chronicle, the central placement of the Haring piece in the Chapel is very much appropriate: 

“Haring woke people up and made them see,” Jones said. “What strikes me about this altarpiece is that it's amazingly joyful. It's an affirmation of life and belonging. The cathedral seeks to be a place for all people.”

The artwork in the AIDS Interfaith Memorial Chapel was the last piece Haring created before his death, but it still carries the same impact today as it did in the early '90s. When visiting the chapel, whether it be to worship or observe, may the words of Haring serve as a point of reflection: “An artist is a spokesman for a society at any given point in history. His language is determined by his perception of the world we all live in. He is a medium between 'what is' and 'what could be.'

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