One of the most extraordinary paintings to emerge from the legendary first year of Basquiat’s mature oeuvre, the thrilling masterpiece La Hara encapsulates the compelling blend of nimble, rapid-fire draughtsmanship and raw emotional force that propelled Basquiat to stardom in his brief but meteoric career. Painted in 1981, La Hara is a deeply personal painting imbued with cryptic references and rich symbolism. “La Hara” plays on the Puerto Rican word “jara”—slang for “cop”—and its visceral depiction of a menacing white cop drives home the complicated nature of Basquiat’s life under the “broken windows” policing of 1980s New York. Complex, masterful, and deeply personal, La Hara belongs to Basquiat’s brilliant and haunting roster of heroes and villains. It displays the spectacular sophistication of Jean-Michel’s keen mark making and the raw painterly verve that he displayed at this pivotal moment in his already burgeoning career. A profound, personal anti-hero, La Hara is the hulking embodiment of Basquiat’s deepest fears and his greatest ambitions.
In La Hara, the assuredness of Basquiat’s quick strokes and his effortless attention to detail are staggering. The broad swathes of brushy paint, oilstick scribbles and crisply delineated lines pour out in a mad dash of frenetic activity. Set against a shocking red background, Basquiat depicts a menacing, spectral figure with piercing red eyes and hulking, monstrous form, who emerges from the smoky ether of the painting’s lower register like a demonic ghost. The economy of line and assuredness of Basquiat’s hand stand as the lasting testament to the genius that he possessed at such a young age, from the shiny, gold emblem of the policeman’s cap to the military-style epaulets of his shoulders, and the tongue-in-cheek portrayal of his thermos and badge. A series of concentric outlines reverberate around the figure’s head, deftly delineated in efficient oilstick marks that alternately recall a halo, a crown of thorns or a series of stitches. Along the lower register, wide swathes of brushy dark paint range from inky black to smoky grey, which emerges from Basquiat’s red background like billowing smoke clouds from a mounting fire. A series of horizontal white lines running across the figure’s midsection give the appearance of a skeleton’s ribs while the abrasive, white pigment of the face lends a ghostly quality to the already terrifying portrayal.
Scrawled in the deliberately crude lettering that has become a hallmark of his raw style, Basquiat writes the phrase “LA HARA” in capital letters, repeating it four times in the upper left-hand corner. “La hara” refers to the Puerto Rican slang word “jara,” an old-fashioned term for “police” or “cop” that derives from the surname “O’Hara,” which was common in the predominantly Irish police force of 1940s and ‘50s New York. Its refrain echoes across the painting like a strange incantation. The word conjures up the legacy of Irish beat cops in New York City, many of which were named O’Hara, but also the character Clancy O’Hara, the Chief of Police in Batman’s Gotham City. It might also allude to John O’Hara, the Philadelphia police officer who broke into the house of Julia Crosswell, an African American woman in 1978, who along with three other officers, reportedly beat, arrested and falsely charged her. Crosswell later sued the four officers in U.S. district court claiming the attack was racially motivated.
In Basquiat’s La Hara, his portrayal of the giant, looming cop serves as a powerful reminder of the deeply entrenched racism that pervaded the artist’s daily life, which was especially lethal in the 1980s era of ‘broken windows policing’ in New York City. An aggressive ‘war on graffiti’ campaign had been launched in the bleak years of the 1970s, and its efforts were considerably ramped up around the time Basquiat was living in the Lower East Side. For Basquiat and other young black artists living in the city, fear of police retaliation was a clear and present danger:
“[Graffiti] was certainly a statement of resistance, one that provoked a visceral fear among many citizens and public officials that dangerous people of color were dragging the city into lawlessness. Conservative Nathan Glazer, foreshadowing the logic of James Q. Wilson’s “broken windows” theory, put it this way: ‘While I do not find myself consciously making the connection between the graffiti-makers and the criminals who occasionally rob, rape, assault, and murder passengers, the sense that all are a part of one world of uncontrollable predators seems inescapable’” (E. Nielson, “It Could Have Been Me: The 1983 Death of a NYC Graffiti Artist, Code Switch: Race and Identity, Remixed, 16 September 2013; via www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2013/09/16/221821224/it-could-have-been-me-the-1983-death-of-a-nyc-graffiti-artist).
Ultimately, the city’s costly and often brutal campaign all but destroyed the graffiti movement, using razor wire fences around train tracks and even attack dogs. Police ‘vandal squads’ became infamous for the beatings they gave, which at times turned lethal. In September of 1983, a young black artist named Michael Stewart was badly beaten by NYPD after using a marker to draw graffiti on the walls of a subway platform and later died from his injuries. Basquiat knew Michael Stewart (who was dating his ex-girlfriend, Suzanne Mallouk) at the time, and was deeply unnerved by the news of his death, saying: “It could have been me. It could have been me.” He created the painting Defacement (The Death of Michael Stewart) in wake of that tragedy, which for many years hung in the artist Keith Haring’s bedroom.
As he ascended the rungs of the art world ladder, Basquiat was forced to straddle the two opposing worlds in which he found himself: a young black man newly christened by the predominately white art world. He quickly learned to deftly navigate these uncharted waters, yet often faced discrimination in his day-to-day life. While his paintings commanded increasingly greater prices, and his art was celebrated around the world, the young artist often had trouble hailing a cab in his Lower East Side neighborhood. Even though his career skyrocketed, and a typical breakfast might consist of eggs, caviar and the finest French wine, he was always conscious of the discrimination that still plagued him; if he were walking down an empty sidewalk, passers-by would often switch to the other side.
Basquiat painted La Hara in New York City in 1981, most likely in the basement of Annina Nosei’s SoHo gallery, during a profound turning-point in his early career. The moment marks the pivotal moment at which he moved away from the graffiti-style poetry of his alter-ego SAMO, to devote himself entirely to painting. He was not quite twenty-one years old: “1981 was a remarkable year for Jean-Michel Basquiat, the year of transition from the street and the studio. In early 1981 he was mainly painting on discarded windows, doors and pieces of wood and metal that he found on the street, and making drawings on reams of typing paper. By the end of 1981, he was installed in a spacious studio in the basement of Annina Nosei’s gallery on Prince Street and working on prepared canvas. The work quickly became more complex and ambitious. He fused a street aesthetic of spray paint...with a spliced and stripped-down version of the modernist vocabulary. During 1981 he made the transition from a profusely talented and promising artist working on the street to a world-class painter, posed to become one of the most influential artists of all time” (J. Deitch, “1981: The Studio of the Street,” Jean-Michel Basquiat: 1981, The Studio in the Street, exh. cat., New York, Deitch Projects, 2007, pp. 10-11).
Throughout his career, Basquiat repeatedly filled his paintings with words and symbols that referenced his own black and Puerto Rican identity. His roster of famous black athletes, musicians and personal heroes like Charlie Parker, Sugar Ray Robinson, Miles Davis and Hank Aaron reinforce the idea that Basquiat felt that he himself belonged to the great lineage of talented, if tortured, black artists. In La Hara, Basquiat’s menacing figure joins the roster of these leading men, becoming a powerful anti-hero who illustrates the flip-side of being famous and black in America.
An extraordinary early masterpiece, Jean-Michel Basquiat’s La Hara is a brilliant iteration of the artist’s most personal issues, his inner demons and his deepest fears. Painted in 1981, the legendary transformative year that marked a true turning point in the young artist’s career, it displays the major themes that preoccupied the artist for the remainder of his brief but legendary life, all of which is rendered with spectacular sophistication and palpable emotional verve. A potent, personal painting, it evokes the symbolism of Jean-Michel’s impossible role of the radical darling of the predominantly white art world, his daily life as a black man in a corrupt and racist city, and yet his constant yearning to be not just a great black artist, but a great artist. Looking beneath the surface of its wild coloration and angry scribblings, we are witness to the pathos, poignancy and inner beauty that Jean-Michel possessed at such a young age. As Jean-Louis Pratt has written: “The urban stereotypes proposed by Jean-Michel Basquiat, once caught in the trap of being labeled as graffiti now find themselves caught in the trap of being labeled as painting. They are not its prisoners; they scream, loud and clear, what we are: spectral forms drawn by a “Child King” who invents an enchanting, bewitching and frightening night, given the task of awakening us and giving us this shock of barbarous reunions in a painting that is almost too beautiful because we already recognize ourselves in it” (J-L. Prat, “The ‘Child King’ of the Eighties,” in J. L. Prat, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Paris, Galerie Enrico Navarra, 1996, vol. 1, p. 13).