William Baziotes moved from his hometown of Reading, Pennsylvania, to New York City in August of 1933. He studied at the National Academy of Design until 1936. During that year, he began to work for the Works Progress Administration Federal Art Project, first as a teacher (1936–41), then as an artist for the Easel Painting Project (1938–41). Over the next few years, he met many of the artists who became known as Abstract Expressionists as well as a number of Surrealists, most importantly Matta (Roberto Matta Echaurren) and Gordon Onslow-Ford.
Even before moving to New York, Baziotes was familiar with Symbolist poetry and had developed an affinity for the work of Charles Baudelaire, Paul Valéry, and a number of other French poets, especially their idea of "correspondences," poetic analogies whereby multiple references could be suggested by a single form. Among his earliest visual sources were the Surrealist works of Pablo Picasso and Joan Miró from the 1920s and 1930s; both painted semi-abstract images that allowed for various interpretations. In 1940–41, Baziotes experimented with the Surrealistic practice of psychic automatism—a technique that gave free rein to unconscious imagery and associations—and shared his findings with Jackson Pollock and Gerome Kamrowski. Along with Robert Motherwell, another artist who was greatly interested in Surrealism and Symbolist poetry, Baziotes began to create pictures that were more abstract and painterly and communicated a subject matter close to the Symbolist poets' dream imagery. As the artist wrote in 1947 ("I Can't Evolve Any Concrete Theory"): "Each beginning suggests something. Once I sense the suggestion, I begin to paint intuitively. The suggestion then becomes a phantom that must be caught and made real. As I work, or when the painting is finished, the subject reveals itself."
Throughout the 1950s, Baziotes taught painting at several New York institutions including the Brooklyn Museum Art School, New York University, the Museum of Modern Art, and Hunter College. In 1952, at the height of his career, he painted "The Flesh Eaters," one of his largest and most ambitious compositions. It displays his characteristic application of thinned layers of rubbed oil to create a shimmering, opalescent surface fused with fantastic biomorphic imagery. Depicted is a submarine world from the artist's imagination, with hints of animal and vegetal forms found in nature. At the left of this scene, a pale gray form—possibly an armless seated figure—floats before wavy green lines of seaweed. Tendrils reinforced with crayon curve outward from the point of its single eye. Above, at the right, a blue crablike form—also one-eyed—hovers in a pinkish haze. Below it in the murky gray-black water, a white plant-like form reaches upward. In a paradox characteristic of the artist, pretty colors coexist with menacing forms.
Like the Surrealists he admired and like his fellow Abstract Expressionists, Baziotes was fascinated by the power of myth. Here, his title and imagery suggest the story of the Cyclops, the one-eyed giant who devoured Odysseus' sailors in Homer's epic. Baziotes proposes a more universal notion, that humans may prey upon or consume one another.