The Flesh Eaters

Artist: William Baziotes (American, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania 1912–1963 New York, New York)

Date: 1952

Medium: Oil and charcoal on canvas

Dimensions: 60 x 72 1/8 in. (152.4 x 183.2 cm)

Classification: Paintings

Credit Line: Purchase, George A. Hearn Fund, Arthur Hoppock Hearn Fund, and Hearn Funds, Bequest of Charles F. Iklé, and Gifts of Mrs. Carroll J. Post and Mrs. George S. Amory, by exchange, 1995

Accession Number: 1995.234


Baziotes' meditative methods required time-but also a lack of premeditation. Fantastical biomorphic forms inhabit a milieu built from layer upon layer of thinned oil paint that has been gradually rubbed onto the canvas to create a rich, almost iridescent or opalescent surface. At the height of his career during the 1950s, Baziotes produced only one or two oil paintings per year, maintaining that each work "has its own way of evolving." As he wrote in 1947 in an essay he titled 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." For the viewer, too, Baziotes suggests an engagement in process: "I want my pictures to take effect very slowly, to obsess and haunt."

Early on, Baziotes made a particular study of French Symbolist poetry and developed a lifelong affinity for the work that contributed importantly to his own stance as an artist. In his own work, he adapted the Symbolist poets' idea of "correspondences," in which multiple references could be suggested by a single form. Another key inspiration came from contact with several Surrealist artists, notably Matta (Roberto Matta Echaurren) and Gordon Onslow-Ford.

Large in scale, The Flesh Eaters is one of Baziotes' most ambitious works. In a scene that evokes a sense of an underwater world, the undulating, biomorphic imagery is suggestive rather than explicit. On the left, positioned in front of colors and shapes that evoke seaweed, a form suggests either an armless seated figure or a huge, single-eyed head with gaping mouth. Another one-eyed creature floats in a pink hazy amorphousness. On the right, a shape suggestive of a figural bust is shown in contour against a dark ground, with either pointed headgear or wild hair extending up into the pink haze. In a characteristic paradox, the imagery is threatening, menacing, but it exists in a framework of frankly pretty colors. Like others of the period, this artist is creating an art in which content aspires to the universal. Both title and imagery suggest the Homeric Cyclops, and ask the viewer to consider the notion that humans prey upon or consume one another.