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OpinionColumnistsMark Chiusano

On a Basquiat treasure hunt of sorts

That's the artist and NYC icon whose large, colorful, haunting painting of a skull sold in 2017 for $110 million.

A teacher and a work of art she

A teacher and a work of art she says she kept by her student, Jean-Michel Basquiat. Photo Credit: Peter Josyph

There must come a moment when every teacher is certain a student is a genius. Sometimes it’s true. Cynthia Shechter says that moment came around 1972 in PS 101 in Brooklyn, where she was giving kids extracurricular instruction in art.

The student was quiet and self-assured, she remembers. He often had a pencil stuck in his ear. Shechter remembers him saying in her “art squad” sessions, “I’m going to be a famous cartoonist.”

His name was Jean-Michel Basquiat.

That’s the artist and NYC icon whose large, colorful, haunting painting of a skull sold in 2017 for $110.5 million. He died in 1988 of a drug overdose at age 27.

As a student, all of that was ahead of him, but his pencil drawings and cartoon panels were well ahead of his peers, says Shechter, 72.

One day, Shechter encouraged the student to try a “full” work on nice, torso-sized paper. The student agreed and produced a full frenetic canvas, gangster-looking characters up to no good. Shechter was impressed and hung the work as a display. But Basquiat at that time was sometimes troubled, Shechter remembers. One day, he tore the large, full work into pieces.

Here’s where the story gets interesting. Shechter says she taped the work together and kept it, along with a few of Basquiat’s pencil drawings. Now, those pieces are scheduled to be displayed for one night at b.j. spoke gallery in Huntington on July 13.

What the art is worth is an open question. Shechter says she went on maternity leave shortly after meeting Basquiat and lost track of her promising pupil. She says she recognized his name in news coverage after he died.

She has reached out to collectors in the years since, but didn’t get a positive response — the work is certainly youthful. And she didn’t get it “authenticated” by the Basquiat authentication committee.

“No, I never attempted to get it authenticated, since I was there when he created it,” Shechter says, adding that she didn’t realize about authentication until too late. The committee disbanded in 2012 and no longer considers applications, according to the Basquiat estate’s website. Attempts to reach the estate were not successful.

Shechter’s story is bolstered by a few elements: the fact that she kept fragments of Basquiat’s art is mentioned in the 1998 book “Basquiat: A Quick Killing in Art.” The estate website says Basquiat attended PS 101, and a Department of Education spokesman confirmed Shechter’s work history. Maryanne Ruggiero, a 58-year-old Brooklyn physician, says she was in Shechter’s “art squad” and remembers Basquiat.

Shechter says she sometimes kept works for reference material for her teaching and asked for permission, including from Basquiat. The art was in her closet for years before she mentioned it to Kevin Larkin, president of the b.j. spoke gallery, where she was a member.

That was a few years ago. She says the larger piece is for sale, but it would be “nice if this piece ended up in a museum.”

On a recent rainy weekday at the Huntington gallery, Larkin and Shechter took down a watercolor-type painting to hang the taped work for view.

It’s messy and disorienting, but there’s plenty to pry into when thinking about Basquiat’s maturity. That blocky signature of his name? The use of words all over the paper?

“It’s important to know where he came from,” says Larkin.

 Mark Chiusano is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.

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