Throbbing with a network of impulses, Mater is a totemic work that extraordinarily encapsulates the artist's direct engagement with his autobiographical struggle. Mater was painted in 1982, the year that Basquiat arrived on the international art scene as the new, enigmatic and much-talked-about wunderkind of New York. Forming the apex of the artist's all-too-brief career, this year was a period when Basquiat, energized, enthusiastic and hungry for success, was rapidly creating the body of work by which much of his career would later be judged. Only a year before, the twenty-one-year-old painter had been living an itinerant lifestyle, drifting between random addresses, playing for the band Gray at the Mudd Club and working as a street artist under the tag SAMO. Having secured the support of several ambitious art dealers and a studio in which to work, he began to produce some of the most vital paintings of his entire career.
Almost always autobiographical in some way, Basquiat's painting is pervaded with the sense that the artist was talking to himself, exorcising demons, exposing uncomfortable truths and trying to explain the way of things to himself- an effort that became increasingly pronounced at this time. Scrawled in vibrantly colored oil stick over a background of dribbled painterly layers and bold architectonic angles, Mater with its Latin title refers to a generalized, archetypal image of a revered mother-figure. This dramatic and iconic portrait is closely related in structure and content to another painting from the same date entitled Pater, in which Basquiat conjures a powerful and persuasive image of a haloed male idol that performs as both God-the-father of Christian teaching. The lone figures portrayed in Mater and Pater are both forceful, aggressive presences, whose impressive postures and tortured features are expressive of the artist's own fears, anxieties, and rage. When questioned about his method of constructing an image, Basquiat would go on to confirm, "I don't think about art when I'm working. I try to think about life" (J. M. Basquiat, quoted in Basquiat, exh. cat., Trieste, Museo Revoltella, 1999, p. LXVII) and this portrait of a beseeching mother-goddess almost certainly reflects the artist's intense anxieties about his life and position within the world.
Basquiat was born in Brooklyn in 1960; his father was Haitian and his mother a New York Puerto Rican who fostered a sense of creativity in her son from a very young age. Indeed, Basquiat would credit his mother Matilde for teaching him to draw and for introducing him to the art collections of The Brooklyn Museum, The Museum of Modern Art and The Metropolitan Museum of Art, stating later, "I'd say my mother gave me all the primary things. The art came from her" (J.M Basquiat, quoted in S. Hager, Art After Midnight: The East Village Scene, New York, 1986, p. 39)
Built on a rich visual assimilation of African masks, Voodooist figures and Christian imagery, Mater is typical of Basquiat's ability to synthesize diverse sources into a language that is distinctly his own. Raw and immediate, rather than the cold, classical beauty that fits conservative, "received" ideas of aesthetics, Mater defies the centuries-long treatment of women as objects of sensuality, desire or religious devotion. The aastonishingly physical, muscular execution of Mater also places it within a legacy of female imagery that had some brutality about them, be it Picasso's portraits of Dora Maar, de Kooning's Women or Dubuffet's Corps de dames. Although he sometimes preferred not to admit such influences, Basquiat was familiar with the work of all these artists and was in fact compared to Dubuffet in Rene Ricard's glowing article, "The Radiant Child" that had helped boost his fame the year before Mater was completed. "If Cy Twombly and Jean Dubuffet had a baby and gave it up for adoption, it would be Jean-Michel" Ricard wrote, "The elegance of Twombly is there ... and so is the brut of the young Dubuffet" (R. Ricard, "The Radiant Child", Artforum, December 1981, p. 35).
Standing naked, grasping towards the viewer in a gesture that can be read equally as rage, protest or euphoria, this deity is both sacred and profane, combining the curative power of an archetypal symbol of fertility with the fierce sexual energy often associated with divine female powers. Formally, the painting echoes several other important paintings from 1982, most notably the epically scaled Profit I and the untitled painting known as Baptism, which both feature half-length figures in open supplication. The theme of baptism as a ritualistic act of purification is a recurrent theme of Basquiat's art during this period. His work often played on the iconography of Christian saints. The halo was often employed to lend his figures an air of superiority and sanctity and was typically reserved for those figures with which Basquiat felt a close personal affinity. The halo, like the pointed crown, bestows a kind of mystical significance on the central figures of Basquiat's art, and, like the crown, can be seen as both a symbol of success and as a great burden. Indeed, Basquiat's halos often double as crowns-of-thorns, which can be perceived in the alternating red, yellow and blue spikes radiating both inwards and outwards from the nimbus encircling Mater, indicating a destiny of Christ-like sacrifice. Like so many of Basquiat's paintings of his heroes as saints, Mater is a modern-day scene of martyrdom, for his tragic heroes, like saints, all seem to die for our sins.