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Derek Fordjour, From Anguish to Transcendence

But he found it liberating to work with charcoal on newspaper — the only surface he could afford for a time. And he was making friends on the art scene like Hank Willis Thomas. Mickalene Thomas let him help in the studio; her work with fractured surfaces, bright color, and neon, he said, unlocked his own imagination.

By the time Mr. Fordjour enrolled at Hunter, his friends were alerting collectors. The construction executive Joseph Mizzi offered him an exhibition in his office in 2013. He accepted, recalling advice from Mark Bradford: “Show anywhere.” The painter Henry Taylor turned up and bought a sculpture.

“It just started happening, man,” Mr. Fordjour said. “I haven’t even put it together for myself.”

In the studio last month, collaboration was in the air. Art by friends hung in the conference room. On Zoom, Mr. Fordjour checked in with Hollywood designers, one a friend from high school, who were crafting his new installation. The puppet artists worked upstairs.

Mr. Fordjour contemplated how this year had elevated the stakes.

Last March, he was sued by a former gallerist, Robert Blumenthal, who claimed that Mr. Fordjour reneged on a deal they agreed to in 2014, to deliver 20 canvases. Mr. Fordjour’s lawyers call the pending case “meritless,” and have filed for its dismissal.

It was not lost on him that as his prominence grows, his own position resembles more and more the archetypal performers he has painted balancing between anguish and transcendence.

“To some degree maybe these are self-portraits,” he said, showing a painting of an argyle-clad man on a unicycle, holding balls in both hands, with another ball on his neck.

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