That’s not entirely an overstatement. The local cultural “refinement” offerings were indeed scarce on the ground in the early ’70s. Beyond the hermetic academic milieus of Miami Dade College and the University of Miami, there was little in the way of a homegrown art scene. “When I was a kid in 1977, I really had the sensation that I had to get out. There was something telling me, You gotta go, this is not the place to be an artist!”

CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Sculpture fabrication work for Daniel Arsham in the studio and on stage (INSET); Sanchez’s studio with his Warbath, 2009, in the foreground; Block Island, 1983: (FROM LEFT) Bruno Schmidt, Kurt Thometz, Oliver Sanchez, Kenny Scharf, Min Thometz, Tereza Goncalves, Carmel Johnson and Adolfo Sanchez; The Sanchez-erected sculpture Kids during production (LEFT) and on display at Design Architecture Senior High; Kenny Scharf, Timothy Leary and Sanchez at Scharf’s New York studio in 1991; in-progress work for Daniel Arsham at Sanchez’s studio

In May of that year, Sanchez followed the lead of older brother Adolfo, decamping for Manhattan before the ink was barely dry on his Miami Dade College architecture diploma. Rent was cheap—$350 for a two-bedroom Upper West Side apartment with sweeping Broadway views— and commercial work on Madison Avenue was plentiful. By day you could find the Sanchez brothers putting their graphic design skills to use on a Condé Nast magazine ad layout, or on a quarterly report for a Wall Street firm. (“This was before desktop computers—all those bars and charts had to be done by hand,” Sanchez explains.) By night, the brothers threw themselves into what became the fabled ’80s East Village art explosion.

“I’ll never forget what Jean-Michel [Basquiat] said to me while we were walking on the street one night: ‘I’ll learn to draw later. First I want to get famous.’ Soon enough, there he was with a big show at [the gallery of] Annina Nosei,” Sanchez recalls of that famed painter’s breakout opening in 1981. “Everything was ripe, and everything was converging.” Musicians were making art, artists were staging plays, camera crews were flying in from Japan and newly wealthy collectors were driving in from New Jersey with outstretched checkbooks. Indeed, glancing at the exhibitions highlighted on Sanchez’s CV is like a documentary tour of that era’s hallmark shows: Sometimes solo, sometimes in collaboration, you could find the Sanchez brothers’ artwork at the Gracie Mansion Gallery’s “Famous Show” and the Downtowngoes- Uptown gala at the Holly Solomon Gallery’s “57th Street Between A and D,” as well as a string of events at the hallowed nightspots Club 57, Danceteria and The Mudd Club.

It’s a period that Sanchez looks back on with bittersweet feelings. Many of his closest friends were lost to AIDS, including his brother Adolfo. Others, such as Basquiat, died from drug overdoses. By decade’s end, the party was most certainly over: Working as a studio assistant for Day-Glo expressionist painter Kenny Scharf may have kept him at the heart of the East Village art scene, but Sanchez says walking around the neighborhood often felt like visiting a graveyard.

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