Can I Be a Witness?

Michael Mazur, “Cage at Stoneham 24” (1977), oil on canvas, 66 x 66 inches (all images courtesy Ryan Lee Gallery, New York)

In his New York Times obituary (August 30, 2009) for the artist Michael Mazur (1935–2009), William Grimes opened with this description:

Michael Mazur, a relentlessly inventive printmaker, painter and sculptor whose work encompassed social documentation, narrative and landscape while moving back and forth between figuration and abstraction, died on Aug. 18 in Cambridge, Mass.

Later on, Grimes quotes Clifford Ackley, the chairman of prints and drawings at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston:

It’s hard to characterize him because he was always trying new things… He did not fall into the trap of repeating himself the way so many older artists do. In the last week of his life he was doing pen-and-ink drawings of flowers and gardens.

I have been thinking about the difficulty of characterizing Mazur in part because, while he became highly celebrated as a printmaker, his paintings have never received nearly the same attention. Once a label is attached, it takes years to remove it.

In 2000, a large exhibition of the artist’s prints in different mediums (from etching and woodblock to lithography and monotype) toured the United States. The exhibition was accompanied by the catalogue, The Prints of Michael Mazur: with a Catalogue Raisonné 1956-1999 (New York: Hudson Hills, in Association with Jane Voorhees Zimmerlî Museum, 2000), with an Introduction by the show’s organizer, Trudy V. Hansen, and essays by Ackley, Barry Walker and Lloyd Schwartz.

However, no substantial catalog surveying Mazur’s paintings exists. I don’t think the reasons for this are all that hard to explain. Mazur’s explorations of the monotype and trace monotype, which were inspired by seeing Edgar Degas: Monotypes at the Fogg Art Museum at Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1968 and Paul Gauguin: Monotypes at the Philadelphia Art Museum in 1973, are widely celebrated as well as central to the medium’s revival. Mazur is renowned for his mastery of the unique painterly print.

Herein lies one reason that Mazur is not better known as a painter. In contrast to Degas and Gauguin, who started out as painters and later became printmakers, Mazur did the reverse. As an undergraduate, he took classes with Leonard Baskin. As a student in the MFA program at Yale, he studied printmaking with Gabor Peterdi. He first gained attention in the early 1960s for his prints, which the Fogg Art Museum and the Museum of Modern Art, New York, obtained for their collections. In these linear prints, which were based on the artist’s experience working at the Howard State Mental Facility in Providence, Massachusetts, Mazur found one of the conditions he would return to throughout is life: confinement and isolation.

As much as I love Mazur’s prints, I never wrote about them. Instead, I wrote about two groups of paintings, both done late in his life, after he learned that he had heart disease in 1993 and underwent a balloon angioplasty procedure. The first group I wrote about was the “Diary Paintings” (2004-2005), in which he used stencils and spray paint on small formats. Understandably, there was something decisive and urgent about these works. Seemingly, Mazur had given up all the painting techniques he mastered, in favor of spray paint and stencil signs, both in response to his health and to 9/11. I remember teasing him and saying that he had become a graffiti tagger.”

The second group I write about was his “Rain” paintings (2008), done shortly before he died, in which the subject is the inevitability of dissipation. I found these paintings haunting and moving. The echo between the falling rain and the dissipating lines of painting was unmistakable and unsentimental. It was as if he were recording how much further he had fallen each day, while simultaneously celebrating painting at its bare-bones best. Since death was striding toward him, he was going to caress its face until he knew what it looked like.

In both groups of work, Mazur focuses on gravity, on things falling and coming apart. However, it was only recently, when I became more familiar with his early work, that I learned that he used an airbrush in the late 1960s to make a number of large paintings depicting an easel and chair in a studio. The atmosphere in these works ranges from stark to moody, while the focus could be sharp or blurry. Thinking about them in the trajectory of his work, it occurred to me that Mazur’s interest in that slippery state when a form is both emerging and dissolving began early in his career, and that it was a state of seeing (and being) he returned to over the next forty years. This perceptual state, I would suggest, is a counterpart to his interest in confinement and isolation.

Michael Mazur, “Cage at Stoneham II” (1976), pastel on paper, 40 1/2 x 64 1/2 inches

In 1974, Mazur met the artist Mary Frank and they began going to the zoo to draw the animals. In 1976, Mazur returned to the theme of confinement in a group of paintings and pastels based on visits to the Stoneham Zoo. In 1980, paintings from the series, Stoneham Zoo (1976–1979) were shown in New York at Robert Miller. Recently, after not being seen for more than thirty years, a selection of paintings and pastels from the series was exhibited at Ryan Lee (October 16–November 15, 2014). I was gobsmacked. For one thing, they don’t look dated at all. Second, the relationship between figuration and abstraction seem as much the subject of the paintings as the primates they depict living (if you can call it that) in squalid conditions. Although Mazur has been characterized as a narrative realist interested in “social documentation,” it seems to me that this early interest in the porous border between abstraction and figuration never ceased to be of interest to him. Third, the interplay between subject matter and paint is what makes these social and narrative views both bearable and discomfiting.

A loving touch and an exquisite sense of color and light go full tilt in Stoneham Zoo (1976–1979), even as the subject matter is on the cusp of being repellent. This is the kind of challenge that most artists, no matter what the medium, avoid: to confront and stroke difficult subject matter, to be open and sympathetic without trivializing or becoming sentimental. This is what Cormac McCarthy does with the repugnant Lester Ballard in his short novel, Child of God (1973), and what Mazur does with his primates in Stoneham Zoo (1976–1979).

Michael Mazur, “Cage at Stoneham III” (1976), pastel on paper, 40 1/2 x 64 1/2 inches

Remembering that Mazur’s first success was with Closed Ward (1962–63), a portfolio of etchings and aquatints depicting patients in the locked ward of a psychiatric hospital, and that in 1992 he would do a widely acclaimed series of monotypes illustrating the poet/translator Robert Pinsky’s translation of The Inferno of Dante (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1994), one gets another sense of why he did not achieve more acclaim as an a painter. With such disturbing subject matter, you can keep a portfolio of prints in a drawer and place a book on shelf, but paintings are either seen or hidden: there’s no middle ground.

In the paintings and pastels from the series, Stoneham Zoo (1976 – 1979), you can marvel at the abstract passages and the refection of light on the walls or floor of the enclosure, but then it hits you: the primates are neither playing nor looking at each other. Each one is sunk in its own isolated space. This is a view of hopelessness, neglect and, occasionally, aggression. One forceful feature of these paintings is Mazur’s devotion to objectivity, to being true to every square inch of the concrete enclosures, with their peeling paint and blotchy surfaces, in which the primates lived. Doing the opposite of what viewers might expect, Mazur refuses to be expressive or comment on what he is painting. Rather, he makes the painting’s surface the fourth wall of the enclosure, so that we are on the border between being inside or outside.

There are passages in the mottled walls that glow, while other parts are in shadow. Mazur can evoke the multiform paintings of Mark Rothko without sinking into parody. And then we see the primates sitting around, inmates meant to entertain us, except there is nothing remotely amusing or diverting about them. Once we are recognize that the primates’ dark forms become another kind of blotch in the dappled field, we get a sense that abstraction is masking something we might not want to see, and how easily seeing can become unreliable.

Michael Mazur, “Cage at Stoneham 23” (1977), oil on canvas, 66 x 66 inches

I think what also haunted Mazur from the beginning was the question of what it took to be a witness. I believe this is what he was thinking about in his next series of paintings, Incident at Walden Pond (1977–78), where someone is being chased, but the who and the why are not clear. The fact that he changes both the setting and the way he paints in these works is what made viewers uneasy ¬– that and the seedy subject matter. This is an artist who could have painted palatable subject matter and been celebrated, but refused to do so. At the same time he successfully resisted becoming an illustrator of angst or torment, and refused to turn himself into a producer of unsavory subjects.

This is what Mazur does so well in these paintings – he gets a tight dance going between paint and subject matter. Back in the last century, at a high school dance, supposedly you could not hold your partner so close that a book, a rather thick one, couldn’t fit between you, or so the cliché goes. In Mazur’s best paintings, you can’t wedge anything between paint and subject matter. It is the paint that makes the subjects work, not the other way around. Never developing a style, moving restlessly from one subject to another, and from one kind of depiction to another, Mazur doesn’t make it easy for someone trying to come to terms with his work. Why should he? That’s not his job.

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