EssaysWeekend

Some Follow-up Thoughts on Michael Mazur (1935–2009)

Mazur, After Chao Meng-fu (1995)
Michael Mazur, “After Chao Meng-fu” (1995) (all images courtesy Ryan Lee, New York)

In the catalogue accompanying the exhibition Looking East: Brice Marden, Michael Mazur, Pat Steir at the Boston University Art Gallery (January 18–February 24, 2002), John Stromberg opens his essay, “Michael Mazur: A Delicate Balance” with this sentence: “Michael Mazur’s path to his recent paintings based on Chinese art has been less than linear.” Couldn’t this observation have also been made about Marden and Steir? Although Stromberg’s use of the qualifying “less than” suggests that he believes that Mazur’s trajectory is more difficult to characterize than that of the other two artists, which it is, one also detects a trace of the writer’s unease.

I wonder if this unease is because Mazur was, to use another loaded term, inconsistent. My reason for using this term is derived from something that Clement Greenberg wrote in “Manet in Philadelphia” (Artforum, January 1967):

[Edouard] Manet’s case makes it quite clear that consistency is not an artistic virtue in itself. It did not keep him, any more than his prodigious skill with the brush did, from creating great works of art that are not tours de force and have nothing to do with virtuosity. Nevertheless, his inconsistency does seem to offer an obstacle to many people. They find it difficult to get his art into clear focus. It’s their own fault, of course, rather than Manet’s. One looks at one picture at a time, one looks at single works, not a whole oeuvre. Or rather, one should.

However, it is the opening sentence of the very next paragraph where I part ways with Greenberg:

Manet’s inconsistency can be attributed more to his plight as the first modernist painter than to his temperament.

In her indispensable book, Manet Manette (Yale University Press, 2002), Carol M. Armstrong points out that Greenberg “had to assimilate his inconsistent Manet to the terms of heroic modernism…” Certainly, one senses that he was uncomfortable with the possibility that Manet’s inconsistency had more to do with his temperament than with his being the first modernist painter, which may explain why he goes to such lengths to separate him from the Impressionists. As Armstrong points out, Greenberg proposes that Manet “was not even the forebear of Impressionism … ”

I agree with Greenberg when he asserts that the viewer should look at single works, which, in the case of Michael Mazur, adds up to quite a lot. As a painter, he worked with brushes, airbrushes, spray paint and stencils, in both acrylic and oil. He painted studio paintings as well as from nature. He depicted bland suburban streets and dramatic staged scenes. At different periods in his life, he was a sculptor, a social documentarian, a narrative painter, a literary artist, a realist working from observation and an abstract artist inspired by Chinese art. He liked to work in series, but there are plenty of one-offs. He could have become slick or jokey, like Jim Dine (also born in 1935), but he never did. As I have written elsewhere, he started out as a printmaker, and became a painter.

Another reason Mazur’s work is impossible to characterize is because, throughout his life, whatever medium he was using, he maintained a practice of ceaseless activity. What rescues his work is his “prodigious skill,” as Greenberg said of Manet, in a wide range of mediums, from etching and drawing to monotypes and painting. I think he realized that his skill could become a trap if he developed a style, and so he kept working (and experimenting), trying out different approaches, techniques, materials, and subject matter until something grabbed his attention, challenged him.

Michael Mazur, “Lake III” (1996)

Looking at the paintings that he did in the early ’70s, close-up views of paint tubes lying on a mesh-like surface, it is also apparent that, for Mazur, abstraction and realism were neither separate nor incompatible. I think the porous border between seemingly distinct modes of perception, regarding what is abstract and what is representational, preoccupied Mazur throughout his life as much as anything could, including his humanist concerns. He wasn’t looking for solutions as much as ways to frame the permeable boundaries supposedly separating one mode from the other.

According to Stromberg, “When he left school in 1961, Greenbergian formalism had what Mazur perceived to be a stranglehold on American art.” More than thirty years later, in an interview conducted by Robert Brown for the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Mazur made this statement about his time as a student of Leonard Baskin and of his own relationship to the art of early 1960s, Minimalism and Pop Art:

Leonard [Baskin} was on the younger side of that older generation. He wasn’t on the young side of the new generation. He railed against abstraction and contemporary American modernism. With Baskin, I had a reactionary situation. Had to deal with the fact I was being trained as a figurative artist, subtly. I was happy with what I was learning, and never had great longings to become part of that newer generation. In a way, I was retardaire but not anxious about it. I had to find my own way through all this, and that is the subject of my life’s work.

Mazur’s sense that he had to find his own way through the history of art, and that this process of looking and learning from other art was the subject of his work seems to me to be key. At the same time, as both space and content were being squeezed out of art by Frank Stella and others, Mazur recognized that he was going at art from a very different position, as he makes clear to Brown in the interview:

I was happy with the choice of dealing with content, not the form of the art. Basically, content drove my engine, but the form always interested me, in terms of its relationship to the content. In one way or another, the influences of form-makers—I think that’s the best way of talking about them, not as abstract or figurative—form-making, the facture of making paintings or drawings or prints, that has interested me and had its influence on me throughout all the work.

Within this ongoing argument about the relationship between content and form, Mazur says something to Brown that I think gives us a glimpse into his thinking:

My graphic qualities were noted, but the problems of what a painting means and how it becomes made in the growth of the process are different from drawing and printmaking problems. I’ve said to students who were really interested in drawing, when they paint they are going to have to give up some of the controls they’ve learned in graphic media. It takes a long time to learn how to let a medium evolve out of its own substance.

Although Mazur is too modest to come right out and say it, what I sense in this statement is his ambition to do it all: painting; drawing; printmaking. A contemporary master of etching, lithography and monotype (the unique painterly print, which is closest to painting, and which allows the artist to improvise), Mazur also had to learn to let go of being in control. As an artist who had mastered line and contour and all the techniques of etching, Mazur had to undo his own training, what could have become habits of thinking and doing, in order to move on.

If we accept Mazur’s sense — and I see no reason why we shouldn’t believe him — that his life’s work is a record of his engagement with art in all of its forms, from the Renaissance to the contemporary to the nonwestern, and the questions art raises, then we should look at his paintings as being confirmations of his passions and education, of what he was driven to take on.

Michael Mazur, “Gail’s Island III” (1998)

Although Mazur tells Brown that he was trained as a figurative artist and that he was content driven, it is clear from the paintings he did throughout the 70s, that the relationship between form and content, as well as between figuration and abstraction, were foremost in his mind. In that sense, Mazur might have regarded Minimalism and Pop Art as solutions, ways of choosing one over the other, which would not have appealed to him.

While the Painterly Realism of Fairfield Porter appealed to Mazur, and he told Brown how much he admired Porter’s art criticism, he was both a highly trained, incredibly gifted graphic artist committed both to mark-making and to making socially conscious art, as evidenced by his prints based on working in a mental hospital.

The stained, peeling walls, standing partly in sunlight and partly in shadow, of the stone enclosures housing the apes depicted in the series, Stoneham Zoo (1976-79), attest to the artist’s commitment to mark-making. In these walls, Mazur saw a decrepit two-dimensional surface that would dissolve the distinction between the representational and the abstract, where he could register the interplay of sunlight and shadows and whatever else he saw.   Instead of accepting the relationship between abstraction and representational art as hierarchical, or recognizing them as an either/or decision, could he embrace both at the same time, and successfully challenge the efficacy of this categorization? In this way, Mazur is a radical painter.

During the first half of the 70s, Mazur did a number of very good paintings, but it is in the Stoneham Zoo (1976 – 79) that he exceeded everything he did previously. It is his first major breakthrough in painting, in which he synthesizes divergent, seemingly incompatible strains, such as social documentation, abstraction and figuration, without privileging one over the other. Nearly forty years after Mazur started the series, the subject of captivity remains timely and, in an unsettling sense, timeless.

It is also evident that Mazur did many remarkable observational paintings during the 1980s, which culminate in a second breakthrough. At the same time, as I suggested earlier, Mazur seems to do things in reverse or go about them the wrong way. For example, throughout his career Mazur didn’t eliminate the brushstroke — what Greenberg deridingly called “the Tenth Street touch,” and which Andy Warhol’s use of silkscreen is supposed to have made obsolete. Additionally, even when he was inspired by Chinese art, notably by a trip he made to China in 1987, and became more gestural and intuitive in his application of paint, he did not accept one of the longstanding, underlying assumptions of New York-based abstraction, dating back at least to Frank Stella, which was the widely accepted belief that abstract painting could be both objective and immediately accessible.

Moreover, in contrast to Marden and Steir, you cannot trace Mazur’s “Chinese” paintings back to Abstract Expressionism, particularly Jackson Pollock or, for that matter, Franz Kline. Nor, for the sake of argument, can you trace them back to the geometric side of Abstract Expressionism, Barnett Newman or Ad Reinhardt. It seems to me that in Mazur’s case, the breakthroughs come about when he finds a way to undo his graphic mastery, when he, as he stated to Brown, “learn[s] how to let a medium evolve out of its own substance.” As an observational painter, Mazur was one of the very best, as his Stoneham Zoo (1976 – 79) make evident. Eschewing style, he refused to repeat himself or continue in this vein. That, I would say, is what makes Mazur seem inconsistent. But, as with Manet, Mazur’s inconsistency is inextricable from his pictorial ambition.

Michael Mazur, “Dragons Rockery” (1997-98)

For Mazur, his trip to China in 1987 prompted him to reevaluate his entire approach to subject matter, mark-making and composition. As Stromberg points out, after returning from China, “Mazur began to experiment with printing and painting on silk.” Stromberg goes on to say that:

Inspired now by a variety of Chinese painting and calligraphy, Mazur allows his brush to linger or accelerate in response to his own intuited gestures – themselves responses to the subjects. His brushwork no longer answers to the dictates of replication, but rather to the momentary imperatives of his mark-making. As well, he allowed the media – the paint and silk – to have a hand in the process. The pigments stain beyond the path of his brush as the liquid is absorbed by the dry silk. Mazur can only control this so far and these works denote a turning point in his personal philosophy on creation.

In Stoneham Zoo (1976-79), we see Mazur’s brushwork answering to “the dictates of replication.” Everywhere in these paintings we see evidence of the artist’s sensitivity to changing light, surfaces, form, materiality and space. Clearly, these paintings place him among the best realist painters of his generation. A decade later, in 1989, Mazur remains sensitive and open to these perceptual states, but in a completely different way that continues to change and develop right up his death in 2009.

There is something extraordinary about this change because, in order to effect it, Mazur had give up a lot of what he knew and mastered, and, perhaps more importantly, he had to surrender control. Literally and metaphorically speaking, he had to start over and reinvent himself. The space becomes ambiguous. Where the blotchy walls we see in the zoo paintings approach abstraction, the forms in paintings such as “Dragon’s Rockery” (1997-98) and “Gail’s Island III” (1998) seem to be melting into non-objectivity. The liquidity we see in these works is unlike anything that Mazur has done before in painting.

As Stromberg points out, Mazur researched both specific Chinese paintings and studied Chinese aesthetics. As with the Stoneham Zoo, he studied his subject closely in an attempt to become a western painter steeped in Chinese art. The closest parallel I can think of is Guiseppe Castiglione (1688-1766), an Italian Jesuit lay brother who became a painter in the court of the Chinese emperor, and whose paintings of horses are a unique synthesis of European feeling and Chinese methods.

Michael Mazur, "Night Rain 2" (2009)
Michael Mazur, “Night Rain 2” (2009)

It seems to me that by 1994, in paintings such as those titled “After Chao Men Fu,” the transformation is complete. In subsequent paintings, “Dragon’s Rockery” (1997-98) and “Gail’s Island III” (1998), for example, it is amply evident just how far Mazur has traveled to reinvent his idiom. The paint coalesces into indefinite forms as well as it flows and drips down the surface. Mazur depicts a domain that is both solid and watery, forming and dissolving. Along with changing his approach to painting, inspired in part by his years of working in monotype, Mazur embraced a key philosophical aspect of Chinese aesthetics. The classical Chinese artist’s primary goal is to be true to the essence of reality, which might be understood as the inner forces of things, rather than with outward appearances. This required that the artist be alert to the fact that reality is constantly undergoing change, birth and destruction. The only constant is change.

Between 1979 and 1987, the year he went to China, Mazur moved from states of confinement to states of constant change, from pitch perfect replication to improvisation and visual uncertainty. In the “Rain” paintings, which constitute the last body of paintings Mazur completed before his death, he focuses on a subject we associate with replenishment and rebirth. This is what I wrote about them in The Brooklyn Rail (April, 2010):

In these paintings, there is no place to stand. We are just above the water, and, like the rain, we are falling into it, and dissolving. The ripples we make may last, as they do in the paintings, or they may dissipate and vanish. We have no way of knowing how the world will remember us. The paintings don’t point to a far shore—they don’t offer security or comfort. They don’t promise to reveal the next image or place. We are out in the rain, and there is nothing to protect us. We are here, the paintings show us, and this is what we have—oil paint and water, a bad mix.

To face the possibility of adding up to nothing near the end of one’s life takes courage and honesty. It means that you know that painting can’t save you, that nothing can, and that you didn’t become a painter because you thought it would. This is what makes painters so necessary to our lives—the best ones keep looking long after most of us turn away. They see what we all know to be true, and they don’t back away from it or avert their eyes. I think that the act of seeing clearly is what frightens most people, why so many want to say that painting is obsolete, that it died. They want to believe that they know how the story will turn out. Michael Mazur knew this wasn’t true, and he kept painting and looking. That’s something that we should all aspire to.

If we focus only on these two very different kinds of paintings, Stoneham Zoo (1976-1979) and the varied body of work Mazur did after returning from China (which leaves out many other remarkable works, starting in the 1970s), I think it is clear what a remarkable and challenging journey he undertook as an artist. Rilke’s impossible injunction comes to mind: “You must change your life.” Mazur is one of the few artists I can think of who did just that.

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