The Last Testament of Michael Mazur
Recently, I showed the film Fifi Howls from Happiness (2013) by Mitra Farahani to my undergraduate class. The film is about the last days of Bahman Mohassess (1931 – 2010), an Iranaian artist living in Rome in a hotel room that he seldom leaves. At one point, he tells an anecdote about the day Pablo Picasso died, followed by one about Salvador Dali lying on his deathbed, and sitting up and cursing a priest who has come to visit him. We see him laughing heartily after recounting each story. How to stage your departure as you shuck off your mortal coil was a subject that fascinated Mohassess, who knew his own end was fast approaching. Fahrani believes Mohassess wanted the film to be made, knowing it would document his death, and that it would be his final performance-cum-work-of-art.
A few days later, I went to see the exhibition Michael: Late Work, Rain and Flowers at Ryan Lee (October 25–December 22, 2018). The exhibition included five paintings, three of which were done the year he died, and in the small back gallery, 13 pen-and-ink drawings selected from the more than 100 Mazur did in the summer of 2009, when he had lost much of his mobility. Drawn on modest-sized sheets of paper, depicting cut flowers as well as plants and ferns growing in the artist’s backyard, they are dated between June 15 and August 17, 2009, the day before he died. Having looked at the entire set of drawings some years ago, I hope that someday they will be published together as a book, as they are a moving chronicle of a man who, facing the end of his life, spent each day saying hello and good-bye.
One drawing, titled “Hospital Bouquet #2, 7/03/09” (2009), is focused on a fulsome rose surrounded by leaves and buds; located just below the center of the sheet, it is the largest element in the picture. Another, smaller rose is seen above and behind it to the left. Although we know the distance between them is short, an inch or two at most, it feels impassable; each rose is held in place by the leaves and stems Mazur draws around them, as well as by the short abstract marks, hints of things, he makes between the two flowers.
Did he envision himself and his wife Gail, a poet, in this drawing, as he was intently looking at the bouquet sitting on the hospital table beside him? There is no symbolism, only his observation of the forms and edges. The lines describing the rose are firmer than those evoking the contours of the leaves on the bouquet’s outer edges. Mazur could have drawn the entire bouquet and the container they were placed in, but he did not.
This is the work of a consummate draftsman whose painterly intelligence was always probing, no matter what the circumstances were. In his last days, Mazur — who had been working from observation for many years — began drawing flowers, no doubt remembering that in the last six months of his life, Edouard Manet devoted himself to painting the bouquets of flowers that his friends brought to his Paris apartment.
I am certain that he also thought of Pierre-Joseph Redouté, the painter and botanist, whose watercolors earned him the appellation, the “Raphael of flowers.” Mazur, who lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and taught at Harvard, certainly knew of the Glass Flowers: The Ware Collection of Blaschka Glass Models of Plants housed in the Harvard Museum of Natural History, a destination point for many.
Like Manet — but working with pen and ink to draw a firm but delicate contour line — Mazur pared away everything he thought was unnecessary. What he wanted to get at, and did — was the ephemeral embodiment of beauty, fragility, and delicacy one encounters in a flower. However, unlike Manet, whose late flower paintings are nuanced profusions of color, Mazur eschewed color in favor of line, marks that he could not change or alter. That’s what it is breathtaking about these drawings. Each one is the result of Mazur’s belief that it was all or nothing, and that he had to be attuned to the plant.
Mazur’s response was a line that was tender, sinuous, fluid, erotic, and incomplete. He could — when he felt it necessary — draw a cluster of contours, conveying the multiplicity of a flower that has just passed its moment of fullness and is entering its decline. And, in the same drawing, “Untitled 8. 17. 09” (done the day before he died), he drew the stems whose petals had fallen. Sometimes a petal’s contour stops in midair, as if there was no need to make a complete, enclosing line. Stoicism and love informs each line he made.
Walking back out into the main room, where the five paintings hung, proved almost too much for me. I had met Michael and Gail shortly after I graduated from college in 1972. Years later, I met them again in Provincetown, Massachusetts, and spent time in Mazur’s studio there. He was prolific artist, energetic in his own work and generous to other artists and poets. After seeing the exhibition, Degas Monotypes, at the Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University (April 25, 1968–June 14, 1968), he became instrumental in the revival of the painterly monotype. At the beginning of this century, Michael Mazur: A Print Retrospective toured the US, with stops at the Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Center for Visual Arts at Stanford University, Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Museum at Rutgers University, and the Minneapolis Institute of Art.
Although Mazur was best known for his prints, the paintings that he did in the last years of his life ought to stir us to reconsider whatever preemptory conclusion the art establishment might have reached. In these paintings and in the “Rain” series that I had written about in The Brooklyn Rail (April 2010), the subject is water falling into water, temporary forms becoming formless. The sight of rain falling into water was one that Mazur knew well, as his house in Provincetown faced the bay, just a few steps down from his deck.
In contrast to the closely observed pen-and-ink drawings of flowers and plants, or of the sunflowers in his back yard, the paintings come from memory and imagination as well as from his years of making art. It seems that at the end of his life, he wanted to evoke his passage into chaos, to compose his farewell as well as greet what was coming toward him. There are ellipses, snaking vertical lines, swaths of scumbling, veils, and smudges, solidly painted shapes, and thin, watery drips. They suggest close-up views of Claude Monet’s ponds, but in the middle of a torrential rainstorm; everything is dissolving before your eyes.
And yet, instead of letting go, or turning away, Mazur chronicled his disappearance from the world while staying true to his belief that painting and art would sustain him to the end. These paintings have nothing to do with being fashionable and everything to do with life and death. What comes through is Mazur’s openness to making a painting that pushed his supple touch closer to annihilation.
Michael: Late Work, Rain and Flowers continues at at Ryan Lee Gallery (515 West 26th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through December 22, 2018.