Michael Mazur: Stoneham Zoo (1976-1979)
Ryan Lee Gallery
515 West 26th Street
New York, New York
October 16 – November 15, 2014
There are only two days left to view an important exhibition of oils and pastels by Michael Mazur (1935-2009) at the Ryan Lee Gallery. In 1976 Mazur, at a time when he was forty-one and his career was reaching a substantial level, found himself drawn to Stoneham Zoo, which was in a rather derelict state at the time, if I remember correctly, and decided to create a series of works in the monkey cages there. It reminded him of work he had done in mental hospitals as a student and teacher, both offering art therapy and drawing the patients, which he saw more as inmates, people in captivity. As he developed this theme in his work, he began to draw more from memory. Around 1976 and in recent years he had been working concentratedly both with narrative scenes and with landscape. He approached the monkey cages with these three pursuits in mind. As he said in the In his 1993 interview for the Archives of American Art, “Then I decided to do some work on the monkey cages at Stoneham Zoo, which were very depressed and reminded me of the mental hospital. Telling the story of captured animals became important.” The project continued until 1979. He then showed the resulting series at the Robert Miller Gallery in New York, which he had just joined. They have not been shown since. The Stoneham Zoo paintings are crucial in Mazur’s career, because they are the immediate precursors and really part of some of his greatest work, those inspired by the Jonestown Massacre and The Incident at Walden Pond, now in the Pennsylvania Academy of Art.
In the gallery you will find several large oils and two large pastels, as well as one small oil of an individual monkey. The point of view is set well back, as if Mazur were painting the creatures’ habitat in the jungle, but instead of lush tropical vegetation they are surrounded by filthy institutional walls and dead branches. The primates, reduced in scale by their distance, disappear into the gloom of their captivity as if they were in fog. Or eyes are often led away from the monkeys and their faces by random details—unidentifiable objects which attracted the artist’s attention by their texture, shape, or some glistening highlight. Mazur’s sophisticated palette, in which primary colors are as absent as straight lines in prehistoric cave painting, creates this heavy atmosphere of captivity, the degraded environment, and even, in an ennobled way, the ghastly fetor which permeates even well-maintained monkey cages. The monkeys themselves seem barely alive, deprived of even the most basic drives by the scientific habit and educational ritual of their human cousins. This may seem all too depressing to tempt anyone into crossing the High Line, but in fact it is not at all. Michael Mazur was above all an artist, and he developed the ability and moral energy to bring his audience into the world of art, where they can be uplifted by color, space, and form.
Michael Mazur was a native New Yorker who made Cambridge his home. He was attracted into and educated in art as a young child by a talented nanny. After finishing at Horace Mann School, where Henry Geldzahler and Edward Koren were among his classmates, he made his first move to New England to attend Amherst College. There he was able to study with Leonard Baskin, immersing him early on in printmaking, the medium for which he is perhaps best known, but which was only a part of a career which included sculpture and installations along with the media respresented by this show. He constantly perfected his mastery of many techniques and progressed still further into experimentation. He spent a year in Italy, taking a year off from Amherst, as well as the Yale Summer School at Norfolk, Connecticut, going on to study for an B.F.A. at Yale. Here he was trained by Josef Albers and others, above all the printmaker Gabor Peterdi. He also assisted the sculptor Naum Gabo in making a set of etchings.
Mazur’s early introduction to printmaking and his success in it inspired his respect for drawing and stimulated a perfectionistic bent that led him to master pastel and painting with the kind of virtuosity that extends far back into the tradition of printmaking, but which reached a particularly high level in the second half of the twentieth century. In the world of prints artists, teachers, curators, and collectors tend to become obsessed with the technical aspects of the processes, and there is many a print that was made simply to show that a particular feat could be done. This produces and aesthetic which can either be fruitful for the artist’s imagination or it can be sterile. Partly to enrich his creativity as a printmaker and partly to escape from its obsessiveness, Mazur turned to the other media, which he had already studied Yale. He also realized that the printmakers who had left the most significant mark on the history of art were grounded in painting and sculpture, like Dürer, Mantegna, Goya, Degas, and Picasso. One result of this confluence of different streams in his creative life, inspired by his visits to a Degas exhibition at the Fogg art Museum at Harvard, was his supreme mastery of the monotype, a process that uses printing plates and ink to produce unique works—a medium superficially like painting, but in fact entirely different, since the painter can make changes by adding layers of paint, and the monotypist can only move the ink around on the plate.
Another aspect of his encylopedic interests in art was literary. His first artistic work for a public began in high school, with his illustrations for the Horace Mann literary magazine. Leonard Baskin was largely and illustrator. When Mazur visited Italy he took pains to learn Italian well and read the Divine Comedy in the original. His wife Gail developed into an important poet, who published her first collection, Nightfire, in 1978, when her husband was in the midst of the Stoneham Zoo project. Through her and his own predilections, he was knit into the rich literary world that revolved around Cambridge and Provincetown, where the Mazurs became leaders at the Fine Arts Work Center. The best known product of this was Mazur’s set of illustrations to Robert Pinsky’s translation of Dante’s Inferno.
Mazur was also a teacher, at first from economic necessity, at RISD, Brandeis, and other schools, but later less, after he made the conscious decision to support himself and his family from the sale of his work. He continued to teach on a less burdensome schedule after that, particularly at Harvard. This began in 1977, again at the same moment in his career as Stoneham Zoo. Later in his career he became especially committed to improving art education in schools and to improve the economic situation of the artist. This involved activism and advocacy, as well as much committee work.
During the sixties his progressive beliefs flourished in the anti-war movement and other organized forms of activism. He was a co-founder of Artists against Racism and War, and he collaborated on the installation piece, The American Way, which attracted much atention in Boston and traveled extensively elsewhere.
Michael Mazur was an outstanding example of the highest values in the stream of eurocentric, mostly representational art which developed just before American pop culture took hold of the art world centered around New York. Few artists, even in this group, were as literate as he, not only in the history of art, but in literature. His self-nourishment from the works he sought out in museums and galleries, sophisticated enough steer clear of imitation, enriched his work immensely and influenced the tone of the visual arts as made and shown in Boston. His committee work has left its mark on public and private support for artists in Massachusetts and the United States at large, whether or not present practices would come up to his standards. The Stoneham Zoo series not only represents his impressive technical prowess as an artist, but his command of mood and atmosphere in telling a morally significant story—a story which is intended to influence our beliefs and behavior—as well as his deep social commitment.
Mazur exhibited in New York from his Yale days onwards. It is more than fitting that Mary Ryan give the New Yorkers of 2014 a hard look at his core work.