Michael Mazur, 1935 - 2009

By LLOYD SCHWARTZ  |  August 27, 2009

He refused to repeat himself. He explored narrative images (curating a show at MIT called The Narrative Impulse) and nature images, images based on Chinese landscapes (after a trip to China in 1987) and abstraction. He wrote a landmark essay on monoprints for the catalogue of a show at the Metropolitan Museum called "The Painterly Print" (it came to Boston's Museum of Fine Arts in 1981) and had a key one-man show, "Branching: The Art of Michael Mazur," that traveled to the DeCordova Museum in 1997 — pictures with ambiguous images of trees that also look like arteries. (In 1993, he had been diagnosed with heart disease.) In 2000, the Zimmerli Museum at Rutgers organized a major retrospective, "The Prints of Michael Mazur," that also included recent paintings and an ambitious catalogue raisonné. The show opened at Boston's MFA before traveling to the Minneapolis Art Institute, the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford, and, finally, the Zimmerli.

Mike also got more and more involved in the literary world. In 1982, he created a luminous, unsettling series of flower monoprints to accompany (not exactly to illustrate) a new translation of Baudelaire's Les fleurs du mal by Richard Howard that was published by David R. Godine. His paintings and drawings begin to appear on the covers of literary magazines: a portrait of Cavafy on Stratis Haviaras's magazine Arion's Dolphin; portraits of Seamus Heaney, Bill Knott, and Michael Harper for the issues of Ploughshares they guest-edited, and dazzling covers for Gail Mazur's two issues. Gail used paintings by Mike on the covers of three of her poetry books — The Pose of Happiness (a bedraggled but heroic wingback chair), The Common (a mysterious Cambridge backyard scene), and Zeppo's First Wife (a daffy, delicious abstraction) — and they collaborated on broadsides of her poems "Next Door" and "Young Apple Tree." He also created a sinister cover — the jawbone of a shark — for Robert Pinsky's collection The Want Bone.

Mike's best known work is probably the series of illustrations he did for Pinsky's translation of Dante's Inferno. Here is his "return" to Italy (he could actually read the original) and a blossoming of his early impulse to respond to Dante. They've been exhibited all over the world (including Italy). Pinsky's dramatization of Inferno used slide projections of Mike's images. Pinsky/Mazur lecture/readings went on the road. Except for the flaming-red cover, these black-and-white images are both beautiful and terrifying. Mike called them "parallel translations." I'd like to quote a paragraph from my essay "The Poetry of Illustration," which I wrote for The Prints of Michael Mazur catalogue, partly because it was Mike's favorite passage in that essay. It's about his image from the Canto in which Count Ugolino tells his harrowing story. He's frozen in the center of Hell, gnawing on the head of his arch-enemy, the archbishop who imprisoned and starved him and his sons, whom, after they died, Ugolino may have been driven to eat. Mazur's insight into Inferno is that Dante's great emotion is not horror but sadness.

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