Michael Mazur, 1935 - 2009

By LLOYD SCHWARTZ  |  August 27, 2009

Every detail of Mazur's monotype contributes to the tragic insight. Ugolino is in semi-profile. His head is tilted slightly back. His mouth is open in a wide O, pressed against the back of the Archbishop's skull. We focus on his eyes, glancing sidelong at his interlocutors, Dante and Virgil. And at us. The look combines guilt, suspicion, and the desire for exoneration, with the depths of sorrow and helplessness. This is his fate — there is nothing else he can do. He is looking at us — challenging us — to understand that none of us are exempt from this condition. Are those tears streaming down his cheek or just lines in his face? And in the distance is endless darkness. Mazur has risen to one of an artist's greatest challenges. This is one of the most graphic embodiments of the tragic vision by any artist — Aristotelian "pity and terror" — a devastating visualization of Dante's words that is finally also (and must be) beyond words.

In his last months, as he suffered from both dermatomyositis (a rare auto-immune disorder) and heart disease, the two illnesses requiring virtually opposite treatments, Mike's inexhaustible energy started to diminish, though not his artistry. He began a series of delicate pen-and-ink drawings of flowers and his gardens in Cambridge and Provincetown. He talked about how they were "like breathing on the page." And in their quiet heroism, fragility, wildness, and power, these "fleurs de bien" are self-portraits. The morning before he died, he'd done four of them; then he went into the room where Gail was on the phone and spread out his five fingers. Gail thought he meant he had now completed five, but he actually meant that he'd done five more! The following day, he asked Kathe, who was visiting from California, to take him to the Harvard Museum of Natural History so he could sketch the glass flowers. But his heart gave out before that visit. It doesn't seem possible that a heart so big could ever give out.

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