In Memoriam Michael Mazur, 1935–2009
The fall 2009 issue, AGNI 70, includes a special section commemorating the life of artist, friend, and AGNI contributor Michael Mazur. We include here a remembrance that arrived after the issue went to press.
In the late 1970s, I took Michael’s legendary class on monotype at Harvard. He was a force of nature in an environment still gripped by abstraction and the weight of history. He was out there, in the world, recording it all with his paintbrush, enraptured by a leaf, a root, a flower—the darkness and the light. He always seemed to have just come in from outside—wearing blue jeans and a denim workshirt, paintbrush in hand, talking about Degas and Rembrandt as if they were his friends, as if he’d just seen them the week before and they’d had a long, luxurious conversation about art. He made it feel alive.
Michael taught us to look deeply at nature—not Nature in the abstract, but nature as life. In the middle of winter, he took us to the Harvard Botanical Garden greenhouses to draw the plants, to love the plants, to caress the curves and colors of the leaves—to observe the underlying structure and the flow.
In the studio, he gave each of us a zinc plate and showed us how to polish it to a high shine. Then he showed us how to use it as a mirror, and we painted our self-portraits in oily black ink. He showed us how to lay down a sheet of wet paper, cover it with blankets, and run it through the press; and he showed us how pale, faded images of past impressions cling to the paper like shadows. They are called “ghosts.” He showed us how to rework the plate, to run it through the press again and again, so that the final proof is an accumulation of all the changes that have been made.
This was monotype—a metaphor for memory—an ancient, accidental form that he reclaimed and made his own.
A few years later, when I was at Art New England, I wrote a story about Wakeby Day and Wakeby Night, his panels of monumental monotypes inspired by a favorite pond near the summer house in Cape Cod—a gorgeous watery world of leaves and pods and fronds and blossoms, sunflowers, gladioli, tangled reeds, all pulsing with the drama of delight and decay. I spent a day at Stanhope Etching Studio, watching him work, listening to him talk, totally immersed in the immense prints. I knew he was married to a poet, Gail Mazur, and so I filled my story with poetry, especially T. S. Eliot’s “In a minute there is time / for decisions and revisions which another minute will reverse,” which still makes me think of Michael and those days watching him work—putting something in, taking something out, standing back to contemplate, moving back in one more time, and one more time again.
Then came the fluid, ghost-filled monotypes Michael made for Robert Pinsky’s translations of Dante, so perfectly attuned to the poetry, with its wonderful imagery of dark deep woods, flowing water, and a glimpse beyond to a “shining world” and a vision of “Some of the beautiful things that Heaven bears.”
One of the last times I saw Michael was at a reading at the new ICA in Boston, organized by Lloyd Schwartz, an evening of poets reading poems by Emily Dickinson. Looking very lovingly at Michael, Gail read Dickinson’s “Wild nights! Wild nights!” which ends, “Rowing in Eden – / Ah, the Sea! / Might I but moor – To-night – / In Thee!”
Michael’s wild and luxurious and ghost-filled body of work is moored in the museum now. In 2005, he gave the Museum of Fine Arts his entire archive of editioned prints—including “Wakeby Day, Wakeby Night”—in honor of his great friend Clifford Ackley, the museum’s curator of prints and drawings, whose feeling for nature and reverence for art match Michael’s own.
And on October 19, the museum held a celebration of Michael’s life and work. Poets, artists, family, and friends spoke eloquently about his love of life and his dedication to his art. One friend recalled Michael telling him that he knew he was an artist when he ran back across the campus after lunch to finish a painting he’d been working on; his daughter Kathe remembered him saying to her, “There’s never a bad day in the studio.” Gail spoke of his painting in the air as he slept, and read her most beautiful poem, about a young apple tree; Elizabeth King and Cliff Ackley spoke of the ink drawings of flowers Michael made every day during his final weeks.
For me, that image of Michael in his last days making pictures of plants, “Some of the beautiful things that Heaven bears, ” is the accumulation of all the visions and revisions that came before—the final proof.