Michael Mazur, Artist of Realism and Abstraction, Dies at 73
By William Grimes
Michael Mazur, a relentlessly inventive printmaker, painter and sculptor whose work encompassed social documentation, narrative and landscape while moving back and forth between figuration and abstraction, died on Aug. 18 in Cambridge, Mass. He was 73 and lived in Cambridge and Provincetown, Mass.
The cause was congestive heart failure, said Mary Ryan, his New York dealer.
Mr. Mazur first came to public notice in the early 1960s with two series of etchings and lithographs depicting inmates in a mental asylum in Howard, R.I. The series, “Closed Ward” and “Locked Ward,” rendered with the hand of a master draftsman, showed human beings in unbearable torment.
These lost souls, John Canaday wrote in The New York Times, “have the terrible anonymity of individuals who cannot be reached, whose ugly physical presence is only the symptom of a tragic spiritual isolation.”
Mr. Mazur’s restless artistic temperament led him to explore a variety of styles and media, shuttling between realism and abstraction. He produced narrative paintings like “Incident at Walden Pond,” a triptych from the late 1970s depicting the aftermath of a rape, and, beginning in the 1990s, abstract landscapes based on his own vascular system and on Chinese landscapes of the 12th to 15th centuries.
After seeing an exhibition of Degas monotypes at the Fogg Museum in 1968, he began exploring that medium, most notably in the monumental Wakeby landscapes of 1983, depicting Wakeby Lake on Cape Cod, and in a series of illustrations for Robert Pinsky’s translation of Dante’s “Inferno,” published in 1994.
“It’s hard to characterize him because he was always trying new things,” said Clifford S. Ackley, the chairman of prints, drawings and photographs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. “He did not fall into the trap of repeating himself the way so many older artists do. In the last week of his life he was doing pen-and-ink drawings of flowers and gardens.”
Michael Burton Mazur grew up on the Upper East Side of Manhattan and attended the Horace Mann School in the Bronx, where he belonged to an art club whose members included the future curator Henry Geldzahler and the future New Yorker cartoonist Ed Koren.
While attending Amherst College he studied with the printmaker and sculptor Leonard Baskin, who was teaching at Smith College. After taking a year off to study in Italy, where his lifelong fascination with Dante began, he received a bachelor’s degree in 1957 and went on to earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees in fine art from the Yale School of Art and Architecture.
While at Yale he married Gail Beckwith, a poet known by her married name. She survives him, as do their two children, Dan, of Cambridge, and Kathe, of Los Angeles, and two grandchildren.
Mr. Mazur taught at the Rhode Island School of Design and Brandeis University from 1961 to 1975 while exhibiting frequently in New York and Boston.
In 2000 a traveling retrospective of his prints opened at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. The catalog, “The Prints of Michael Mazur With a Catalogue Raisonné, 1956-1999,” was published that year. “I’ll Tell What I Saw,” a selection of excerpts from Dante’s “Divine Comedy” illustrated by Mr. Mazur, is to be published by Sarabande Books in November.
Although deadly serious as an artist, Mr. Mazur had a sly wit. In 1984 he wrote an article for the Op-Ed page of The New York Times proposing a W.P.A.-style project under which artists could decorate nuclear warheads, just as Renaissance artists embellished armor and weapons.
“It is not hard to imagine the vivid colors, bas reliefs, even graffiti, that would make spectacles of beauty of those dull cones,” he wrote. In time, he suggested, the warheads would find their way into private collections and museums, thereby ending the possibility that they might be deployed.
Originally ran in The New York Times, page A22 of the New York edition.