Michael Mazur

Reflec­tions on Michael Mazur

(Orig­i­nally published in Art New England, Volume 4 Number 6, May 1983.

An exhi­bi­tion of Edgar Degas mono­types in 1968 at the Fogg Art Museum, curated by Eugenia Parry Janis, marked the begin­ning of a revival and ampli­fi­ca­tion of the mono­type form. Degas made hundreds of mono­types – fast, power­fully struc­tured works with dazzling lights and darks, imme­diate and compressed. He called them “draw­ings made with greasy ink and printed.” Mono­types have the direct expres­sion, imme­diacy of touch, the speed, the breath of draw­ings. They have also the vaster range of color and mark of paint­ings.

Most mono­types are made by working with oily inks or paint on a metal plate and trans­fer­ring the image onto paper by running it through an etching press to create a unique, unre­peat­able image. The damp paper absorbs the paint like a sponge. Some paint remains on the plate after printing – the ghost of the first image. This can be printed as a pale cognate of the first, or reworked, changed, and printed again. Further impres­sions contain multi­toned remem­brances of things past.

The image under­goes a trans­for­ma­tion when it moves from plate to paper. What happened on several levels and over time on the plate is compressed onto a single surface. This compres­sion slightly atten­u­ates the image and makes it both softer and more intense. Many layers of paint and drawing can be fused onto one plane, the way we can remember in an instant events which took place over time.

Ink or paint dries on the plate in a few hours, so the mono­printer must work fast. Speed can generate inten­sity. Many artists describe a sense of height­ened reality, as in perfor­mance, which the mono­type process induces. As T. S. Eliot wrote:

In a minute there is time

For deci­sions and revi­sions which another minute will reverse.”

Mono­types can also be painted on glass or metal and hand impressed onto paper. Mono­prints are uniquely inked impres­sions from a plate fixed by etching, lith­o­g­raphy, or other print­making methods.

The Degas show made a strong impres­sion on Michael Mazur, the artist who has done more than anyone else in New England to cele­brate the mono­type form by teaching, writing, and most of all by making mono­types of increasing complexity, beauty, and power. “One close look at Degas’s Café-Concert Singer was all I really needed to get started,” he has written. “This tiny explo­sive image, a spon­ta­neous gift of the artist’s spirit, seemed to have been breathed directly on the paper in one magical gesture. A closer look reveals Degas’s labor.”

Mazur has used mono­types for land­scapes, portraits, dream­like iconic flowers, narra­tive sequences, illus­tra­tions for Baude­laire’s Les Fleurs du Mal. His mono­types are in numerous collec­tions, and his newest ones can be seen at the Barbara Krakow Gallery in Boston. His most recent project was a paper mural in mono­type for an MIT dormi­tory. Six monu­mental mono­types, printed from a giant zinc plate, are assem­bled as two trip­tychs 72” x 136”, showing Wakeby Pond by day and night. The impres­sions were pulled on a monu­mental press 70” x 100”, built espe­cially by R.E. Townsend’s work­shop on Stanhope Street in Boston. Before instal­la­tion, the mural was exhib­ited at MIT’s Hayden Gallery, accom­pa­nied by draw­ings, smaller scale mono­type studies, and a video­tape of the artist at work made by his son.

Wakeby Day Wakeby Night is a virtual ency­clo­pedia of mono­type effects. “I’ve put every­thing I’ve learned about mono­type into them,” Mazur said. The mural portrays his well-loved summer retreat on Cape Cod, with its sunflowers and glad­ioli, jungle of reeds, smooth water, and little islands in the distance, by night and day. But memory is its true subject. The place is remem­bered over time, a composite memory of many summers, many changes of light and cycles of growth.

Mazur has invented a way of working using big rollers to compli­cate the color, unify the surface, and move the imagery to achieve a richly ghosted effect. He rolls out fields of color, on which he paints with turpen­tine and diluted inks, then rolls another color over this surface, some­times with a special roller pierced with tiny holes. On this complex field he paints with thicker paint then uses the roller lightly to pick up and offset what he has painted. Revenants of images repeat like ghostly, half-remem­bered things. The clearest, most lucid flowers are surrounded by a paler aura of other flowers, other summers, other inter­pre­ta­tions. These half-seen things have at times an aching beauty, like Keats’s unheard music.

The mono­type form is beau­ti­fully suited to the sense of a multi­plicity of life the mural portrays. The ghosts make a riot of reeds and flowers, organic growth, confu­sion, and decay. Pure, bril­liant whites, as in the limbs of burnt trees gleaming by night, and the moon and its reflec­tion in the water, are made by scratching or pulling paint off the plate with rags or heavily turpen­tined brushes, so that the white of the paper shows through. The wondrously rich blacks are made by rolling black ink over a surface already gorgeous with many layers of rolled and painted color.

Mazur’s rapt, vigorous atten­tion both to nature and to marks on paper recalls, espe­cially at this heroic scale, clas­sical Chinese land­scape painting. Wakeby Day Wakeby Night brings to mind this poem by the Ming poet Kao Ch’i, describing a sunflower:

Its radi­ance bursts forth in summer’s bright light,In clus­ters nestling along the dense green shade.

Evenings, it droops like the common hibiscus,

But blazes at noon with the pome­granate flowers.”

Impres­sion­ists liked the way mono­type could convey indis­tinct forms through tone and light and suggest an atmos­phere: Degas’s gaslit stages and enclosed, inti­mate boudoirs; Pissarro’s blunt, move­mented land­scapes; Prendergast’s sun-dappled beaches. Contem­po­rary artists have been attracted to the freedom and flex­i­bility of the form.

Each artist invents his or her own way of making mono­types. Some use the form as a way in, making mono­types to draw or paint over them, or to collage a series. Mary Frank uses collage and sten­cils to make deep, sculpted mono­types; Jim Dine makes dense, impacted fusions of paints and pastels. Some artists use textured mate­rials like lace or mesh to emboss the paper; others ink up templates to print simul­ta­ne­ously with the plate.

The Metro­pol­itan Museum in New York and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts staged the first major mono­type exhi­bi­tion in 1980 – 81. The Painterly Print show and cata­logue catalyzed appre­ci­a­tion of monotype’s attrib­utes and possi­bil­i­ties.

An obscure, half-forgotten form before the Degas show, mono­type has moved into the light in the past decade. Victoria Munroe of Impres­sions, a Boston gallery which carries a lot of mono­types, feels that the Degas show, then the MFA show inspired “first painters – Diebenkorn, Oliveira, Matt Phillips, Mazur – then everyone, painters and print­makers both” to work in mono­type. Debbie Cornell of Experi­mental Etching Studio, a coop­er­a­tive print­making work­shop in Boston, has noticed a tremen­dous influx of people working in mono­type over the past few years. “It’s new and untrav­elled terri­tory,” she said. “Artists feel free to develop new tech­niques.” R.E. Townsend agreed. “Espe­cially in the last year,” he said. “It’s making a come­back.”

Wakeby Day Wakeby Night is on perma­nent display in the lounge of the MIT dormi­tory at 500 Memo­rial Drive, Cambridge.

by Rebecca Nemser for rebeccanemser.com

Also see my Elegy for Michael Mazur in The Agni Review, 2009.

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