Michael Mazur

DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park/Barbara Krakow Gallery

Michael Mazur has worked with imagery from nature since he began making prints in the ’50s; the trees, flowers, and greenery outside his Cambridge studio and on Cape Cod have been the locus of his painting since he began using that medium in the ’70s. “Branching,” co-organized by the Mead Art Museum at Amherst College, surveyed thirty-five years of images derived from nature, and offered valuable insights into the artist’s recent near-abstractions, a separate exhibition of which was also on view. (A traveling show of Mazur’s prints, opening in 1999, will feature other major themes of his career, including architectural, animal, and portrait studies.)

From the impressionistic dappled trees and budding branches in the pastel Carriage House Series, No. 4, 1980, to brooding images of the life cycle of trees, Mazur has seesawed between naturalism and expressionism, depiction and symbolism. Vine Tree Breaks, 1984, a large canvas depicting in violent strokes a barren winter scene—a massive tree snapped at its trunk and strangled by wisteria—suggests a darker state of mind and is one of his most emotionally charged canvases. Another tree bares a harvest of wailing souls in two black-and-white 1992 mono-type studies for illustrations to Robert Pinsky’s translation of Dante’s Inferno. Mazur drew at times on nature for altogether more personal themes: heart surgery in 1993 inspired a series of evocative monochromes with intricate branching networks related to the blood vessels of the heart muscle.

In the “Mind Landscapes” series that followed, the nervous, attenuated branches give way to billowy, languid abstractions of trees. Like Roy Lichtenstein and Brice Marden, Mazur turned to aspects of Chinese art to create meditative images. A work derived from a thirteenth-century Chinese scroll, Mind Landscape—After Chao-Meng-fu, 1994, fuses landscape depiction with energetic, Abstract Expressionist brushwork. Soft verdant treetops, atmospheric veils of color, and humped, curving hills take shape from daubs, spills, and drips of cool greens, ochers, and blacks.

Increasingly, memory and a consideration of the aesthetics of making a painting replace observation in the gap between inspiration and image. Eight paintings at Barbara Krakow Gallery speak to the artist’s simultaneous reverence for and liberation from nature. Spills of gray and white paint float like jellyfish over Gail’s Islands II, 1998, and the dark islands are lit from behind with bursts of salmon and blue sky. The looseness of Mazur’s mono-type techniques also inform these works; he allowed the paint to drip and absorb into the canvas in controlled accidents. The “Gail’s Islands” series reaches into the past, branching back to the numerous studies of the islands of Wakeby Pond, on Cape Cod, where the artist summered with his wife until 1989. Casting off the obligation to represent the tangible worldhas led Mazur toward allover composition, hues more decorative than naturalistic, and a boldly spontaneous handling. Similar in touch and style to Joan Mitchell’s and de Kooning’s works from the ’70s, the most recent paintings feature a soft palette and a liquidity of paint reminiscent of Morris Louis’ 1959–60 “Florals.” In Idyll, 1998, the loose strokes and bright yellow, blue, and purple swirls suggest pure delight in painting for its own sake. Foliage has evolved into gesture, scenery into fields of color, and Mazur has slowed the violent activity of his ’80s paintings into a grand flow of graceful forms.

Francine Koslow-Miller