Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Images from a Closed Ward: Michael Hersch on Michael Mazur

Michael Mazur, Closed Ward #3, used by permission of Michael Mazur estate

The composer George Rochberg wrote that “the face of a human being can be read as a record of his brief and painful experience of life and consciousness, the victories and defeats, the stages (and nonstages) of his inner evolution.” As an illustration, Rochberg recalled his encounter with portraits of Rembrandt and of Schoenberg, both relatively youthful, their faces emitting varying degrees of confidence, strength and good health. He then reflected upon portraits depicting these same faces which were created decades later, images recorded towards the end of both Rembrandt’s and Schoenberg’s lives. Describing Rembrandt’s face, Rochberg remarked, “The ego of the man is burnt out; what is left is a look of such sadness, such a sense of the impersonal wisdom of old age that it catches at the throat.” Of Schoenberg: “... a face so ravaged and destroyed by the passage of time and so scourged by the intensity of his inner life as to make one marvel that it is the same man. This is the image that haunts me ...”

I first came into contact with the artist Michael Mazur (1935-2009) in 2000 while I was living in Italy. I had arrived in the country not long before, the fortunate and somewhat startled recipient of a Rome Prize in composition. In the preceding years, I had applied for this award a number of times, and when I received word of my selection, I was both excited and uncertain. It had only been a few years since I had completed school, and I realized that I was just settling into a routine which suited me. The thought of beginning anew for an extended period in an unfamiliar place gave me pause. In the end, it was the the art and architecture of Rome--in particular, the small churches that seemed to beckon every hundred paces or so during my walks in the city-- that drew me most forcefully. I knew I would get good work done in those mysterious and extraordinary structures, and I wrote frequently in them, often alone. It is almost impossible to describe now the colors, the smells, the dense shadows, the infinite variations of quiet. My mind would play tricks on me. I would see faces in the darkened recesses which would seem to suddenly appear and then, just as suddenly, vanish.

Michael Mazur, Locked Ward, The Corridor, used by permission of Michael Mazur estate

In fact, since childhood I have been drawn to depictions of the human figure and the human face. Faces above all captured my attention and remain the root of my interest in the visual arts. I sometimes find myself trying to avoid hearing the voice of a given individual if I find meaning in the face, as if hearing the voice would remove the narrative the face had created for me.

Soon after my arrival in Rome I happened upon an exhibition of Mazur's The Inferno of Dante, a series of forty-one etchings with accompanying texts of Dante translated into English by Robert Pinsky. I entered the exhibition and immediately felt the commanding presence of powerful art: this is, for anyone, a rare feeling. I had experienced the musical equivalent of my reaction to Mazur’s art when I first encountered the work of certain instrumentalists and conductors: the recorded performances of Josef Hofmann, Charles Munch, David Oistrakh, the young Alexis Weissenberg, for example, and live performances of Pollini, Abbado, Jansons, Boulez, to name but a few more. In the rooms with the Mazur etchings I felt a deep familiarity: a feeling of shared sensibility, if not shared experience.

Michael Mazur, Closed Ward #6, used by permission of the Michael Mazur estate

There was a feeling in that space which I came to find in other works of Mazur to which I found myself particularly drawn, the early Locked Ward and Closed Ward series, his etchings and aquatints of trees, and his late works, including the terrifying Headless in Iraq series and Explosion of 2007/2008. The immediacy was there even if I saw a photograph of a given work at a fraction of the piece’s original scale. The faces depicted in Mazur’s Locked Ward and Closed Ward etchings, rendered from his experiences visiting a psychiatric hospital in Rhode Island in the early 1960s, tend to be obscured. They nevertheless betray the complexity and nuance of human circumstance: inner and outer suffering, absolute vulnerability, violence, compassion, humor, knowing.

Soon after attending the Dante exhibition, Michael Mazur and I met. During the remaining time Mazur spent at the Academy he would often stop by the space where I worked, and there I would play through many of my own compositions at the piano for him. Although we worked in very different mediums, I sensed that Mazur connected with what I was doing more than most. Throughout the many hours I played, I felt I knew what he was thinking and feeling in real time, even with my attention on the music at hand. When my first recording was released in 2003, Mazur wrote a program note for it. While ostensibly discussing my music, he provided insight into himself and his art: “I am struck by what might constitute an analogy with painting and with my own work in particular. There is, of course, the overwhelming sense of ʻsadness,ʼ which is better than ʻdoom.ʼ In fact, the ʻabyssʼ in its finality is easy to portray: a rich black says it all ... Dante looked into the abyss but primarily found sadness there. Sadness is a much more complicated and, therefore, interesting human condition.”

Michael Mazur, Locked Ward #11, used by permission of the Michael Mazur estate

Some years after we met, I came across a number of etchings from the Locked Ward and Closed Ward series. In mid-2009, for the first time in almost 20 years, I began work on a string quartet. The catalysts for this work were the recent deaths of my closest friend and of my principal teacher, and the inability to shake some of the Closed Ward images from my mind. The fact that visual art became something of an ignition point for my own work was a very new experience for me. As the summer of 2009 wound down, I had formulated the broad outlines of the work enough that I decided it would be a good time to reconnect with Mazur. I was extremely excited at the prospect of seeing him again, and I suspected that he would be surprised and pleased that something he had created had a hand in the shaping of this new work. Less than 24 hours before I planned to contact him, I read of his untimely death in a Sunday newspaper. I completed the new piece, Images From a Closed Ward, in 2010.

Michael Mazur was a remarkable artist. He left us unflinching visual essays which continue to speak powerfully to me. Over my desk hangs Mazurʼs Closed Ward #3, so I am reminded of Mazur and his subjects every day. There is a brutal realism in much of Mazurʼs output. He gives us an individualʼs unfiltered reaction to parts of our reality which so many choose to either ignore, hide from, or conceal. This approach is not, however, an either/or proposition: what makes Mazurʼs work effective and potent is that the difficult, even horrifying, is often nestled up against the beautiful and the tender. Mazur embraced all of the life around us, in whatever condition he found it. He did so mostly without judgement, and through the haunted faces of his subjects we are able to see and learn something of ourselves.

Michael Hersch (b.1971) is a composer and pianist.

Michael Mazur, Closed Ward #1, used by permission of the Michael Mazur estate

1 comment:

  1. Michael Hersch’s description of his music’s relationship to the work of Michael Mazur is a fine example of artists’ uncanny ability to speak to one another, even across generations and genres.

    Of course, examples of artistic collaboration between practitioners from different media and genre abound, although I think that cross-genre influence is more common between the literary arts and either music or visual art, rather than between musical and visual artists. Whether it be illustration of an existing work (Delacroix/Goethe, Dore/Dante); or music inspired by poetry (Baudelaire/Duparc, Hesse/Strauss); or opera (Shakespeare/Verdi, Berlioz, Britten, etc.); – examples abound of using another medium to react to, pay homage to, or enhance the written word. In the case of Hersch and Mazur, it seems each artist felt a deep connection to the other, and they shared the sense that their influences on one another’s work were mutual and profound.

    This is a most interesting addition to the Artist Profiles Project; one that expands the scope of the existing material, and opens new lines of inquiry and discussion. Thank you for sharing this essay.