by Eliza Young
Nude figurative drawings, a staple of art training for centuries, tend to share a number of common themes. Both Michael Mazur’s Reclining Nude in the Studio, 1966, and Jared French’s Untitled (Foreshortened Reclining Male Model) transport the traditional nude to some sort of altered reality by pushing the conventions of pose and proportion, and allowing the white paper to dominate large expanses of the drawing. In stripping their subjects of context, both artists achieve a certain un-knowing that allows us to lose ourselves within the minimal, constructed space. In contrast to French’s starker, more striking marks, Mazur’s touch appears softer and almost ethereal while maintaining the same gestural assertiveness as French. In both drawings, the nude subject is objectified in some way. French’s confident warping of his male nude’s bodily proportions makes Mazur’s nude woman, compacted by the atmosphere that surrounds her, feel simultaneously more ambiguous and more faithful to realistic bodily proportions by comparison. While both works incorporate a certain stripping of context, gestural mark making, and bodily objectification, studying Jared French’s striking and confrontational male nude brings into focus Mazur’s moments of soft ambiguity as they intermingle with harsh line work and vast expanses of white paper.
Michael Mazur was born in Manhattan in 1935, and lived until 2009. He studied fine art at both Amherst College and Yale University, and worked primarily as a printmaker, drawer, and painter. He worked with a variety of media throughout his artistic career, including chalk, monotype, pastel, lithography, and etching. Still, he always went back to printmaking and drawing, artistic practices that attracted him the most. His work often emphasizes black lines on white paper. It also repeatedly alludes to mental illness, death, and mortality. In such images, the realization dawns only slowly that many of his subjects are in wheelchairs, comas, or some other significant medical circumstance. Though this particular nude drawing was not part of his earlier series focusing on mental illness, Mazur’s work can often evoke feelings of discomfort, eeriness, and entrapment, with rich value contrasts and bold, gestural black lines. And yet, he manages to achieve a subtle sensitivity in his nuanced shading and value scales.
Jared French was born in Ossining, NY in 1905 and died in Rome, Italy in 1988. He was primarily a painter, and was heavily associated with George Tooker, Paul Cadmus, and the artistic tendency called “Magic Realism.” All three of these artists deal with “the troubled relation of society and the self,” and they approach this subject matter through the use of “dreamlike imagery” and, often, eroticism. In an interview with Justin Spring, George Tooker compares French’s work to the neoclassical work of Picasso. And while his Untitled (Foreshortened Reclining Male Model) is not Magic Realist, it may draw on the themes that this movement encompasses, which include shifting away from reality “while maintaining the depiction of recognizable objects.” Magic realists translate “everyday experience into strangeness” by creating odd juxtapositions and slightly distorting reality, but making sure not to create a surreality. Jeffrey Wechsler writes that Renaissance painting, in particular its “dignified stillness and forcefully modeled figures,” had a powerful influence on French’s work, which is visible in his nude portraits.
Michael Mazur’s Reclining Nude in the Studio gesturally depicts a nude woman lying down on some unidentifiable object, one leg bent up and concealing her genitalia from view. Her body creates a strong diagonal across the page from the bottom left corner to the upper right, and a series of straight, angled lines suggests that the space she inhabits is some kind of room, perhaps Mazur’s studio. Smudges of charcoal allow for the creation of a more nuanced value scale, and foreshortening creates an interesting perspective. Mazur hints at the female subject’s breasts, but her face appears as no more than a smudge against the white paper.
Jared French’s undated and Untitled (Foreshortened Reclining Male Model) involves a similar use of gesture and foreshortening, though his nude is male and not female. The legs of the subject are splayed open rather than closed shut, and the very minimally rendered scene implies that the subject lies in bed or on some soft surface in an intimate setting. French also uses strong diagonals, primarily in the legs of the model. The use of pen and ink creates a sense of purpose and unwavering certainty within the work.
For Mazur, the late sixties were a time of exploration with gesture and line, and both Mazur and French create very gestural, sweeping marks in their nude portraits. But while French’s work also incorporates numerous smaller, staccato marks into the drawing, in particular the areas in which he implies shadow and darker value, Mazur’s piece could almost appear as one continuous line that is drawn and retraced several times over. Upon closer inspection, some lighter, shorter marks emerge as singular and distinct, and are also used to suggest shadow, as in French’s drawing. But these marks are much lighter in value than the long, continuous lines that describe the majority of the form and her outline, which are heavily layered and overlapped to create moments of heavy intersection. These differences partially stem from the medium each artist chose to use. Mazur’s charcoal affords him the freedom to approach the figure with constant movement and alteration. He is allowed to play around with the placement of his marks because charcoal is more or less erasable and impermanent. French’s pen and ink, by contrast, does not allow him this freedom, resulting in a strong sense of intentionality and permanence. This is despite the drawing’s smaller size and some damage to the drawing where the pen has gone through the paper in the middle of the upper outline of the right thigh. Still, there are no apparent signs of erasure and editing, while Reclining Nude in Studio’s process revolves heavily around those practices. Mazur’s medium can go beyond the stark line and develop moments of nuance and value differentiation, which he achieves through shading and smudging the loose charcoal. But the limitations of pen and ink as non-reversible media force French’s piece to appear flatter, and it is more difficult to imagine the male nude existing beyond the two-dimensional space that the drawing places him in. And while both artists employ a great deal of gesture and movement in their line work, the liberation of line into shadow and rich value contrast that develops in Mazur’s piece results in a more convincing reality, a nude form that appears to exist in some three-dimensional space with light and shadow.
Similar compositions are also at play in both Reclining Nude in the Studio and Untitled (Foreshortened Reclining Male Model). Mazur and French both employ the traditional technique of foreshortening, which allows an artist to create depth within an otherwise flat and empty space. They describe their nudes so that the parts of the subject that are closest to the artist are almost magnified, while the size of each delineated form decreases as it moves back in space. In an interview with Koslow Miller, Michael Mazur states that he often bases his works on a “funnel” that recedes into the illustrated space to create movement and depth within his work. As an artist, he “falls between top and bottom but is always moving in a circular motion.” This is evident in his dynamic composition, which includes numerous organic curves and half-circles that act as swooping rings of motion, propelling the figure back within the scene. His array of intersecting lines also works to create strong diagonals across the paper. While French forces the viewer to imagine much of the unspecified atmosphere within which his figure lies, Mazur suggests more to the viewer by lightly indicating the presence of a wall and the possibility of a doorway in the background. His space exceeds the size of the paper, with numerous lines leading the eye off the edges of the drawing. In contrast, only one edge of French’s drawing has a portion of the line meeting it (on the left side of the page). His nude male takes up most of the space, but meets the edges of the paper without really pushing past them into an unseen continuation of the scene. This traps the figure within the flat, empty space, again allowing Mazur’s work to feel as if it exists within a more realistic and three-dimensional setting by comparison. And yet, the degree to which French magnifies the closest features of the nude male’s body (in this case, the legs), in combination with the fact that he restricts the torso of the body to a very short length of space (with the torso framed within the legs), compels us to see the nude as truly lying down on a flat, imagined surface. Mazur’s figure also appears to be lying down, but he does not foreshorten his subject as dramatically as French does. This dramatic foreshortening of the figure adds an element of intrigue and strangeness to French’s nude that attracts the viewer and makes her look twice.
One of the strongest similarities between these two drawings is that both Mazur and French strip their subjects of context. The stark white expanses of paper enhance the mystery and strangeness of the works in offering little information as to the whereabouts of the subjects, much less their identities. This forces the viewer to focus almost exclusively on the bodies, which appear somewhat displaced within such minimally described spaces. This speaks powerfully to French philosopher Alain Badiou’s writing on drawing, and his definition of art as “description without place.” In attempting to find and develop this broad definition of drawing, Badiou was inspired by American poet Wallace Stevens’s poem, “Description Without Place.” Badiou writes:
A Drawing is a complex of marks. These marks have no place. Why? Because in a true Drawing, a creative one, the marks, the traces, the lines, are not included or closeted in the background. On the contrary, the marks, the lines—the forms, if you will—create the background as an open space. They create what Mallarmé names, ‘the empty paper which is protected by its whiteness.’
Each of the two nude figures exists as a series of marks on a page. These marks allow the white paper to exist as this “open space” that Badiou describes, transforming the two-dimensional paper into a three-dimensional world that the viewer envisions. But “description without place” applies to both drawings very literally as well, as each artist describes their figures with great detail while leaving much of the background blank and empty. It is difficult to tell what place these figures inhabit because of the minimally described backgrounds.
It can be assumed that Mazur and French consciously displace their subjects. But French seems to do this more intentionally than Mazur. He leaves more of the page untouched than Mazur does, creating an altered and less easily visualized reality that may stem from his involvement with Magic Realism. This movement involves the creation of strange and unsettling imagery that distorts, but does not entirely transform, reality. Mazur’s piece maintains this same peculiarity that stripping the scene and the figure of context creates, but even those few faint lines behind the nude woman add a security to the atmosphere that French’s work does not contain. In this way, French’s work may be more visually intriguing and unsettling. Mazur even writes: “Drawing is for me a way of being in a place as well as remembering it.” His line work loosely implies that the figure is lying in a studio or room of some kind, a setting he attaches to the figure in order to preserve the existence of that time and place. But this does not mean that his interests as an artist lie exclusively in accurate and true-to-life representation. He tells Koslow Miller: “I’ve always been interested in a duality between the mundane–the things that are around me that I can bring alive in some way, like trees, my studio, where I live–and in a certain kind of fantasy, in imaginistic thinking and being in other worlds.” In minimally and gesturally depicting the room in which his figure lies, Mazur plays with this idea of taking an everyday scene and transporting it into some other world. In both drawings, the white, negative space of the paper works in conjunction with the nudity of the subjects to create images of barrenness and altered reality, but French transforms his own scene into a reality that is more foreign to the viewer than Mazur’s by rendering less of the space.
The subjects themselves are also minimally described. A lack of identity exists within each work that allows both artists to objectify their subjects’ bodies. Though viewers frequently approach a nude portrait without knowing the identity of the subject, it is up to the artist to decide how much of that person’s individuality and distinction to translate within it. Analyzing a drawing of a female nude always raises the question of whether the artist sexualizes the model and her body. In the case of Mazur’s drawing, it is somewhat difficult to tell. The subject is lying down on her back and facing the artist or viewer, which could be perceived as sexual or erotic. But her legs are closed, and she appears relaxed and peaceful, almost as if she is lost in thought or asleep. French’s nude, in contrast, appears far more sexual. The male nude’s legs are splayed, his (covered) genitalia directly confronting the viewer and serving as the focal point of the drawing. The strong diagonals of the legs aid in drawing the viewer’s eye towards this point. French and his fellow Magic Realists often incorporated homoeroticism into their work. The homoerotic nature of the drawing is apparent; French uses the subject’s body to suggest sexual desire and intimacy. While he doesn’t include much visual information about the environment of the drawing, it can be assumed that the subject is lying in bed or on some soft surface. The subject seems to sink into the object he is resting on, as the marks that meet the body below the genitalia and the elbow cut off parts of the nude figure from view. Even this subtle indication of softness and malleability beneath the figure suggests the intimacy of a bedroom, or somewhere private and comfortable. In contrast, Mazur’s line work surrounding the figure is angular and sharp, suggesting discomfort. And because she takes up less of the page proportionally in comparison to the male nude, she seems to be more on display because she is in such a large space. The close proximity of the artist or the viewer to the male nude in French’s work makes the drawing feel personal and less posed than Mazur’s. Even though both faces remain unidentifiable, the male model is at least given a defined jaw and nose, indicating the presence of a real individual. The female nude’s face is just a light smudge of charcoal, and her hands and feet all lack full rendering. While both artists objectify their figures in different ways, Mazur’s female nude feels like more of an object than French’s because she is granted less individuality, and her identity is overpowered by the compositional framework of her body.
French’s work exhibits a kind of quick, assertive aggression that Mazur alludes to, but does not fully embrace in his nude drawing. Mazur adheres to traditional representation: his female nude appears more proportionally accurate than French’s male nude. French, however, slightly distorts portions of his subject, in particular the thighs, which appear warped inwards and strangely elongated. This creates the impression that French is comfortable enough with his subject to freely modify the body as he wishes. His work appears less cautious than Mazur’s, perhaps because the nude male drawing is based in intimacy rather than pure anatomical study. It is also a much smaller piece than Mazur’s, which means it could have been a drawing for someone and not a studio exercise. And while Mazur and French both incorporate similar subject matter and academic techniques into these drawings, French’s confident distortion of his male nude’s legs allows Mazur’s nude to appear simultaneously more formally representational and almost ethereal in comparison. Mazur’s nude female feels more tenderly drawn, more carefully studied, more obscure. The softness of his touch combined with the starkness of the composition seems puzzling–is he gently detailing each curve of her body, each shadow and line, with sexual desire? It does not seem so, especially when compared to Jared French’s Untitled (Foreshortened Reclining Male Model), which directly confronts the viewer in a sexually suggestive pose. Medium and content go hand in hand. French’s pen achieves a deliberate placement of marks and an intentional alteration of the body that implies that the artist is comfortable and confident in doing so. By contrast, Mazur’s soft and smudgeable medium, more easily erased and reconfigured, allows him to approach the female nude with more ambiguity.
At first glance, these two figurative drawings by Michael Mazur and Jared French appear extremely similar. It is only when studied in juxtaposition with one another that they begin to reveal their distinction. Both artists appreciate and incorporate traditional practices of figurative drawing like foreshortening and nude modeling, and both work with a great deal of gesture and movement of line. But French’s pen and ink marks suggest an assertiveness that Mazur lacks. And while both artists strip their subjects of context, French dramatizes this aspect of the piece, leaving Mazur’s to feel more in line with artistic tradition and true to life. Similarly, the ways in which the artists choose to depict the bodies of these figures, which are both objectified in some shape or form, questions reality. French takes artistic license in loosely distorting his nude; Mazur combines more traditional proportion with greater abstraction in the compositional lines that pin her into her setting, describing an eerie and isolated space that speaks to his larger body of work. While both artists strip their subjects of context and true reality, the contrast between them reveals aspects not initially apparent in each work.
Badiou, Alain. “Drawing.” Lacanian Ink 28. September 12, 2011. Accessed April 27, 2017.
A theoretical article about drawing and its relation to the surface of the paper and the ambiguous space it depicts.
Mazur, Michael. Vision of a Draughtsman. Brockton, MA: Brockton Art Center, 1976.
This book includes a images from Mazur’s own retrospective of works on paper, a collection of twenty years’ worth of work. While Reclining Nude in Studio is not included, a description of Mazur’s approach, techniques, and subject matter help put the work into context. The introduction describes Mazur’s gestural line work and the themes he draws on. The book praises the aggression and drama of his pieces, focusing on the mental wards series.
Miller, Francine Koslow, and Michael Mazur. “Michael Mazur: An Interview.” Art on Paper 4, no. 6 (2000): 44-48.
This interview is focused more exclusively on printmaking, but in it the artist discusses his process and the history of his career. He talks about returning to certain dark themes again and again, and finding it difficult to create a retrospective when he is so caught up in his current work. He mentions that he does not enjoy analyzing his work and the direction he is taking.
Spring, Justin, and George Tooker. “An Interview with George Tooker.” American Art 16, no. 1 (2002): 61-81.
George Tooker worked closely with Jared French over the years, and both are grouped into the Magic Realist category. Tooker mentions French many times in the interview, and describes their work, along with the work of Paul Cadmus, as dreamlike and strange, sharing common themes of eroticism and “imaginative” reality.
Wechsler, Jeffrey. “Magic Realism: Defining the Indefinite.” Art Journal 45, no. 4 (1985): 293-98.
This descriptive overview of “Magic Realism” helps put French’s work into perspective. It explains his choice of imagery, and the way Magic Realists alter, but do not really change, reality. The article describes French and other artists as using recognizable imagery based in realism, but with a strange twist.