I met Susan Mazer in the spring of 1980, and we were together until 1988. To write about Sue’s art constitutes a spectacular conflict of interest; I won’t even pretend to be impartial. The pitfalls of self-interest aside, Sue merits the attention. Sixteen years after her death, she’s unknown, and any light I can shine on her work is long overdue. There’s some reason for the obscurity. She seems to have stopped painting by the 1990s in favor of a more lucrative career in animation, and the bulk of her fine art has been neither exhibited nor published.
We met at the League, in Ted Seth Jacobs’ class. I’d been studying in New York since 1978, but Susan was newer to art school, having “wasted” two years at Bryn Mawr, a detour she always regretted. Part of that first summer was spent at her parents’ country home outside of Syracuse, another part visiting my parents in south Florida. In order to sharpen her skills, Susan moved in with my folks while she studied with my old drawing teacher in Miami. I returned to New York to continue at the League and was miserable apart from her. After a few months, I got a call from my mother: she could no longer tolerate my girlfriend’s resistance to soap and water, what with the charcoal fingerprints being left all over the house. Sue did soon find another living arrangement, and her drawing, if not her hand washing, improved.
Sue was as ambitious as I was, meaning that there was an implicit tension in the creative partnership; a vigorous if unspoken rivalry—how could you avoid comparing your work with the artist beside you?—was balanced by constant mutual encouragement. My father found a place for us in Cliffside Park, a blue collar town right across the Hudson. We were quite the novelty, the only artists in a town that seemed to have stalled in the 1950s. In the fall of 1981 we settled into a pre-war ground floor apartment, where we painted in close quarters, moving our French easels from bedroom to kitchen to living room to bathroom. There was neither a designated studio space nor a proper studio easel. All five hundred square feet were up for grabs; Susan once stood in the shower to paint me washing my face in the bathroom sink. Financial support came from home, we lived on the cheap and slept on a futon on the floor. She baked a lot, combing through the Moosewood Cookbook. Several times a week, regardless of weather, we’d walk on Abbott Boulevard, a lovely shaded street, to Fairway market in Fort Lee for groceries. Our haunts were health food markets and second hand clothing stores.
Sue’s big breakthrough came at the National Academy, studying with Ron Sherr. Ron had just begun teaching, and he had his students working with knives on large canvases. At that point she went from conscientious student to painter. When I learned that Mary Beth McKenzie was going to start teaching there in the fall of 1982, I urged Sue to call on her at home that summer, and she became Mary Beth’s first monitor (those classes were filled with talent; a number of our contemporaries are established artists, and some now teach at the League). The high water mark was the spring of 1985, when in our mid-twenties we had a two-person show on East 67th street, in a gallery owned by A.M. Adler of Hirschl and Adler. We thought we were on our way. A studio visit with Raphael Soyer, in which he presciently told us that the art world liked glitz and our success would take a decade or two, hardly dampened our enthusiasm.
We drew and painted without respite, except to write letters on behalf of political prisoners or to the New York Times art editor in futile attempts to educate their obtuse and condescending reviewers. Other artists looked to belong to schools, to find a communal identity. We were intolerably earnest in our devotion to a personal figuration and inhabited an island big enough just for us two. That kind of youthful bond, built on mutual ideals and shared economy, can and often does come undone as people grow older and up. The last few years we fought and yelled, doors slammed and things were thrown. The neighbors got an earful, and I’ve always been grateful that we didn’t own a gun. Both of us were wound a jot too tight to be fully trusted. But there were a few years of childlike happiness, a cheery domesticity when the seriousness of working together was leavened by humor and tenderness.
It goes without saying that we couldn’t afford models. We painted family and traded off sitting for other artists. Some of our best paintings were those we made of one another, and that may have been an expression of our feelings, or it could have just been the law of averages—given our proximity, we painted one another far more than we did anyone else. There were distinctions. Sue tended to lean more toward narrative in her painting, though it was pretty well veiled. She preferred color where I liked character. She was more adventurous in her picture making. Once she determined to paint a group of young women standing and chatting in a schoolyard, composing the canvas from sketches. One morning Sue was working on the project, and I was cooling my heels in the living room while she drew a (rare) hired model in the bedroom. I heard a great thump, and ran in to find the model had collapsed to the floor in a dead faint. There were no such complications when I posed. We found that I was useless at holding any position that wasn’t reclining. Sue made the best of that, with a terrific series of canvases in which I’m swaddled in multi-colored sheets, hit by striped sunlight through Venetian blinds, or both. When more traditional portraiture bored her she made me a player in these paintings of light and pattern, or dressed me in coat and tie to invent different personae. Towards the end even these experiments ran dry for her, and when she tired of painting my face she hid it behind an open book in the double portrait I inhabit with Dan Gheno. Sue continued to sit for me without asking for reciprocation in kind, instead keeping track of the hours so that I could make them up in housework. She made sure I knew that the muse doesn’t give it away.
All things considered, we lasted for a surprising length of time, especially considering that Sue was restless and I was recalcitrant. That I was listening to rock while she was high on The Smiths became symptomatic of a schism in the relationship. I have all sorts of regret. I realize how fortunate I was to spend much of that formative decade with a kindred spirit. The romantic fantasy of a painting soulmate seems silly at this point in my life, yet it happened at an age when it meant the world. Hers was the only opinion that mattered to me, and I thought painting would be impossible without her. After she left it took me years to recover, and eventually, grudgingly, I accepted that the situation—perhaps a metaphor for my youth—would not be repeated. In the year after the split, Sue painted a wonderful series of dead animals she found on the roadside or in the woods upstate, no doubt a bit heavy on the symbolism. Soon thereafter she stopped painting.
Although with every passing year I remember less about that time, I can still recall propping her up when she was miserable over a painting, and how we understood what the other was going through, trying to become very good at a calling that was appreciated by very few. When I see Sue’s paintings now, my admiration is mixed with the distant recollections that each work evokes. Virtually a neophyte when I met her at the League, within a few years she was painting with immense skill, but I was even more impressed by her determination to get at elements that were truthful, with understated empathy. I marvel at the painting of her parents—authors Harry and Norma Fox Mazer—silhouetted against a snowy landscape, and remember how she inexplicably melted down in anguish while painting it (The composition was an inspired compromise—we’d begun on a winter day by drawing her mother and father in separate rooms before someone hit on the idea of painting them together). Covering the seasons, she painted her parents in the blazing heat of the summer sun at their Canadian campsite, and walking together on a cool fall day. The self-portrait in a rocking chair was painted in our living room; the crooked bookcase behind her was our sole venture into carpentry. I’d put it up against any representational painting from that era.
It is indeed difficult to look back to one’s youth from an older and nominally wiser place. Memories may become mercifully blurred, but paintings remain as visual markers. Susan’s strike me as unusually beautiful. When she was on, her drawing was sharp, her colors sang, and she was incapable of laying down a false stroke. She was as good a painter as I’ve known.
All photos by Massimo Zarucco. Images courtesy of the Mazer family. Titles have been made up by the author for temporary reference and may be different from those that have been previously published.