Alias Man Ray: The Art of Reinvention at the Jewish Museum
November 15, 2009 – March 14, 2010
1109 5th Ave at 92nd St
New York City, 212 423 3200
The Jewish Museum’s May Ray exhibit is a blockbuster without the line, which is the result of the surprisingly little critical acclaim it has garnered. Curated by Mason Klein, this beautifully designed show is the most comprehensive and analytical since the survey of this seminal modern artist at the Fondazione Mazzotta, Milan, in 1999. “Alias Man Ray’ includes photographs, assemblages, and paintings, and introduces little known treasures like the1911 fabric piece Tapestry made in Brooklyn before the artist left his family home; the original assemblage piece, Obstruction, a mobile of 63 wooden hangers; and the protoPop masterpiece of two silhouetted profiles kissing, Image a deux faces, (1959). The 110 cloth blocks of Tapestry, gathered from his family’s sweatshop cutting room floor, sets the standard of Man Ray’s meticulous craftsmanship, his blurring of exquisite fabrication with modernist sensibility.
As a Brooklyn Jew myself, I always knew Man Ray (Emmanuel Radnitzky) as an almost-native son. Born in Philadelphia in 1890, he soon moved to Brooklyn with his family of Russian immigrants. What I did not realize, however, was Man Ray’s fierce dedication to obscuring his origins, to the point of cropping a family photo to leave only an image of himself and his mother. Assimilation provides the premise for this illuminating exhibition, as detailed in Klein’s incisive catalogue essay: “In changing his name from the colloquial Manny to the unmoored Man, the artist lost and found himself in anonymity.”
Man Ray began his artistic career as a teenager, and these adolescent works – high school mechanical drawings- reveal a lifelong fascination with duality and concealment. An early proponent of Dada, (and a lifelong bohemian), Man Ray’s first marriage to Adon Lacroix, a Belgian poet, introduced him to French culture. In 1920 he created The Riddle also knownn asThe Enigma of Isidore Ducasse, a prescient work in view of his future allegiance with the Surrealists. An old sewing machine – aluding to the famous line from Lautreamont about the chance encounter of an umbrella and a sewing machine on a dissecting table but also, perhaps, a reference to his sweatshop childhood – was wrapped in army blanket and rope, photographed and then discarded. Man Ray recreated the piece in 1971.
When Man Ray emigrated to Paris in 1921, Marcel Duchamp (who had befriended him in New York) welcomed him at the train station. Even before his arrival, fellow Dadaists knew Man Ray’s work. Two 1918 photos, one of an eggbeater, (L’Homme) and another of clothespins and light reflectors (Woman or Integration of Shadows) were included in Salon Dada: Exposition Internationale before the artist’s actual arrival.
It was in Paris that Man Ray became a professional photographer. Vanity Fair, under the editorship of Frank Crowninshield, published two early Rayographs for theirNovember 1922 issue. Rayographs derived from a process of solarization discovered by chance in the artist’s darkroom; they entail direct exposure of objects on the photographic plate without intervention of a camera. Man Ray used modern machinery parts,or everyday objects combined with human faces or hands, in a technique Jean Cocteau described as “painting with light.” Another early collector, famed couturier Paul Poiret made Man Ray’s portraits a chic and commodifiable entity.
The subject of many of his most beautiful photographs, the young American Lee Miller sought Man Ray out as both lover and mentor. Miller also inspired Object of Desire, a drawing of a metronome capped with a photo of Millar’s languid eye. Instructions commenced with “Cut the eye from a photo of one who has been loved but is seen no more.”
For twenty years, Man Ray worked as a Parisian artist, creating such surrealistic gems as Le Violon d’Ingres, (1924) and La Fortune (1938) with its foreboding primary colored clouds, a reaction to Europe’s increasingly dangerous political scene. His fashion and society images regularly appeared in Vogue and Harpers Bazaar.. He photographed the cool crowd –from Barbette, a drag queen championed by Cocteau to Ernest Hemingway, Meret Oppenheim, Kiki de Montparnasse (another of his lovers), Gertrude Stein, Picasso, and those tourists wealthy and connected enough to commission a portrait.
Joining European artists like Thomas Mann, Max Ernst, Luis Brunel and Salvador Dali, Man Ray fled the Nazis in 1940, and went to Hollywood where he married Juliet Browner in a dual ceremony with Max Ernst and Dorothea Tanning. Juliet was his companion for the rest of his life, and they returned to Paris in 1951. Late pieces like the magnificent screen Message to Marcia(1958/65) and the Smoking Device (1959/1970), with its surgical tubing predating today’s vaporizers, show that the artist continued a fruitful creative life.
Man Ray lived to become an inspiration for Allan Kaprow, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, and Andy Warhol whose 1974 portrait paid homage to the artist, with its unusually complex composition and deliberately blurred edges.
The premise of the artist’s desire to obliterate his history is well illustrated and further documented by the wall text, and presents an intriguing addition to our understanding of his work. But even without its investigative information or theory, “Alias Man Ray’ is a revelation. Ray’s added artistic details are always inherently modernistic – from the solarized photos with their defining outlines, his use of inscription, to his 1947 lithograph self portrait and it’s linear bisection.
Transgressive, experimental, fiercely individualistic, Man Ray is an iconic artist who bridged European and American experience, worked creatively and commercially, and evaded any categories not of his own creation.