The Jewish Museum
November 16, 2009 – March 14, 2010
As American art drifts back toward its literary roots, the Jewish Museum has mounted a timely exhibition with an ill-chosen title. Alias Man Ray, at the Jewish Museum, is a comprehensive survey of Man Ray’s 60-year career as an artist, and what an artist he was. But Man Ray did not seek an alias, or an escape. He never made peace with being separated from his family in Amercia, constantly promising a return that never materialized. What Man Ray sought was an authentic identity. A bohemian to the core, a believer in the journey of art and the reinvention of the self, Surrealist or no, Man Ray is in the tradition of Poe, Melville, Ryder, and Blakelock—the tradition of the American Romantic.
Man Ray was born Emmanuel Radnitzky on August 27, 1890, in Brooklyn to Russian émigré parents. He spent his earliest years shuttling around Brooklyn neighborhoods with his family in search of affordable accommodations. As soon as he finished high school, despite the protests of his family, he abandoned a promising future in architecture in favor of pursuing his aspirations as a portrait painter. From that early moment when he took his first decisive step toward being an artist, Man Ray never wavered. He set up a studio in his parents’ home (despite their upset with his decision, Man Ray’s parents were always proud of him and did support him financially when they were able) and took classes first at the National Academy of Design, then at the Art Students League. As soon as he was able to leave home, he moved with his new wife to the relative seclusion of Ridgefield, New Jersey where, working constantly at his painting, he began to find his way into New York’s intellectual and artistic bohemian life. From there, he would eventually travel to the city of his dreams, the city of light, Paris.
In 1911, Man Ray met the photographer Alfred Stieglitz at his gallery 291. There, he discovered photography, the medium that would make him famous. This encounter precipitated an internal schism that would last the rest of his life. As an outsider seeking a name for himself in the arts, photography brought Man Ray everything he could have wanted: access to upper class wealth through portraiture; fame; and ultimately a measure of financial stability. For Man Ray’s natural versatility with a camera allowed him to reach vertiginous heights of artistry well before photography’s credibility as an art form was even recognized. Perhaps for this reason, coupled with his restless nature, Man Ray was never satisfied with acclaim as a photographer. Throughout his career, he craved and was denied recognition as a painter.
Man Ray was among the great democratic spirits of the modern age. Despite constant pressure, he never sought to explain his variability as a painter, sculptor, filmmaker, collage artist, or photographer in terms of artistic hierarchies. His aspirations in one field never led to his denigrating another (with the exception of photography: he downplayed it because of his success) and, in Paris, he was the only artist who never took sides between the Surrealists and Dadaists. Though he considered himself a Surrealist (and he certainly was surreal) he sung the praises of the movement only in terms of its beneficial qualities for art.
Man Ray’s nature was perfectly suited to photography, which derives its force from, in his own words, “the immediate necessity for social contact” (On Photographic Realism, 1935). Yet his output as a photographer encompassed far more than documentary. In 1921 he coined the term “rayograph” for a cameraless process using objects to block light and embed their image on light sensitive paper. In his homage to a revered master, “Le violon d’Ingres”(“Ingres’ Violin,” 1924), Ray combined a rayographic technique with a regular photograph, overlaying the curving f-holes from a violin onto a photograph of the naked back of his model and mistress, Kiki. In another, later image, “Spider Woman” (1950), a delicately delineated spider’s web radiates from the equilateral triangle of pubic hair above a model’s tightly squeezed legs. These are two oppositional images of female sexuality as conceived from an overtly, almost confessionally, masculine point of view. They associate women with the seduction and pleasure of music on one hand and danger on the other. Both images exhibit the soft-focus haze that Man Ray absorbed from his earliest mentor, Stieglitz, and continued to employ throughout his career. It must have appealed to Man Ray for its evocation of the dream state in which he placed stock as a surrealist. Both photographs also have the same immediacy and urgency that Ingres himself displayed in his exquisite line drawings. Through experimenting with the malleability of the medium, Man Ray’s photography as a whole, and the Rayograph in particular, demonstrated the viability of photography as an artistic practice on a par with painting.
The string of highlights in the exhibition goes on and on. In addition to the Rayographs, there are excerpts from Ray’s films (all four of which should be seen in their entirety to experience the full force of their inventiveness and influence); the portraits of his peers from the Paris scene: Duchamp, Hemingway, Joyce, and Gertrude Stein to name just a few; the array of Dada objects; and the terrific footage of Man Ray as an old man surrounded by his personal effects in his last studio on the rue Ferou in Paris.
We are also treated to a comprehensive look at Man Ray’s painting. In his early paintings, the artist makes his way rapidly through various modernist tactics, tackling Cubism, Constructivism, and Expressionism as he goes along. “The Rope Dancer Accompanies Herself with Her Shadows” (1915-16) is a particularly imposing painting, embodying a Dada-esque graphic style à la Francis Picabia—another friend of Man Ray’s. A selection of brightly colored and diminutive late paintings near the exhibition’s end firmly declare themselves as Surrealist in the de Chirico and Magritte vein. It is perhaps this stylistic leapfrogging that constitutes a limitation to Man Ray’s paintings from which the rest of his output is exempt. They seem always to adhere to a school and never to belong completely to themselves as his photography unquestionably does.
“A certain amount of contempt for the material employed to express an idea is indispensable to the purest realization of this idea,” wrote Man Ray in The Age of Light (1934) as an introduction to an exhibition of photographs. This contempt, which he clearly exhibited toward the art of photography in dismissive remarks later in life, may have been the missing ingredient in his painting, which always seems too tightly controlled. In a unique misstep, he put too much store in the medium, and too little in what he could do to reinvent it. It is typical of Man Ray’s forward-looking vision and relentless ambition to have all but overlooked the monumentality of his contribution to 20th-Century art.