Alias Man Ray: The Art of Reinvention
exhibition catalogue by Mason Klein; with contributions by George Baker, Merry L. Foresta, and Lauren Schell Dickens
See also the following exhibition tour (from WNET, Channel 13) by Dr. Klein and this lecture. See also the Man Ray page on dadart.com, which presents invaluable visual material on the artist, created by people who knew him.
In preparing his probing, focused, and entirely convincing examination of Man Ray, Mason Klein can hardly have been under the illusion that the artist—or his Manes—would thank him for resurrecting his persona along with his art. Indeed, the exhibition presents an irresistible case for the originality and, above all, the enduring power of Man Ray’s art to fascinate. However, in order to find his individuality, the curator found it necessary to dissect Man Ray’s life and character, which was as much a construct as any of his collages or Dada objets. In order to create, Man Ray had to create himself, and at times in his life this self-creation was an end in itself, even his primary expression. His invented self not only gave him a more comfortable face to present to the world, it gave him the freedom to work as an artist, just as he needed Paris as the the stage for his performance as Man Ray. Klein’s examination is anything but non-destructive. Once he has finished lifting the layers off Man Ray’s self-construction, there is nothing left. He made it all himself, asking little or no help from God or his ancestors. While I believe there is credit in respecting an artist’s vision of him or herself—good manners are not at all out of place in art history—I believe Man Ray’s unmasking was absolutely necessary in this case, in order for us to understand his art and to appreciate it with new respect, but without mythologies or adulation.
Later in Man Ray’s career and in the years after his death, critics, partly because of their own agendas and partly because of Man Ray’s (as a Dadaist he often—but not consistently—avoided the pleasing use of fine materials and the display of skill in their use) tended to diminish the value of his art, and to treat him as a less-gifted follower of Marcel Duchamp, who, as a founding member and leader in Dada, is an especially helpful figure for art historians. Heroes and icons are handy tools in telling any kind of story, and Man Ray seemed to provide an effective shadow to cast Duchamp in relief—not unlike his solarized portrait of Duchamp, one of many, both as himself and as his female Doppelgänger, Rhose Sélavy. Yet Man Ray had his own artistic swagger, and his Le Violon d’Ingres and L’Énigme d’Isidore Ducasse—as indispensable slides in any art department—are as “iconic” as Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase and Fountain. In fact, if the term “iconic” means little more today than “overfamiliar through abundant reproduction,” Man Ray and Duchamp can share much of the responsibility, since, late in their careers, they revisited some of their best known earlier work by producing editions.
On the one hand, Man Ray was proud of the thoroughness and excellence of his training in academic draftsmanship and painting, as well as in mechanical drawing, but on the other, it has to be said that some of his works, especially drawings, create the impression that rendering from life did not seem to come naturally to him. Man Ray, as compensation for his academic training—or revolt—as much as from Dadaistic theory, undermined quality of material and execution in his work by resorting to handling which seems deliberately, even aggressively clumsy, the creation of collages and objects from found materials, and a contradiction of the notion of originality by, for example, photographing an assemblage of objets trouvés, which he subsequently destroyed. There is often an ambiguous, rather discomforting dialectic between the carefully lit and printed photograph and the annihilated original, some of which he reconstructed at a later date. His use of a mechanical medium like the airbrush further undermined the validity of the artist’s hand as manifested in unmistakably individual handling of materials. It is also worth noting that he took special pleasure in mechanical drafting while still a schoolboy and returned to it as a mature artist.
In an oil like Une nuit à St. Jean-de-Luz he eschewed any suggestion of elegance or sophistication in technique. Its power lies in the boldness of its primitive, even ugly forms. Yet, especially in his maturity, he was capable of impressive refinement in a variety of media. His series of pochoir prints, Revolving Doors (1916-17/1926), shows a surprising elegance of line, design, color, and finish; and his photography, both as Dadaist and commercial, was always fastidious.
This exhibition, in spite of the artist’s own ambivalence towards technique and quality (the connoisseur’s version of Brecht’s “epicurean” elements in opera) and its focus on a psychological-biographical thesis, was very much a show about objects. From beginning to end, the visitor confronted Man Ray’s vast and constantly evolving repertory of media in intimate quarters—an indispensable experience in coming to terms with his elegant photographic prints as well as his scruffier assemblages and oils. We are treated to multiple versions of L’Énigme d’Isidore Ducasse, as well as the sumptuous, large original print of Le Violon d’Ingres, a telling example of the importance of the object and its irreproducible characteristics. As Man Ray’s most famous, typically “iconic” work, it is as familiar as the Campbell’s Soup can or the Mona Lisa, yet it is a surprise to see it as a monumental gelatin silver print on textured matte paper, a support the artist seemed especially to favor in the thirties, showing a full range silvery tonalities, suggestive of platinum printing. When seen on this scale, the photograph can draw us into luxurious details like the earrings and the fabrics, as if we were in fact looking at the work of Ingres himself, say, his Grande Odalisque.
Man Ray’s use of solarization introduced not only an intensifying and surreal effect, it demonstrated a direct artistic manipulation of the negative, which separated his photography most decisively from the record-making functions of the medium. Beyond that, the rayograph (his personal word for photogram), which he is said to have discovered through chance, went even further in creating a kind of photography which, although he himself called it, “photographie intégrale et cent pour cent automatique”, produced, for the eyes of posterity at least, an entirely unique, purely artistic work, which is purified even of the mechanical aspects of the camera itself. (The rayographs’ clear-cut nature as unique works helped make them pioneers in the escalation of photograph prices.) These first brought Ray to the attention of Frank Crowninshield, resulting in the sale of four works, as well as future employment and access to a museum without walls in Vogue and Vanity Fair. While many rayographs were simply made as objects in themselves, he could apply the medium very effectively to commercial work, for example, the very beautiful portfolio he created for an electric company in the 1930s. Otherwise the exhibition is rich in classic nude photographs, from the intimate and sumptuous Retour à la Raison to rather more quirky Primacy of Matter over Thought in which some odd, heavy shadows make the position of the model’s left leg ambiguous and disturbing.
Through the thirties, Man Ray supported his artistic career quite handsomely with his work as a fashionable portraitist and a photographer of fashion. Unlike his distinguished colleague at Condé Nast, Edward Steichen, he comfortably inhabited two symbiotic worlds, and he handily merged his surrealistic techniques, above all, solarization, with the polish required of the fashion plate. This exhibition included a fairly comprehensive selection of his portraiture at the expense of his fashion photography. There is no denying that the portrait work is more compelling, and, what’s more, it furthers the main theme of the exhibition, which is about identity. Some of the sitters were bohemian friends; others were aristocrats and others figures in society, including the climbers. It seems that people flocked to Man Ray in order to acquire his cachet, while Steichen distinguished himself by photographing celebrities. A paradoxical contrast that says much about the relationship of the two men to the United States and to American media. The Belgian-born Steichen, whose art was founded on traditional European painting, fully embraced the cult of celebrity in his adoptive country, and later immersed himself in war work, while Man Ray, the iconoclast, abjured his birth nation and naturally became assimilated into the Parisian milieu, where his client bases as a portraitist had more in common with Winterhalter’s or Boldini’s.
He stayed on in Paris until the German army was almost on the Champs Élysées, hastily storing his work with friends and dealers, and rather unhappily settling in Los Angeles. Here he abandoned his photographic work in favor of media he had used earlier in his career, above all oils, which proved an effective medium for the nightmarish imagery the war evoked in him as early as 1938, when he painted the Portrait imaginaire de D. A. F. de Sade. Finally, in 1951, he was able to reestablish himself in Paris, together with his wife Juliet. While there were signs of his diminishing powers in the genres he had labored at throughout his career, the last rooms of the exhibition were dominated by compelling experiments in new areas, for example his screen, La forêt dorée de Man Ray, of 1950, a personal work inspired by the California sequoias. This unusual object was worth contemplating at length, since its considerable power reveals itself only gradually.
The exhibition is liberally punctuated with self-portraits of Man Ray, and portraits of him by others, most notably Picasso, who half-obscured his subject’s face behind an ink blot, reflecting, according to Mason, the elusiveness of his character. Man Ray’s early self-portrait (1914) in brush and black ink is equally abstracted, presenting himself entirely in his own terms, moody and enveloped in his own thoughts. The same year he manifested himself much more boldly, not in a representation of his physical appearance, but in the letters of his own name, seemingly carved in stone on a surface which blends the New Jersey Palisades with the wooded areas beyond them. (At that time the artist found liberation in an artist’s colony in Ridgefield, New Jersey.) In his 1916 self-portrait, he reduced his face to an assemblage over a dark smear boxed in by lines suggestive of a coffin. His eyes are represented by telephone ringers and his genitalia by a push button flanked by f-holes. A hand-print in thick impasto spans the solar plexus and the chest, creating a striking pun between media and spoken languages. The hieroglyphically represented French word for hand, main, states his self-devised name (truncated from “Emmanuel”), as well as the male human in the most general terms. Together, the words make a strong statement of his identity as a maker, or artist. The Auto Portrait of 1933, consisting of a life mask wrapped in newspapers and set in a box, is the most hermetic—and hieratic—of them all. He photographed himself in his studio, with his camera, standing and smoking in an elegant suit. We also see him seated sadly on a curb in Hollywood in front of a Parisian street sign, indicating the Rue de la Vieille Lanterne—somewhat ominously, since the Parisian original was where Gérard de Nerval, a surrealist hero, hanged himself in 1855.
no images were found
One may well blame me for withholding Man Ray’s secret—the lynch-pin of his life and creativity, according to Dr. Klein—but I truly consider it more valuable to look first at the the man’s work, the visual evidence, not to mention the breadth and depth of his imagery and handiwork, before delving into the psychology behind it. Emmanuel Radnitzky’s predicament was not much different that of thousands of other children of Jewish immigrants of that generation. He felt a distaste for the origins which seemed sure to attract the disdain of established Americans and raise serious obstacles in his progress through life. Rather than slog his way through university to study architecture, as his parents wished, he studied art, with a view to becoming a society portrait painter, and set to work at reinventing himself after his own fashion. Assimilation was not his own private decision either: the idea of changing the family name to Ray originated with his brother Sam, and their father Max was the only member of the family who refused to change his name. For the rest of his life, apparently, Man Ray concealed his Jewishness. Even biographers writing after his death avoided the subject, and Mason Klein makes it clear that he considers it an important step forward that scholars can now feel free to discuss the issue openly. No doubt he makes a powerful case for its importance, because so many of his works fit well in this context. His tapestry (1911), made of samples from his father’s tailor shop, acquire a deep poignancy, when we realize it is the work of a twenty-one-year-old who has made the decision to turn his back on his humble origins. It also shows him working hard to manifest a human form within his patchwork of symbolic appropriated materials.
Early in his career he wrote poetry, the Ridgefield artists’ colony was mostly literary, and he was much involved in the design of their literary and political publications. His struggle with representation continued in the fusion of human form and landscape in these early works. Hence he developed as an artist deeply connected to the word, as well as one profoundly enmeshed in the ambiguities and paradoxes of meaning, form, and material, as in the painting Man Ray, mentioned above. The artist achieved his youthful dream of becoming a society portraitist—but as a photographer, not a painter. Beyond this, he produced serious, if playful, body of work, which was coming back into fashion at the end of his life, enough for him to issue some in multiples with a hope of success. He had enjoyed his friends and lovers and Paris, free by his own will of a personal history he rejected. In spite of what we have learned from this show, his work stands on its own merits. Is it really necessary to re-attach him to the heritage he abandoned? Did he ever think of his fashion work as remnant of his father’s profession which lingered to haunt him later in life? In L’Énigme d’Isidore Ducasse, after all, the burlap conceals a sewing machine.
In addition to Mason Klein’s title essay, “Alias Man Ray”, the catalogue contains two other excellent essays by George Baker and Merry A. Foresta, which balance it with insightful discussions focused more on Man Ray’s career and work, as well as an intelligently researched and brilliantly designed timeline of Man Ray’s life and times by Lauren Schell Dickens. The exhibition is over, but the catalogue will continue to occupy an important place in the extensive literature devoted to Man Ray, Dada, and Surrealism.