Man Ray Revealed

Was one of Dada’s fathers really such a mystery or did he show his true self in his art? Philip Gefter on an enlightening new exhibit.

11.12.09 8:43 PM ET

Once, at a party in the mid-1980s, I asked Gracie Mansion, the Manhattan gallerist, if she would mind divulging her given name. She complied, albeit sheepishly, mouthing one that was surprisingly conventional and all-American. The discrepancy between her childhood name and the punk-Dadaist persona she chose to assume emboldened me enough to confess that I, too, had been seriously thinking of changing mine. “To what?” she asked. “Philip Lord Byron,” I said. At that, Gracie Mansion, née Joanne Young, shot me a look of contempt and snarled: “Don’t you think that’s pretentious?” At that point I half expected Emmanuel Radnitsky to appear with a pot and a kettle, and paint them both black.

Manny Radnitsky, you see, was a Jewish kid from Brooklyn who had changed his own hyper-ethnic name at the age of 21, to become the internationally recognized legend of the Paris avant-garde, Man Ray.

Alias Man Ray: The Art of Reinvention, a comprehensive exhibition of the artist’s work at the Jewish Museum in New York, through March 14, 2010, is a lucid, revisionist examination of Man Ray’s life and work. According to Mason Klein, the museum’s Curator of Fine Art, who organized the show, the dichotomy to conceal and to reveal himself at once is in evidence throughout Man Ray’s career. Klein refers to this contradiction as a “dialectic of assimilation” that has its roots in Man Ray’s Jewish upbringing as the son of Russian immigrant parents; his refusal to be classified—whether as a painter, sculptor, poet, photographer, object maker, Dadaist, or Surrealist—is deliberate and persistent and shifts back and forth from the artist to his art throughout the course of his life.

“Self-Portrait, 1916,” which Man Ray made at the age of 26, is notably considered the “first proto-Dada assemblage.” He would later recall it to be the object of much ridicule: “On a background of black and aluminum paint I had attached two electric bells and a real push button. I had simply put my hand on the palette and transferred the paint imprint as a signature. Everyone who pushed the button was disappointed that the bell did not ring.”

Art Beast: The Best of Art, Photography, and DesignThe piece taunts the viewer to take the bait but doesn’t deliver the reward. The artist’s hand imprint, in the position of a nose but, also, intimating, perhaps, the gate of his soul, has several layers of meaning. The imprint is at once a pronouncement of Man Ray’s physical presence in the work but, also, a gatekeeper denying access. Man Ray’s wit comes through with his predilection for word play: His surrogate signature is the hand, which, in French, is main, a phonetic spelling of his adopted first name.

Man Ray was first introduced to the work of the European avant-garde through the exhibitions he saw at Alfred Stieglitz’ 291 Gallery. His early artistic explorations had emulated and appropriated the entire cast of European modernism. In the mid-1910s, he took up residence in a progressive artistic enclave in Ridgefield, New Jersey. He was briefly married to a Belgian poet, Adon Lacroix, and, while he painted and she wrote, they would collaborate in designing and editing a number of one-of-a-kind literary journals. It was in Ridgefield that Man Ray met Marcel Duchamp. At the time, neither spoke the other’s language, but “the simplicity and pragmatism that would mark their long, easy collaboration and mutual affection was instantly apparent as they established a playful camaraderie,” writes Klein in the exhibition’s catalogue essay. When they were introduced, according to Man Ray, the two men decided to mime a tennis match without a net or a court: “I called the strokes to make conversation: fifteen, thirty, forty, love, to which [Duchamp] replied with the same word: yes.”

The influence of Duchamp on Man Ray would be immeasurable. The shift of emphasis from the ‘retinal’ object to the ‘conceptual’ idea, along with a sense of humor that was both anarchic and absurdist, contributed to Man Ray’s evolving Dada-oriented sensibility. Duchamp, for Man Ray, “represented a refined balance between the lofty and the laughable,” writes Klein. “Perhaps more than any other artist, Man Ray understood the extent to which Duchamp had orchestrated his artistic life as an extension of his everyday being.” Together, they would help initiate New York Dada.

In June 1921, Man Ray wrote his friend Tristan Tzara that “since Dada cannot live in New York,” he was planning to move to Paris, where the movement’s heart was beating stronger. Man Ray expected to find an audience that didn’t care where his family came from or notice his “Brooklyn” dialect, one that honored his “American” difference, his unfixed character, and his willingness to join in fighting Europe’s old-world pretense of taste and culture—all in defiance of the inflexible values he thought his Russian Jewish family represented.

In Paris, Duchamp introduced Man Ray to the French avant-garde, including Louis Aragon, Andre Breton, Jean Cocteau, Paul Elouard, Jacques Rigaut, and Philippe Soupault. “These were youngsters who really had an ideal... a violence, an enthusiasm, a conviction, which I’d never come across in America except amongst anarchists,” Man Ray later recalled.

In order to make a living in Paris, Man Ray began photographing other artists’ work. He set up a portrait studio, and hired Berenice Abbott as his assistant. Pablo Picasso, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, Ezra Pound, and Gertrude Stein were among those who sat for them. “To be ‘done’ by Man Ray and Berenice Abbott means that you were rated as somebody,” wrote Sylvia Beach, who owned the famed Paris bookshop Shakespeare and Company.

Man Ray’s commercial career would flourish with the portraits and the fashion photography he did on assignment for Vanity Fair, but his introduction to Paul Poiret, the acclaimed designer, would lead to the accidental, if inauspicious, birth of the rayograph. Man Ray made his first rayographs while developing images of the designer’s work. The penumbra that surrounded the photographed object in his rayographs was seen then as a symbol of transformation beyond actual recorded form. Even today the effect possesses the aura of experimentation and imagination. But the first rayographs were immediately taken up by the fashion world. In 1922, Vanity Fair ran a portfolio of them. A decade later, Man Ray would be using the technique in an advertising campaign for a Parisian utility.

It was around this time that Man Ray began to loathe his work. In a 1936 letter to his sister, Elsie, he wrote: “I hate photography, and want to do only what is absolutely necessary to keep going, and produce something that interests me personally.... I have painted all these years.... but these one-track minded Americans have now put me down as a photographer... Do you wonder that I stay in Europe?”

And perhaps it was this contempt for photography—combined with his background as a painter, sculptor, and Dada-ist— that enabled him to employ the photographic image as a launching pad for radical expression, invention, and transformation in other mediums, as well.

In “Le violon D’Ingres,” (1924), for example, Man Ray photographed his model and mistress, Kiki of Montparnasse (née Alice Prin), in the realistic style of Ingres’ neo-classical painting, “The Bather of Valpincon.” By using templates to burn two f-holes into her back during the printing process, he symbolizes the bather as a musical instrument. Ingres was known to play the violin as a leisure pursuit and the French expression, le violon d’Ingres, refers to one’s hobby. Man Ray’s photograph is transformed into a surrealist work and a visual pun: the female, with erotic implication, as a musical instrument and the violin as a reference to Ingres’ leisurely pastime as much as anyone’s.

The rise of the Nazis prompted an intellectual diaspora in Europe, and Man Ray soon found himself exiled in Los Angeles throughout the 1940s, albeit in good company with other refugees: Bertolt Brecht, Luis Bunuel, Salvador Dali, Fritz Lang, Thomas Mann, Richard Neutra, Jean Renoir, and Igor Stravinsky. During this period in Los Angeles, Man Ray would produce more paintings, objects and rayographs than he had made in the previous thirty years of his life. Still, he called California “a beautiful prison,” and longed to return to France.

While exhibitions of his work were mounted in the early 1940s at the de Young Museum in San Francisco, the Santa Barbara Museum of Art and the Pasadena Art Institute, it would not be until 1966 that he had his first museum retrospective, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

The current show at the Jewish Museum does a fine job proving its point about Man Ray’s dialectical revulsion, reinvention, and transformation throughout his life and in his work, while at the same time identifying his underlying artistic tendencies to digest myriad artistic styles, register a lack of hierarchy among the various art forms in which he worked, and to insinuate himself into his work with trepidation and wit. Above all, he remained an independent figure. His desire to avoid categorization certainly fueled the stages of transformation that typify his life as an artist as well as his wildly sophisticated and deeply influential work.

Man Ray died in 1976. He did not attend the funerals of his parents and even toward the end of his life refused to discuss his family background: “I am an enigma,” he insisted. “Answers, if they are to be had, will be found in my paintings and drawings. That is where my fears and anxieties are spelled out.”

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Philip Gefter writes about photography for The Daily Beast. He previously wrote about the subject for The New York Times. His book of essays, Photography After Frank, was recently published by Aperture. He is currently producing a feature-length documentary on Bill Cunningham of the Times, and working on a biography of Sam Wagstaff.