|“Alias Man Ray: The Art of Reinvention” by Valery Oisteanu at The Jewish Museum through March 14, 2010|
Man Ray was a major cultural bridge between New York and Paris, between avant-garde painters, photographers, writers and filmmakers. For two crucial decades (1921-1940) his Paris studio was a meeting place for artists, dealers, models and even the nobility. Actually, Ray’s main aim was to bridge the absurd reality of pre-World War II culture and romantic anarchy, linking conscious perceptions with subconscious imagery. A multidisciplinary prophet of diversity in art, he excelled in graphics, paintings, film and sculpture. He also brought innovation to contemporary photography with his rayographs and to assemblage with his assisted ready-mades.
“Alias Man Ray” (he was born Emmanuel Radnitzky in Philadelphia in 1890) is the first retrospective of the artist in a New York City museum in decades. The first two rooms of the exhibit cover his formative years and include the mysterious painting, “Madonna and Child” (oil on canvas 1914), with its minimalistic palette and simplified few lines. As critic Adolf Wolf wrote in “International” magazine in 1914, “Man Ray is a youthful alchemist.”
In the next room, a poem on a scroll hanging on the wall drew my attention; its title is “Three Dimensional Poem:
Several Small houses/ Discreetly separated by foliage
About little old women, /what mystery hides within/what curiosity lurks without, /One the other/Knows nothing about” (1915). Curator Mason Klein concludes that the poem is about “impenetrability of surfaces, a concern that would resonates throughout his work.”
Ray identified from the beginning with the Dadaist revolution, and together with Marcel Duchamp, Francis Picabia, Marius de Zayas, Else von Freytag-Loringhoven. Katherine Drier, Morton Schamberg and the others from the New York Dada School participated nightly at Walter Arnsberg’s salon. By the time Ray sailed for Paris, he was a mature artist with a trunk full of original art and portraits of such notables as: Alfred Stieglitz, Edgar Varese, Mina Loy and Djuna Barnes.
The third room has on display cubist paintings such as “Promenade” (oil on canvas, 1916), which looks like an assemblage of superimposed two-dimensional cubist human cut-ups, and another painting called “Spanish Dancer,” which alludes to the title by introducing five exotic fans painted slightly superimposed and upside down.
The forth room is the dada room and features “Obstruction” (1920/1964), a mobile comprised of 63 antique wooden coat hangers that create constantly changing shadows, with a secretive old valise serving as a kind of pedestal, with reference to Ray’s parents’ tailoring business.
Another found object elevated to the status of art is “By Itself” (1918), a wooden sculpture resembling primitive art. In the corner next to a photo of a ready-made of an eggbeater called “L’Homme” (1918) are several collages,
one of them titled “Trans Atlantic” (1921), which followed Ray’s own move to France that year,
In Paris, Ray set out to create compositional rayographs, whimsical manipulations of glass and metal objects on photographic paper, exposed in the darkroom to strong light. The restlessness of Ray’s mind and of the world around him materialized in weird assemblages and art objects that further amplified the mysteries of correlations among things, which Breton called “diabolical objects.”
Man Ray’s 60-year career was spent mostly in America, where he never achieved the status of a major artist. He wanted to be recognized as a painter, and when he was not photographing celebrities such as James Joyce, Sinclair Lewis, Proust (on his death-bed), Ernest Hemingway, Jean Cocteau and Gertrude Stein, he spent his time painting geometric, abstract and figurative surrealistic works.
His painting “La Rue Ferou” (oil on canvas, 1952) uses surrealist symbols such as a mysterious object (probably a sewing machine) wrapped in a military blanket, tied with rope and lying on a cart pulled by a man. (Also on display is the object itself, under glass, which he dubbed “The Enigma of Isidore Ducasse.”)
In yet another painting, “Interior or Still life” (1918), a group of mundane household items – a table, chair, clothes and a tailor’s mannequin with a bird-cage base – float in the room, with a green door and “Madonna and child” on the wall.
Ray couldn’t help but by influenced by the remarkable women in his life, including Adon Lacroix (the Belgian poet and his first wife), Kiki of Montparnasse (Parisian model), photographer Lee Miller (apprentice, model), Adrienne Fidelin (model), Elsa Schiaparelli (fashion designer), Juliet Brouner (Hollywood dancer, Ray’s second wife) and Berenice Abbott (apprentice, photographer).
Man Ray is a prime example of the Jewish intelligentsia, an avant-gardist, cosmopolitan, but firmly attached to American culture, an ex-pat nationalist at times.
Women play a dominant position as friends, lovers and subjects, but the best of his talent is revealed in his geometric paintings, where his imagination flows freely and abstract forms underscore colors, as in “The Rope Dancer Accompanies Herself With Her Shadows” (1915-16).
In his erotic photographs, the humor of nudity is playfully explored: “La Violon d’Ingres”(1924) famously features the nude back of Kiki de Montparnasse with violin f-holes burned into her hide; “La Retour a la raison” (1922), a woman’s breast bearing the stripes of window-curtain shadows; “Demain”(1930, part of a triptych) involves two nudes superimposed, their faces obliterated, with four breasts and two navels and one triangle of pubic hair. This is surreal erotica in a “playground of art” ranging from space suits to elaborate fantasy garb.
Ray is an American with international flavor, an original member of New York’s avant-garde who wandered for years in a jungle of European galleries and museums and came back enlightened and bearing gifts: dada films and mysterious, ritualistic at times art-objects.
“Is Dada dead? Is Dada live? Dada is,” said Ray. His approach is humorous to a fault, sarcastic narrative and romantic ironical. He combines simplicity with excess that adorns his models with bird-head hats, clothespin necklaces, snail earrings, butterflies for lips and flowers painted on their faces as masks. Man Ray gave us food for thought along with dreams for our imagination.