|“Yes” was Marcel Duchamp’s reply at every point scored in the tennis match he and Man Ray played the first time they met in 1915. They played without racquets, nets, or a ball, and neither one spoke the other’s language. It was in the countryside of New Jersey at an artist colony where Man Ray lived with his French-speaking, Belgian wife, Adon Lacroix. Man Ray and Duchamp informed each other’s intellectual and artistic development profoundly from then on. Both were born in the late 19th century before telephones, electricity, automobiles, the military-industrial-entertainment complex, and the digital age that we take for granted today.|
L. Brandon Krall
“Yes” was Marcel Duchamp’s reply at every point scored in the tennis match he and Man Ray played the first time they met in 1915. They played without racquets, nets, or a ball, and neither one spoke the other’s language. It was in the countryside of New Jersey at an artist colony where Man Ray lived with his French-speaking, Belgian wife, Adon Lacroix.
Man Ray and Duchamp informed each other’s intellectual and artistic development profoundly from then on. Both were born in the late 19th century before telephones, electricity, automobiles, the military-industrial-entertainment complex, and the digital age that we take for granted today. They lived at the time of the two most terrible wars in human history; the impact on all of human culture of the First and the Second World Wars must not be underestimated. Both Man Ray and Duchamp were creatively concerned with originality and the experimental, and both were accomplished draftsmen in the industrial and the aesthetic sense. They were the only New York Dadaists, co-founders with Katharine Drier of the first Museum of Modern Art in New York, called the Société Anonyme, and in 1917 they both participated in the first exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists, which rejected R. Mutt’s submission, Fountain.
Duchamp and Man Ray were the first Conceptualists per se, each choosing to walk their own fine line, but always asking the primary question, “What is art?” Their resolved independence is more fascinating, since both were published regularly in Dada and Surrealist printed matter and magazines like 391, La Révolution Surréaliste, Minotaure, and VVV, but neither one ever signed a manifesto. Both Man Ray and Duchamp were closely allied to important modernist groups in America from 1915 to 1921. Among them, the brilliant photographer and exponent of modern art, Alfred Steiglitz, who was the producer of Camera Work and the 291 gallery. Also, the Walter and Louise Arensberg salons mixed in their lives with anarchists at the Ferrer Center and socialist-oriented American realists, the Eight and the Ashcan School, who included Robert Henri, George Bellows, and John Sloan. The politically volatile and complex economic and cultural landscape of America, which was in the process of changing from an agrarian to an industrial economy, and in particular New York, where the first skyscrapers were being built, also contained Alexander Calder, Marsden Hartley, Morton Shamberg, Charles Sheeler, Joseph Stella, Edgard Varèse, Wallace Stevens, Isadora Duncan, and Thomas Wilfred, the inventor of the Lumia, a series of startlingly beautiful box sculptures combining colored moving lights and music.
Women’s rights was a public issue in the media. Suffragettes, flappers, and many brave women led the field, organizing protests and peaceful demonstrations for human rights, including women’s right to vote. An outstanding figure was Mary Harris Jones, called by all, Mother Jones. She became nationally known in 1912, when she led a march of children through the streets of West Virginia to protest the horrendous conditions of child labor, for which she was arrested. Released from prison by the governor of the state, Mother Jones was 83 years old, and had been working tirelessly for decades to aid and change the terrible persecution and unimaginable abuse of miners and their families, and of workers throughout the world. The working conditions prior to unions and protective legislation, lay in stark contrast to the luxury and comforts of the new industrialist and capitalist bourgeoisie in America and Europe, and these facts must be realized in order to grasp the complexities of artistic and literary cultures as they evolved through individuals like Man Ray, Duchamp, and the Surrealists in France and America.
Alias Man Ray: The Art of Reinvention, at the Jewish Museum, provides a tremendous opportunity to experience a representative sample of the variety of Man Ray’s oeuvre from all periods of his productive career. Rather than to demonstrate the curator’s thesis that Man Ray did not develop a coherent style, this retrospective provides an excellent vision of his remarkable talents applied in a variety of media and techniques. Too few of Man Ray’s 25 late Shakespearean Equivalents paintings have ever been exhibited together and here we are given only one. His later paintings like the two shown, La rue Férou and Night Sun—Abandoned Playground, are sublime and tantalizingly reminiscent of Magritte and early de Chirico. These and a good selection of his paintings from before 1917, show what an excellent and committed painter Man Ray was throughout his life. Man Ray in his time was known by the majority for his phenomenally varied and highly achieved photographic oeuvre, which is represented by fine examples, but which would require several additional galleries to do it justice.
The installation is excellent, well lighted, and arranged chronologically. In particular, the carousel presentation for the Revolving Doors of 1916-17 is very fine, with the rainbow-hued prints shown flanked by originals, and Man Ray’s remade versions of the original collages. A number of key “object” sculptures and Schwartz editions are present, but to savor them, their anecdotal history is necessary. Cadeau is a metal iron with a row of tacks glued down the middle. It was assembled by Man Ray in the company of Erik Satie, only hours before being exhibited in Man Ray’s first show in Paris (months after his arrival in 1921), at the Librairie Six bookstore. As the title states, it was made as a gift, to Satie, with whom he became instant friends when they met.
The curator, Mason Klein, is to be congratulated, but also challenged on the central premise of his catalogue essay and his interpretation of Man Ray’s life and work. Klein tries to demonstrate that Man Ray, according to a biographer Baldwin and in the words of a critic named Leider, “never quite found himself.” This is entirely moot, but when Klein sets up his argument with such assertions as, “ … in light of the virtual absence of ‘Jewish’ artists, at least in avant-garde Western European art,” he is blatantly incorrect. The fact can hardly be ignored that such creative geniuses as Jean Cocteau (an early friend and champion of Man Ray), Tristan Tzara (born Samy Rosenstock), Marc Chagal, Max Jacob, and Gertrude Stein were all allied and then living in Paris. Klein imposes an interpretation and sets up arguments as foregone conclusions such as, “ … how can one doubt that [Man Ray’s] unceasing sense of alienation has its roots in his immigrant, Jewish upbringing … ” and “ … that the artist’s agenda of identity suppression has been largely overlooked is understandable, given how few people today even know that the artist was Jewish, or that he was once called Emmanuel (Manny) Radnitzky.” This psychological approach, which is popular among some art historians today, fails to explain the evolution of their subject beyond and apart from the average social, religious, and economic conventions of people who are not creatives. It is a fact, which Klein does not state, that in early 1912, Man Ray’s entire family decided together, to legally change their name from Radnitzky to Ray. Emmanuel was already called Manny, so the transition to Man Ray for a person as intensely involved with modernist ideas, literature, art, and photography, and who chose the path of art over the practical career of architecture, makes perfect sense.
The catalogue is an elegant publication with essays and a timeline well worth reading. In particular, Man Ray’s Culture Industry by George Baker spotlights the fascinating career of Man Ray as a highly paid media celebrity. One needs to note his career in advertising and as a fashion photographer and portraitist when studying Man Ray’s life and character. In that context to know that Man Ray spent many summers with Picasso in his villa on the Cote d’Azur, and that he liked to buy fancy cars, adds a new facet to his brilliance.
In retrospect, one can look over the long lives and varied works of Man Ray and Duchamp, where they evolved, individually and together, and perceive interesting and fundamental differences between them. While both were unashamedly and notoriously adventurous in their pursuit of the feminine sex, Duchamp as an artist was more cerebral and ascetic, in counterpoint to the fertile, talkative, and productive voluptuary that in many respects characterizes Man Ray. Two friends of Man Ray’s offer the following insights on his character and intentions:
… he had a way of making everything new and, if not important, certainly worth considering, worth pondering. It was this rather rare quality of his which fascinated me. It is a quality, of course, which reveals itself in his work. Of an extremely fertile mind, his imagination is always at work, always creating new relationships of a surprising kind … —Henry Miller
… his prolificness, his lack of concern for rules, and the universality of his gifts place Man Ray outside any school. It’s impossible to confine him within limits by labeling him with the characteristics of any one style. Perhaps his former patron Gertrude Stein defined him best when she wrote, “Man Ray is Man Ray is Man Ray is Man Ray.” … —L. Fritz Gruber
Today there can be no doubt that Man Ray is one of the most influential and accomplished creative geniuses in Western history. He was a stellar individualist, and through his life and work, Man Ray resonates intrepid, elegant, and humorous disquietude in our deepest pleasure zones.