The Man Behind Man Ray


Founders of the historic avant garde in Europe have been the subjects of a number of major museum exhibitions in New York this past fall, including the retrospective of Wassily Kandinsky’s work at the Guggenheim and the Bauhaus show at the Museum of Modern Art. Alias Man Ray: The Art of Reinvention at the Jewish Museum may be smaller in scope, but it is no less tender in its gaze of one of the founding fathers of modernism. Focusing on Man Ray’s biography, the exhibition gives particular (and obvious) credence to the artist’s early years as Emmanuel Radnitzky, a young Jewish man born to Russian immigrant parents in Philadelphia. The artist, who declared “I want to forget the past,” carefully crafted an artistic persona that was devoid of any references to his familial roots. The exhibition disrupts this chosen autobiography by opening the exhibition with portraits of Man Ray by artists like Pablo Picasso and Alfred Stieglitz. Included in these images is a picture of the teenage Radnitzky on the occasion of his bar mitzvah in 1903. The photograph serves as a starting point to reconsider Man Ray through the lens of his early years, before he shed his Old World self to return to the continent where his heritage was bound.

Much has been said about Man Ray’s integral role in Dada and Surrealism, and the early influences of Cubism in his work. The exhibition contributes little in terms of scholarship, choosing instead to give a thorough retrospect of the artist’s most significant works. Using the visual cues of his surroundings, Man Ray began his career experimenting with the styles of the European avant garde in works like Man Ray 1914 (1914), in which he uses the fragmented letters of his name to substitute for the cliffs of the Palisades along the Hudson River, and The Rope Dancer Accompanies Herself with Her Shadows (1915-1916), which incorporates elements of abstraction and montage. In these early works, there is a sense of Man Ray’s yearning to find his footing in the avant garde, although they also betray his physical remove, in a bucolic artist’s community in Ridgefield, New Jersey, from the movements themselves, founded in reaction to the physical havoc of the European world ravaged by the First World War. RAMAPO HILLS, 1914. © 2009 MAN RAY TRUST/ARTIST RIGHTS SOCIETY, NEW YORK/ADAGP, PARIS.

After a failed attempt to found a New York Dada movement with Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray wrote in a letter to Tristan Tzara “Dada cannot live in New York. All New York is dada, and will not tolerate a rival.” And apparently, neither could Man Ray. In 1921, he departed for Paris, where he would remain until the beginning of the Second World War. The works in the exhibition that cover this twenty year period are so familiar that the sometimes shocking subtexts of sexuality and the objectification of women in the images register barely, if at all. Building on the stones of the artist’s uncovered biography, the pieces radiate a sense of belonging and a freedom that undoubtedly enabled Man Ray to revolutionize the medium of photography. Adopted immediately by both the French Dadaists and Surrealists, Man Ray, among other things, subverted notions of personal identity in works like Portrait of Rrose Sélavy (1921), a depiction of Duchamp in drag. In Indestructible Object (1923/1965), he placed the eye of Lee Miller, the American Vogue model who came to Paris to be an apprentice at his studio, on a ticking metronome, fragmenting and mechanizing her renowned beauty.  Traces of Man Ray’s working class roots, however, remain on the gallery wall of celebrated portraits he took of artists such as James Joyce, Gertrude Stein and André Breton, works that provided him with the financial means to continue to find footing as a painter.

After waiting out the end of the Second World War in Hollywood, Man Ray returned to Paris in 1951, intentionally isolating himself from the booming art scene in New York. In his studio, he began collecting Surrealist “objects of affections” at flea markets, creating an archive to which he added lithographs and copies of his earlier unique works. The Jewish Museum treats his later works, mostly paintings that are far from extraordinary (and arguably unimportant), with equal respect as they do those from earlier periods. Excluding mention that Man Ray never returned to his familial roots, not even for the funerals of his parents, the exhibition keeps open the possibility that Man Ray never settled on a single identity, choosing instead, as his the artist stated, “to walk between the chasms of notoriety and oblivion.”