-- A Cyberspace Review Of The Arts

Volume 17.12
February 5, 2010

Robert Sievert
Editorial Associates:
Eva Sievert


Publisher and Webmaster:
ETAOIN / Gordon Fitch
Artezine is a New York City - based review of the Arts and Culture by artists for artists.

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click on picture for press release

Man Ray at The Jewish Museum

— by Gordon Fitch

Presently on view and open until March 13, The Jewish Museum is putting on a relatively large exhibition of Man Ray's work titled "Alias Man Ray".

As anyone who has read his charming "autobiography" Self Portrait knows, Man Ray went out of his way to obfuscate and mystify his background, not only as a Jew and child of working-class immigrants, but even as an American. Even towards the end of his life, to a niece due to be interviewed, he said, "Don't tell them anything!"

To some extent this must have simply been business. There was plenty of xenophobia and anti-Semitism to go around in the America of 100 years ago when Man Ray was growing up and trying to get out in the world, to say nothing of the traditional American inability to spell or remember names of more than two syllables. It was his brother Sam who first made the move from Radnitzky to Ray purely as a matter of getting along. "Man Ray" (from Emmanuel Radnitzky) followed, and it was only later that this sobriquet turned out to be not just a name but an excellent brand, not only mystically obscure as to its origins, but also suggestive of humanity and light -- "human beam" as one admirer said. As any artist not privately wealthy or backed by a rich patron is running a small business in a difficult market, a memorable name, along with little mystery, doesn't hurt.

However, I think there was more than evasion of Know-Nothings in Man Ray's stratagem. I think he strongly wanted to be a man of the future, free of tribal peculiarity and restraint; he cast his lot, after all, with the Dadaists and the Surrealists, who blamed the horrors of World War I precisely on outmoded prejudices and loyalties and labored hard, if somewhat oddly, to overthrow them. (Much of the world, of course, was moving in the other direction.)

One shouldn't forget as well the strong desire of many artists for people to look at their works, rather than their lives, their connections, or the accidents of their circumstances. This, too, seems to be an element in Man Ray's self- obfuscations. In later life he dismissed inquiries of this sort impatiently, telling questioners it was "all in the books."

The Jewish Museum, then, set itself a rather difficult, if not impossible task: to connect Man Ray with the ethnic and religious heritage he labored to conceal through the present exhibition and some interpretive work. Most of the latter appears in several essays in a rather solid book written and published for the occasion, although some interpretive material is also available on the walls of the museum in the form of plaques and on the Museum's web site.

It is not hard to connect Man Ray with his early family life; he was not the sort of artist who disowns all his relatives. On the contrary, he remained close to them in spite of living most of the time on the other side of an ocean, or at least a continent. Some of his work, like "The Gift" (the famous flatiron with a row of nails glued to its face) cannot but be read in the light of his father's and mother's professions (he was a tailor, she a seamstress). Likewise, fifty or sixty years in advance of MoMA's discovery that quilts can be high-class abstract art, he made a quilt with cuttings from the floor of his father's shop. Another of his objects overtly conceals a sewing machine under ropes and a blanket as if it were some kind of corpse to be roughly disposed of. He called an exhibition of a forest of linked coathangers "The Obstruction".

(The quilt is on view in this exhibition; its appearance is rather rare due to its fragility. You may not get another chance to see it soon.)

The exhibition itself, which might be considered a standard Man Ray exhibition, in that it does not focus on a particular aspect or period of his work or life, contains these pieces and about 200 others, the usual suspects or at least the usual categories. Given that the world of great art seems to still bear Man Ray something of a grudge* -- there have been no major exhibitions of his work in one of the big-ticket New York City museums since 1974 -- this is a good opportunity to see a lot of his work. While most of the major categories of his work are represented, the emphasis is on his photography, including a good many rayographs. (However, I suppose Man Ray himself would disapprove, since he held photography to be somehow a lesser art than painting, at least in regard to his own artistic concerns. Or so he said.)

Besides the "straight" photographs and rayographs there are several examples of his experimental or surrealist photography, including some of the solarizations. (Either Man Ray or his companion of the era, Lee Miller, invented the solarization technique, and subsequently Man Ray employed it regularly, especially in portrait photography.)

While Man Ray's photography predominates, the exhibition also has several paintings, mostly from the earlier part of his career, drawings, prints, and, of course, the aforementioned objects. Besides The Gift the exhibition also has the famed Indestructible Object, also known as The Object To Be Destroyed. The originals of both these objects have duly been destroyed; these are copies made by Man Ray. They have indeed proven indestructible.

Besides works by Man Ray, there are a couple of portraits of Man Ray by other artists; one by Picasso is especially interesting, since Picasso took the trouble to smudge the drawing, especially the face, after excuting what was otherwise a admirably lively ink sketch, helping his friend stay hidden, or perhaps making fun of his desire to do so.

So what about the deeper questions? Man Ray was connected to his family, but they look from here like pretty solid assimilationists. To further connect Man Ray to Judaism, other than as one more vigorous participant in artistic and literary modernity of which the Jews supplied so many prominent examples, requires the sort of involved interpretive work we would get from the psychoanalysts of yesteryear. This is where the essays of Alias Man Ray, the book, come in. (The argument is also made in more condensed form on the Museum's web site.) I will not try to summarize these arguments here, which would hardly do them justice, and in any case they require a certain belief in Interpretation itself (contested territory!) and a willingness to work one's way through the arguments. Will an investigation of Man Ray's Judaic roots broaden or narrow our understanding of him? I imagine Man Ray's ghost shaking his head and saying, "Don't tell them anything!" but he's laughing as he says it.

Regardless of how you come out on those matters, however, the exhibition itself is well worth seeing.

The Jewish Museum's bookstore has, besides the book belonging to the exhibition, several others from the Man Ray canon, although unfortunately like many great books Self Portrait is out of print and therefore not among them.

Two other reviews of the exhibition may be of interest:
"Man Ray: Name Dropping" by John Perreault (Artopia)
"Mercurial Jester, Revealing and Concealing" by Karen Rosenberg (N.Y.Times)

* Man Ray pretty much ignored or made light of Abstract Expressionism at a time when it was not only the dominant school of artistic practice but a sort of religion as well. I don't think this lèse majesté was taken at all well by the critical establishment of the era and perhaps, even now, has not yet been forgiven.

Back to the Front


Book Reviews

Stuart Sherman Returns

Street Art Report

Taller Artifex at Blue Mountain Gallery

David Mollet at the Bowery Gallery

Socrates Goes To The Country

German Art at Blue Mountain Gallery

Lousie Guerin at Blue Mountain Gallery

Nicolas Carone at Washburn Gallery

Diana Manister: Visual Poetry

A New Format

Artezine 16

Artezine 15

Artezine 14

Artezine 13



February 4, 2010