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Gagosian Quarterly

November 19, 2018

Man RayVisual Poet and Wit

At the 2018 Frieze Masters fair in London, Gagosian’s stand presented more than ninety works by Man Ray. Objects and assemblages, collages, oils, prints, drawings, and photographs were displayed in a deliberately crowded, Surrealist fashion. Here co-curator Richard Calvocoressi traces the development of the artist’s wide-ranging work and looks at his legendary three-year collaboration with Lee Miller.

Installation view, Man Ray, Gagosian stand at Frieze Masters, London, 2018

Installation view, Man Ray, Gagosian stand at Frieze Masters, London, 2018

Richard Calvocoressi

Richard Calvocoressi is a scholar and art historian. Calvocoressi was a curator at the Tate, London, director of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh, and director of the Henry Moore Foundation. Calvocoressi joined Gagosian in 2015.

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Man Ray (1890–1976) was a leading figure in the Dada and Surrealist movements. Born Emmanuel Radnitzky to Russian-Jewish immigrant parents in Philadelphia, he moved to New York with his family in 1897 and shortened his name to Man Ray around 1912. In 1921 he moved to Paris, where he remained until the outbreak of World War II. Returning to the United States in 1940, he went to live in Hollywood, where in 1946 he married the dancer and model Juliet Browner in a double wedding ceremony with their friends Max Ernst and Dorothea Tanning. In 1951 he returned to Paris, occupying the same studio apartment near the Jardin du Luxembourg until his death a quarter of a century later.

Man Ray worked across a diverse range of mediums, including painting, drawing, objects, photography, artist’s books, and film. Like that of his close friend and fellow iconoclast Francis Picabia, his style as a painter underwent sudden changes and reversals. Neither artist prioritized chronology, consistency, materials, or technical expertise, although Man Ray’s skill with the mechanical airbrush, a tool common in commercial art, was almost as remarkable as his innovative experiments in photography. His earliest mature paintings demonstrate an interest in the planar structures and fragmentation of Cubism. He was later inspired by Marcel Duchamp, who arrived in New York in 1915 and whose work, including Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 (1912), Man Ray had seen at the famous Armory Show in 1913. Under Duchamp’s influence, he began making paintings and collages with invented mechanical forms—sometimes favoring a type of colored paper used in technical draftsmanship—in the satirical spirit of Dada.

Man Ray: Visual Poet and Wit

Installation view, Man Ray, Gagosian stand at Frieze Masters, London, 2018

Collage (and its offshoot, photomontage) was one of several means favored by Dada artists to depersonalize the artwork. This was also the period of Duchamp’s readymades, ordinary household objects raised to the status of art but exhibiting no evidence of the artist’s touch—the ultimate in depersonalization. Man Ray’s “rayographs”— photographs produced without a camera, by placing random objects on light-sensitive paper and exposing them to light—similarly challenge notions of originality and individual authorship.

The first rayograph dates from 1922, soon after Man Ray arrived in Paris. Initially, he took photographs as a way to document his paintings, but he became increasingly interested in the possibilities of photography as a medium in its own right. His more experimental work, which utilized techniques such as solarization and double exposure, alternated with stylish and seductive fashion photography and incisive portraiture. Striking for their clear, bright lighting, unusual angles, and cropping, his close-up studio portraits of artists, writers, and musicians—including Pablo Picasso and Yves Tanguy, James Joyce and Aldous Huxley, Arnold Schoenberg and Igor Stravinsky—were in such demand that Man Ray had little time for painting during the 1920s. Yet today he is celebrated perhaps above all for his nudes. Whether their subjects—including Kiki de Montparnasse, Suzy Solidor, Jacqueline Goddard, Lee Miller, Meret Oppenheim, Ady Fidelin, and Nusch Éluard—are anonymous or named, the nudes are at once erotic and theatrical, the models apparently willing to collude with the photographer’s fantasy, which sometimes involved scenarios of a sadomasochistic nature. (The Marquis de Sade was one of Man Ray’s heroes.)

Richard Calvocoressi speaks about Man Ray’s Surrealist objects, including the 1921 work Cadeau (Gift), an iron with tacks glued to its plate

Many of the Surrealist objects produced by Man Ray exist in the form of replicas. Man Ray was not alone in reproducing his earlier work; René Magritte, for instance, painted copies or variations of certain key images throughout his career. But in Man Ray’s case the originals did not always survive, either because they were made of cheap materials and not designed to last—their ephemerality was part of the point—or because the artist would dismantle them after photographing them. Since he conscientiously photographed all of his work, it was possible to reconstruct these objects, and he had no compunction about doing so. In the 1960s and 1970s, limited editions of his best-known earlier pieces proliferated, suggesting a disregard on Man Ray’s part for their uniqueness. To give a few examples, Lampshade was originally conceived in 1919 in paper. A number of unique replicas and variants in metal or paper were made in subsequent years, culminating in the edition of 100 in painted aluminum published in Paris by Éditions MAT (founded by the Nouveau Reáliste artist Daniel Spoerri) in 1964. The anagrammatized Phare de la harpe (1967) is a variant of Man Ray’s famous Cadeau (Gift, 1921), a flatiron with a row of tacks glued to the plate, which itself was reissued in a limited edition in 1970. The equally famous Object to Be Destroyed (1923), consisting of a metronome with a photograph of an eye attached, has a complicated history. In 1932, following the breakup of his affair with Lee Miller, Man Ray remade the work with Miller’s eye, titling it Object of Destruction. This version was destroyed, by a group of students, at an exhibition in Paris in 1956. Nine years later it was remade and editioned in Paris by MAT and retitled Indestructible Object; and in 1970 and 1974 further editions were brought out in Turin and New York, respectively, under the title Perpetual Motif.

Man Ray: Visual Poet and Wit

Installation view, Man Ray, Gagosian stand at Frieze Masters, London, 2018

In the last example, the identity of the object shifts in response to changing circumstances. But, unlike the readymade, which is aesthetically neutral, or, in Duchamp’s own words, “visually indifferent,” the effect of the altered found object in Man Ray’s hands is that of an ingenious visual poem or pun; his titles, too, often include verbal puns. Pain peint, for example—a cast baguette painted blue—is a pun on the close aural similarity between the French for “bread” and “painted.” Sometimes Man Ray inscribed words on the object itself, as in Magritte’s paintings, wherein the relationship between an object, its representation, and its name is ambiguous or arbitrary. The title Featherweight, or Poids plume, deceives the spectator into thinking that the object weighs little, when in fact its painted lead base makes it surprisingly heavy.

 Usually formed of two or more disparate elements assembled by the artist—a clay pipe and a blown glass bubble (Ce qui manque à nous tous), for example—Man Ray’s objects resemble games, puzzles, or toys: the concept of play was fundamental to his whole approach. They can be jokey, mysterious, or disturbing, as in L’énigme d’Isidore Ducasse (1920/1971). A classic example of the Surrealist idea of displacement, this work consists of a sewing machine wrapped in a blanket and tied with string, evoking the poet Ducasse’s unforgettable mental image of “the accidental encounter, on a dissecting table, of a sewing machine and an umbrella.” The addition of string or cord is typical of Man Ray. Vénus restaurée (1971; originally Torse, 1936), consisting of a plaster cast of the Medici Venus trussed up in rope, is even more suggestive of bondage. The ornamental wooden egg pierced by a knitting needle in Domesticated Egg (1944/1973) recalls the sadistic contraptions of Alberto Giacometti’s brief Surrealist phase. But on the whole the sexual content in Man Ray is joyful and uninhibited. “Joie, jouer, jouir” is how Duchamp summed up his anarchic and liberating art.1

Man Ray: Visual Poet and Wit

Installation view, Man Ray, Gagosian stand at Frieze Masters, London, 2018

In Gagosian’s presentation of works by Man Ray at the 2018 Frieze Masters fair in London, six photographs by Lee Miller (1907–1977) joined a group of photographs by Man Ray from the period of their legendary collaboration (1929–32), including portraits by each of the other.2 As a model for American Vogue, Miller was photographed by the leading fashion and portrait photographers of the day, including Edward Steichen. Knowing of her interest in photography, Steichen suggested to Miller that she make contact with Man Ray in Paris while she was visiting France and Italy in 1929. Thus it was that she became Man Ray’s pupil, assistant, collaborator, and, finally, lover—a relationship that was to last until her return to New York three years later. Man Ray was devastated when Miller left, incorporating images of her lips in his painting À l’heure de l’observatoireles amoureux and one of her eyes in his Object of Destruction. 

Richard Calvocoressi speaks about Man Ray’s collaboration with photographer Lee Miller

Miller later acknowledged that Man Ray had taught her everything: fashion, portraiture, “the whole technique of what he did.” Together they pioneered the technique of solarization—an exposure of the negative to a sudden flash of light during the developing process that sharpens contours and creates a halo or aura around objects. In 1931 she collaborated with Man Ray on his Electricité portfolio of ten rayographs commissioned by La Compagnie Parisienne de Distribution d’Électricité—a commission which she had persuaded him to accept. Otherwise Miller did not follow Man Ray down the route of formal experimentation but chose instead to reveal the world of people and objects in a more intense or startling way. Her most enduring images arose out of her work as a combat photographer with the US forces in Europe in World War II.

After she became the lover of Roland Penrose, the English Surrealist artist, exhibition organizer, writer, and collector, Miller reestablished her friendship with Man Ray, which lasted until his death. In 1937 Penrose, Miller, Man Ray, and his then lover Ady Fidelin holidayed in the South of France with Picasso, Dora Maar, and other friends. After the war, in 1955, Man Ray and his wife Juliet Browner went to stay with Miller and Penrose (by then married) at their home in Sussex. In 1975 Penrose organized the exhibition Man Ray: Inventor, Painter, Poet at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London and published a monograph on Man Ray’s work.

1The author acknowledges the research of Edouard Sebline, published in the Sotheby’s Paris catalogues Modernités (October 19, 2017) and Collection Arthur Brandt (October 21, 2017). 

2Gagosian’s stand at Frieze Masters, curated by Max Teicher, Richard Calvocoressi, and Simon Stock, was awarded the Vetter’s Choice for late-nineteenth- and twentieth-century presentations. 

Artwork © Man Ray Trust/Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY/ADAGP, Paris 2018; photos: Lucy Dawkins; videos: Emma Charles; Frieze Masters, Regent’s Park, London, October 4–7, 2018

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