(1) "T-Square". Photo © Man Ray Trust.
(2) "Julia", silver print, 1942. Photo © Man Ray Trust.
(3) "Juliet in Tijuana", silver prints, no date. Photo © Man Ray Trust.
by Elenore Welles
(Track 16 Gallery, and Robert
Berman Gallery, Santa Monica). In the periods between the first and
second world wars, this century experienced major revolutionary changes
in artistic conventions. Man Ray, along with artists such as Marcel Duchamp
and Francis Picabia, was in the forefront of these shifts. Determined to
undermine stale artistic precepts, they were active participants in the
Dada and Surrealist movements. They tapped into the unconscious using randomness
and chance; utilized collage and assemblage; broke down boundaries between
the arts. They devised cabaret evenings where they featured poetry readings,
drama, and audience confrontation. These techniques, including art as performance,
were innovative and subversive at the time. Yet their principles remain
so pervasive in contemporary art, we now take them for granted.
Ray stated his works of art were "designed to amuse, annoy, bewilder, mystify and inspire reflection." This flair for the unconventional and unexpected is reflected in an exhibit that substantially spans his art making career. In this collaborative effort between galleries, two hundred works evoke the libertarian spirit he maintained throughout his life. The exhibit, featuring photographs, objects, paintings, sculpture, chess sets, drawings, prints and ephemera, evoke how easily he navigated through the different mediums.
Born in 1890 to a middle-class New York family, Man Ray's artistic inclinations were entrenched at an early age. With Duchamp, he became part of New York's Dadaist circle. His fertile imagination also led to the development of a highly original New York form of synthetic cubism, exemplified by the whimsical The Rope Dancer Accompanies Herself With Her Shadows. However, in 1921, discontent with the conventionality of his bourgoise upbringing, he left to join the community of Parisian artists who shared his independent spirit. He arrived in Paris during that yeasty period when the avant-garde were breaking loose from traditional ideologies. Fermenting also was a more nihilistic Dadaist movement than New York's; grist for Man Ray's anarchistic mill.
To earn a living he became a freelance fashion photographer. But even here, his singular approach reared it's head. He intentionally gave models snobbish poses, not too subtle comments on the world of high society. Although he viewed photography as a commercial venture, Man Ray's imaginative energies led to the development of new techniques. He dubbed himself a "fautegrapher," a manipulator of straight photography. Based on the surrealist notion of accident, he put three-dimmensional objects on light-sensitive paper and exposed it directly to light. The ghostly results were called "Rayographs."
By the late 1930s, he was forced to flee the Nazis, leaving behind a large body of work. He arrived back in America unwilling to resume his middle-class New York existence, but a fortuitous encounter with a family friend brought him to L.A. Starting life anew once more, it proved to be a particularly productive period. He formed a creative community of others cast adrift by war, including Duchamp, Max Ernst, Dorthea Tanning, Igor Stravinsky and Henry Miller. With Miller he shared a perverse interest in Marquis de Sade. But most providentially, he met Juliet Browner, his lifelong partner and muse. Juliet shows up in a variety of media, including moody photographs and touristy snapshots. In Juliet in Tijuana, she sits astride a donkey sporting a Mexican sombrero.
A mature, accomplished 50 year- old by now, Ray established himself as a Southern California artist. He brought with him paintings smuggled out of Paris, notably the prominent Observatory--The Lovers, giant lips floating above a Parisian observatory. However, believing most of his Parisan art works to have been destroyed by the war, he set himself the daunting task of recreating a large portion of them from photographs. They included La Fortune, a billiard table beneath clouds of colored billiard balls, and Le Beau Temps, an intricate and surreally incongruous combination of symbols, geometric figures and beasts. Originally painted in 1939, it aptly demonstrates his compulsive recreative efforts.
The "Hollywood" years proved prodigious in many ways. Expansive in his interests and inventive of spirit, he managed an impressive outpouring of photographs and objects, as well as paintings and drawings, many of which depicted mathematical equations. He often integrated mathematical and geometrical forms with human proportions, such as found in T-Square. He dabbled, also, with the film community, and commercially produced photographic albums and geometric chess sets.
Critical acceptance was not always there for him. But his copious output paid off with major museum exhibits and gallery shows. And William Copely, heir to a Southern California newspaper chain, became key a patron. He opened a Beverly Hills gallery in order to exhibit Ray as well as other Surrealist artists Copley featured "Cafe Man Ray," a gallery transformed into a French garden cafe. The cafe is recreated here, selling onion soup and drinks throughout the exhibition.
By 1951 the specter of McCarthy-ism loomed. He pulled up stakes and once
again left for Paris, returning in 1966 when Los Angeles County Museum mounted
a major retrospective.
Ray was prone to depression and hermetic tendencies, reflected at times in his art. Yet, though their least heralded artist, he always retained the Dadaist's spirit. His sense of playfullness and a distinctively imaginative mind always prevailed.