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Barbara Probst Solomon

Barbara Probst Solomon

Posted: November 17, 2009 05:54 PM

Alias Man Ray: The Art of Reinvention

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The Jewish Museum, one of the first major New York museums to celebrate -- and acknowledge -- Andy Warhol's Pop Art and Larry Rivers' pre-Pop, or bridge to Pop, is the perfect setting for this stunning major retrospective of Man Ray (curated by Mason Klein), in all his multiple phases and innovations.

Man Ray, born Emmanuel Radnitzky to Russian Jewish immigrants in Philadelphia in 1890, who went from this to that, from New York Dada, to Parisian Surrealism, to compelling works of photography, was an artist, filmmaker, writer, sculptor, object maker and a fashion photographer. In order to grasp Man Ray's vision in its entirety, multimedia is an absolute must, and the special gift this show offers is its breadth: it is the first multimedia show of the artist in New York since 1974. Two of his short silent films -- La retour à la raison and Emak-Bakia (Basque for Leave Me Alone) -- as well as excerpts of films about Man Ray are included in the exhibit.

In 1917 Man Ray (his family had moved to Brooklyn) was in the right place in the right time. Greenwich Village was chock-a-block with New York Dada and Dada women -- indeed, Marcel Duchamp noted that these American women were far wilder and "liberated" than their Parisian counterpart: revolution, anarchist ideas, "free love", the automobile and modernism all seemed nicely wrapped in the same gift package. The Dada women -- Baroness Elsa, Beatrice Wood, Katherine Dreier and Mina Loy -- appear to have been more raucous, more erotic, more directly concerned with the body than the male artists. In a sketchy watercolor Beatrice Wood deliberately records the night (she was the lover of both Duchamp and Henri-Pierre Roch, the author of the novel Jules and Jim and probably the model for the temptress Jeanne Moreau made famous in the film based on it), she, Charles Demuth, Mina Loy and Duchamp had a foursome in Duchamp's bed after a bohemian ball.

But unlike Duchamp, who is so often paired with Man Ray, from the beginning Man Ray was influenced by the eclectic: by photography, abstraction, landscapes and witty images of nudes. By 1908 Man Ray was frequenting Alfred Stieglitz's gallery "291", and in 1912 he moved out of his cramped New York studio to Ridgefield, New Jersey. There, in this tiny bucolic town, on the banks of the majestic Hudson and a mere twenty minute trolley ride from New York, for $12 monthly rent Man Ray had space, extraordinary vistas, plus the company of Stieglitz, arguably the greatest early American 20th century photographer, and the whole Ridgefield gang of artists, including the poet and critic Alfred Kreymborg, Marius de Zayas and Marcel Duchamp. Just at this time the sensational 1913 New York Armory Show, with works by Picasso, Matisse, Picabia, Duchamp and Gertrude Stein, opened and boom! Everything changed. Avant garde art had officially arrived in America.

My main quibble with this beautifully mounted show is that there is too much emphasis in its thrust and catalogue on identity and gender issues, which is ridiculous when used to define Man Ray and the Dadaists. Though these issues are still hot with university trained critics, the suggestion that Man Ray's art was related to his masking of his Jewish identity, or his search for it, is nonsense. Let us be clear: gender and identity may matter to us now, but for the avant garde modernists, art was their identity. (The women bohemian artists saw freedom and sexual freedom as their chief rebellion.) This was a period when religious observance -- Christian or Jewish -- was considered to be "bourgeois", or rear garde, when there was an explosion in the late 19th century, particularly in Europe, of Jewish entry into all the arts, publishing, theatre and newspapers; Hitler and the Holocaust had not yet been imagined, and though anti-Semitism certainly existed, the modernist artists believed it belonged to other groups -- Russian Cossacks, fancy American wasps (the Protestant upper class), the Catholic Church, the bourgeoisie, the military etc,, not their bohemian shock-ridden art world. More to the point, rightly or wrongly, these avant gardists believed that their voyage into art would free them from the shackles of anti-Semitism.

Actually, Marcel Proust, though rarely understood through that lens, was the first major writer to pursue cultural identity (Coincidentally, Man Ray's photograph of Proust on his deathbed is in the show). His father Doctor Adrien Proust, son of a petit bourgeois grocery owner, whose initial ambition had been to become a priest, baptized his two sons, then abandoned Catholicism to become one of the great hommes de science of the French Republic. Proust's adored mother came from a powerful French Jewish family. Meanwhile, these two progressive parents left their sons unmoored in a Catholic education that did not represent either of their beliefs, and it wasn't until the Dreyfus case inflamed France that Proust found his true compass, (By my casual count there are eleven references to the biblical Queen Esther in La Recherche, and her marriage to King Ahasuerus has got to be one of the most successful mixed marriages of all time!)

Certainly Man Ray's early works -- Promenade -- in 1916, and some of his "readymades" -- his mixed media auto portrait, constructed of bronze, glass, newspaper inserted into a wooden box show the Duchamp influence -- the 1915 The Rope Dancer owes its use of repetition particularly to Duchamp's 1912 construction Bride Stripped Bare by the Bachelors, Even and his use of objects -- a 1918 painted egg beater to depict L'Homme while a sort of splayed apple from the same period represents Woman.

The exhibit also displays Man Ray's rayographs. (My mother, the artist Frances Kurke Probst, was a close friend of the German photographer Lotte Jacobi, whose rayographs achieved world wide fame in MOMA and other museums. When I was a child Lotte would take me into her dark room and she showed me how she made these photographs without cameras by swirling film into baths of developing fluid. Her husband Erich Reiss had published The Dada Almanach in 1920 in his Berlin publishing house Erich Reiss Verlag, later destroyed by the Nazis.)

These people, like Man Ray, were natural sophisticates with an enormous range of interests, from art to music to theatre to politics. Duchamp is quite a different case, and there are questions to be asked. When Duchamp attempted to place a urinal in the 1917 exhibit of the Society of Independent Artists (it was turned down) his act had some shock value. When Man Ray photographed Duchamp in drag as "Rrose Sélavy" -- Eros c'est la vie -- or, Rose Levy -- it was a witty reference to a cross-dressing Jew, it had some double entendre humor. But now the shock seems dated. Third rate Hollywood movies abound in bathroom scenes with an actor pretending to defecate, cross dressing has invaded Halloween, pretending to be a Jew is hardly daring. What remains when shock dies?

Duchamp, the chess playing showman, was a mass of contradictions. His outer veneer was of an Greenwich Village aesthete, existing on the bare bones of living conditions. Yet Duchamp first lived off his father's trust fund, then married two substantial heiresses. He made a fetish of not making new works, yet spent his last twenty years in a single effort -- constructing in secrecy Etant Donnés, a female nude reclining, that is, trapped in a bed of leaves. The female is meant to be the Brazilian sculptor Maria Martins, who after their five year love affair rejected him.

Why the total secrecy? Could it be that Duchamp's deepest secret was his final surrender to the figurative, to the human form, to realism? The true erotic shock had been achieved in 1866 by the painterly Courbet -- "L'Origine du Monde" -- and Picasso had stood his ground, doing it all. In the end there was the beginning, and Man Ray escaped some of Duchamp's occasional rigidity through the influence of his first mentor, the extraordinary Alfred Stieglitz. The Francis Naumann Gallery at 24 West 57th Street also has an excellent collection of the Dada period and of Duchamp's works.