PRINT December 1966

A Man Ray Retrospective in Los Angeles

THE LOS ANGELES COUNTY MUSEUM’S Man Ray retrospective spreads out almost sixty years of the American artist’s achievements. It provides a comprehensive sampling of virtually every kind of artistic activity with which he has ever been engaged: painting, drawing, Rayographs, sculpture, assemblage, objects, and even film. The only significant area which is missing is pure photography. This exception is due to the artist’s wishes, for—in spite of the high quality and historical importance of his work in this medium—Man Ray feels that it is something separate from his art, a means to an end rather than an end in itself. That end, of course, is painting. Thus, while photography enters via the Rayographs and also by the inclusion of several original editions of photographic prints, the exhibition is aimed at Man Ray’s contribution to the mainstream media of 20th-century artistic thought.

Placing Man Ray within the larger fabric of 20th-century art is a tough job. He is a follower as well as an innovator. He was, for a short time, involved with Cubism; later, with Dada, and then Surrealism. In some ways, he has been a harbinger of Pop. In and out of active participation with all of these movements, he has been called the jester of modern art, a veritable compendium of every kind of stylistic innovation that has appeared in the past sixty years. As an individual artist, Man Ray is indeed uneven: brilliant in one moment, but unsuccessful in the next. For all of this there is a rich store of evidence in the current retrospective. To present his image in any other than this shifting, sprawling way would require careful selectivity, and then one could offer as many shows as there are styles and media listed above. In my estimation, this total retrospective reveals that Man Ray’s strongest and most inventive work was produced between 1910 and 1940, that is, when Dada and Surrealism experienced their strongest relevance and vitality, and when Man Ray was in intimate physical contact with both.

Rather than generally categorizing Man Ray as a good, bad, or indifferent artist, the show raises some provocative issues with regard to the internal character of the work itself. The problem of technical proficiency, for instance, comes up repeatedly with Man Ray. His own statement about the work is that “it is designed to amuse, bewilder, annoy or to inspire reflection, but not to arouse admiration for any technical excellence usually sought for in works of art.” There are numerous examples of Man Ray paintings, drawings, and even objects that bear out this intention. The paintings from almost any period of his career have a generally careless look, as pigments are applied in relatively casual and disinterested fashion. The drawings are equally rough in appearance, and, insofar as many of the objects exist only through recent replicas, they too reveal the artist’s lack of concern for the actual physicality of an individual creation. To a considerable extent, then, it is the message rather than the medium which interests Man Ray, just as it did for the majority of Dada-Surrealists.

To stress the message to the point of exclusion of the medium, however, is to overlook an important dimension of Man Ray’s art. He is, in fact, a consummate technician in spite of his own desire to minimize this side of his work. The quality is especially apparent in earlier paintings, in particular, examples like Promenade, for which there are two 1915 versions and a later one, from 1941. The earlier versions reveal a kind of painterly commitment, and a concern with the working out of an image in paint; the later example becomes bland by comparison, as if done perfunctorily. This difference prevails whenever Man Ray reworks one of his older ideas, as with the ten collages from 1916–17 called Revolving Doors. The first series is executed with immaculate care and precision, and the effect is of such control that they look like impersonal, hard-edge paintings rather than the usually spontaneous and casual collage medium. The paintings, from 1942, are again dull when placed beside the original objects. The point here is that however much Man Ray stresses the significance of a painting’s idea, the evidence of the work is that the fresher ideas also conditioned a more thorough and meaningful commitment to the physical tasks and esthetic decisions involved in making the pictures.

Other examples of Man Ray’s technical dexterity are the Rayographs and the airbrush paintings. The exhibition contains the very best that the artist has done in either medium. Both demonstrate Man Ray’s ability to carry a medium to its limits, to subject it to extreme control, and even to elicit from it a kind of stylistic elegance. Any of his efforts in the domain of either airbrush or Rayograph are as much a demonstration of the qualities of a medium as they are of intellectual concepts. Man Ray’s attitude toward technical problems, then, is not so nonchalant as his personal statements would suggest. Throughout his career, he seems first to master a medium and then to subject it to the more self-conscious notion of its being insignificant per se. In demonstrating this tendency, the retrospective misses in only one important instance, what is quite possibly Man Ray’s finest painting on any level of concern: The Rope Dancer Accompanies Herself with Her Shadows had already been committed to the new Whitney’s opening exhibition. This represents an unfortunate omission, since practically every other painting by the artist should be seen in relation to this masterwork of his career.

The show resolves some additional questions regarding the internal character of Man Ray’s art and its relation to 20th-century developments. One of the former involves the notion of pleasure, another motive—along with his stress on a conceptual orientation—that Man Ray emphasizes in his personal statements. Of course, the pleasure of painting, or drawing, or making objects is not, for Man Ray, revealed in any kind of graceful exuberance of execution. The very preponderance of works which take a conscious stand against decorative facility and technical ease prevents this show from having a sensuous look. Even the exceptions of technical masterpieces mentioned above only partially mitigate the work’s overall negation of optical appeal. Pleasure, for Man Ray, resides in conceiving ideas about things. But this is just the domain in which he appears uneven. Where the idea appears to have been realized immediately—with a majority of the drawings, and with objects such as an olive jar containing ball bearings, a mobile composed of coat hangers, a flatiron sprouting a row of tacks, or a metronome sporting its own eye—it emerges as a pristine gesture of inspiration. Here, functions and identities are disrupted in the best Dada and Surrealist fashion, and new and unexpected relationships become exposed. With many of the conceptualized paintings, however, the spontaneity of a given idea seems to evaporate in the muddy textures of the paint itself. Exceptions exist—as with the singularly monumental image of a pair of lips floating above the Luxembourg Gardens—but even here, the areas of drab painting are as much of a distraction from the conceptual image as they are a tacit reminder that the viewer should not be seduced by surface esthetic alone.

Pleasure also emerges in terms of eroticism, particularly in the drawings from 1936–37 that make up the volume Les Mains Libres. In these, Man Ray subjects the female body to a variety of inspirational distortions and recombinations with other objects—with buildings and landscapes, with still life or industrial objects. The human body becomes a pliable object that can be reconstructed at will—given wings for breasts, or presented with removable limbs—and then rendered in a scale that makes it as large as a stone bridge or as small as a paint brush. There is an unconscious ease about these drawings. They take sensuous delight in toying with the human figure. As such, they represent one of the most important sections of the exhibition, for they show Man Ray’s imaginative abilities about as clearly and consistently as could any one area of his varied artistic activities.

The inclusion of these drawings is important in another regard. They enable a more thorough assessment of Man Ray’s contribution to Surrealism than would an exhibition of his paintings alone. Whereas the paintings inevitably seem to bring Man Ray to an unresolved dilemma of message versus medium, the drawings—less public and less conscious of an esthetic stance—possess the sort of freedom that is so dear to his basic artistic motivations. It is important to realize here that these drawings from Les Mains Libres were conceived before Eluard’s poems, and that the poems actually serve as their illustration, rather than vice versa. They represent a highly personal creative situation in which the imagination is given free rein. The result is a series of images which provide an expanded contribution to the Surrealist attitude toward the human body, and this pertains not only to their frank eroticism, but also to their aura of free association. Relaxed and self-indulgent, these drawings speak as automatic creations, and they reflect the spontaneity so much desired by Surrealist theory. Surrealist art struggled constantly with this tension between letting an image happen unconsciously and forcing it to happen or organizing it through conscious artistic will. In the case of Man Ray, the Surrealist paintings tend to be diffident in effect, and largely because they work so hard for an anti-esthetic look. With the drawings, however, there is little concern with esthetic and it, in turn, assumes a proper (in Surrealist terms) position in the service of the human content of the image.

Also in the Surrealist context can be considered the Rayographs—somewhat ironically, perhaps, because they serve as much as a Surrealist medium as they do in terms of imagery, especially as handled by Man Ray. These images—generally abstract, but always teasingly referential—seem to come from a never-never land of dreams, where things are not quite what they seem to be, but function, rather, like ghosts or distortions of realities only half-seen or partially remembered. The medium itself has the same effect. It doesn’t “really” look like a photographic process, but, at the same moment, it doesn’t reveal its process in the same way that painting does. The Rayographs, in other words, retain a kind of ambiguity—as both medium and content—that is eminently suited to the notion of Surrealist freedom from conventional reality. They become, therefore, another important part of the show, because they amply demonstrate a previously undefined contribution of Man Ray to the Surrealist style.

This whole problem of message versus medium—or, esthetic versus content—is a particularly significant one with Man Ray. He is quite properly regarded as the most important American contributor to the Dada and Surrealist movements. He experienced both in first-hand fashion, in contrast to the majority of American Surrealists who developed their art after the movement migrated to the United States around the time of World War II. Further, more than half of Man Ray’s career has been spent abroad. A question might be raised here regarding the extent to which Man Ray has assimilated the notions of Dada and Surrealism as essentially European styles. Certainly, he shares the literary bent of Dada and Surrealism, and the delight in titular and visual puns and witticisms. These have a long tradition in Man Ray’s art, from days prior to his encounter with Duchamp, Picabia, and other Europeans. A vague suspicion of Art and the sanctity of its creation likewise run through his career. Ultimately, however, at least as presented in this retrospective, Man Ray seems at odds with himself regarding the esthetic-content dilemma. As much as he emphasizes content, there is a reluctance to permit his means to become just that and not a polemic of anti-esthetic. As if embarrassed by his own technical facility, he seems intent to negate it consciously in favor of what he feels are “more important” artistic concerns. Perhaps there is something American—at least non-European—in this ambivalence, as if Art were something foreign and unattainable, but should nevertheless be brought down to earth. Yet, there is a lack of assurance as to what role the esthetic should finally assume. This notion has some relevance to Man Ray’s generation which still conceived the art world in terms of European sophistication and American honesty, and for which the United States had yet to make its place in the larger arena of modern art history. But whether categorically American or not, this ambivalence does pervade Man Ray’s work, and it serves to particularize his contribution to the Dada-Surrealist tradition.

Carl I. Belz