PRINT May 1982


He who resolves never to ransack any mind but his own, will soon be reduced, from mere barrenness, to the poorest of all imitations; he will be obliged to imitate himself, and to repeat what he has before often repeated.
—Sir Joshua Reynolds, Discourse
to Students of the Royal Academy,
December 10, 1774

SEVERAL RECENT ATTEMPTS TO ASSES Man Ray’s contribution to American Modernism in the period immediately following the Armory Show of 1913 have found his work “derivative,” “provincial,” “minor,” and “lacking in creativity.” “At his worst,” one historian concluded, “Ray was a second rate imitator of Duchamp.” Unfortunately, such superficial assessments have been particularly detrimental to Man Ray’s reputation, for they have inadvertently overshadowed any serious consideration of the artist’s primary achievements during the years 1913–16: his Cubist-inspired paintings and semiabstract collage compositions, particularly the Revolving Doors series of 1916–17, as well as his unique theory of formalist design, published in 1916 under the title A Primer of the New Art of Two Dimensions.

As if in anticipation of his detractors, Ray frequently commented on the subject of influence: “I had never worried about influence,” he wrote in his autobiography, Self Portrait: “there had been so many—every painter whom I discovered was a source of inspiration and emulation . . . sufficient that I chose my influences—my masters.”1 Indeed, Ray’s early works do represent the product of a search, but not the sporadic search of an unthinking imitator “in quest of modernism,” as a recent study would have us think.2 Rather, as we shall see, each of the styles he embraced developed methodically, guided by the dictates of a highly sophisticated formal program. Consideration of this makes it clear that Man Ray ranks among America’s most eminent abstractionists of the period.

Ray’s first exposure to Modern art came from visits to Alfred Stieglitz’s 291 Gallery, where he recalled having seen most of the important exhibitions, beginning with the Auguste Rodin drawing show in January 1908. Although he was impressed by the work of American painters he saw at 291, he felt a greater attraction to the European artists—Rodin, Paul Cézanne, Constantin Brancusi, Pablo Picasso—whose work he said was more mysterious because of its unfinished quality. What Ray saw at Stieglitz’s gallery helped prepare him, as it did many other American painters and sculptors, to view the most influential grand-scale art exhibition ever held in this country—the Armory Show. The large paintings by French artists shown there—particularly those by Francis Picabia, Henri Matisse, and Marcel Duchamp—prompted Ray to begin work on a larger scale, while their abrupt departure from conventional painting affirmed and encouraged his own Modernist inclinations. The show’s impact was so great that it overwhelmed him to the point of inactivity: “I did nothing for six months,” he later told a reporter; “It took me that time to digest what I had seen.”3 For the next two years Ray would experiment with the most current European movements, fusing the bright colors of Fauvism with the broken planar structures of Analytic Cubism. His Portrait of Alfred Stieglitz, for example, thought to be the first painting he made after seeing the Armory Show, clearly reveals the impact of Cubism, particularly in its similarity to works by Picasso and Georges Braque shown at the Armory.

The following year, 1914, saw the creation of Ray’s largest Cubist picture, War (AD MCMXIV), measuring nearly six feet in width. The soldiers and horses portrayed in this painting are rendered in bulky, overbearing cylindrical forms, seemingly frozen into positions of perpetual combat. While the subject was undoubtedly suggested by the outbreak of war in Europe, Ray claims the inspiration came from reproductions he had seen of Uccello’s famous battle scenes, and, in fact, reference to Renaissance painting is extended to the media employed; the canvas was prepared with fish glue and plaster dissolved in water, to give the general appearance of fresco.4 But here the comparison with Renaissance painting ends, for unlike Uccello’s paintings, in which all details are subjected to rigid perspectival schema, Ray’s figures are rendered within a sharply defined two-dimensional framework. This approach to the rendition of form differs markedly from the fragmented, intersecting planes in his Portrait of Alfred Stieglitz, a stylistic departure indicative of the direction his painting was to take.

This was a crucial period in Ray’s development toward a more abstract painting. Fifty years later he tried to explain the reasoning behind it. Describing the painting War, he wrote in his autobiography, “I myself had been fascinated by perspective . . . In my paintings [as opposed to his architectural studies], however, I never forgot that I was working on a two-dimensional surface which for the sake of a new reality I would not violate, or as little as possible.” Ray wrote his autobiography in the early ’60s, and it is clear that the wording of this statement was informed by the formalist rhetoric that developed only in the ’40s and ’50s, in the heyday of the Abstract Expressionist period. Nevertheless, as the immediate evolution of his painting indicated, and as the publication of his pamphlet on two-dimensional design later confirmed, Ray was indeed in the process of initiating a change in style that found theoretical support in a fully developed and remarkably early formalist program.

According to his own account, the change can be traced to the time of a camping trip he took to Harriman State Park in New York in the autumn of 1914. Accompanied by his wife, the poet Adon Lacroix, and two other couples, including the occasional poet Alison Hartpence and his wife Helen, Ray set out on a three-day hiking trip through the Ramapo Hills on the New York-New Jersey border. During a conversation with Hartpence on the last day of this outing Ray announced that he planned to execute a series of imaginary landscapes inspired by his trip in the country, but that after that he would no longer paint from nature, which he concluded was only “a hindrance to really creative work.” Instead, he informed his friend, he planned to “. . . turn more and more to man made sources.” And, indeed, by the first few months of 1915 this radical departure manifested itself in a series of still lifes and figure studies executed in the new “flattened manner.” As he explained it in his autobiography:

I changed my style completely, reducing human figures to flat-patterned disarticulated forms. I painted some still-lifes also in flat subdued colors, carefully choosing subjects that in themselves had no aesthetic interest. All idea of composition as I had been concerned with it previously, through my earlier training, was abandoned, and replaced with an idea of cohesion, unity and a dynamic quality as in a growing plant. This I felt, more than actually analyzed . . .

Despite the intuitive approach he claimed, Ray’s new paintings were actually tightly organized compositions, whose calculated designs reveal a well-thought-out analysis of internal forms. In a still life appropriately entitled Arrangement of Forms, No. 1, a bowl, a covered jar, and a candlestick are so thoroughly fused with the surrounding space and background plane that the viewer is naturally compelled to a reading of the forms in relation to the painting’s overall surface quality. All shading and modeling have been eliminated, and, by means of translucent, overlapping forms, even the recessional edges of the table top are incorporated within a reading of the painting’s two-dimensional framework.

This tendency to flatten the internal forms of compositions, which Paul Wescher likened to a slowly deflating tire,5 was further intensified in the artist’s first use of collage and collage-related techniques. Ray had recently been exposed to the possibilities of this medium through the Picasso/Braque exhibition at 291, held from December 9, 1914, through January 11, 1915. The effect of these collages coincided exactly with Ray’s formalist concerns: the flat, rectangular pieces of paper reasserted the pictures’ surfaces, forcing a reading of all elements within each pictorial field in relation to the inherent two-dimensional quality of the paintings or drawings. Ray was especially impressed by the sparsity of detail in Picasso’s work: “The stark-black charcoal lines of Picasso with here and there a piece of newspaper pasted on seemed very daring—rather incomprehensible though.” Whether or not he fully understood the implications of this new medium, he quickly proceeded to make use of it.

Ray’s first documented use of collage was in 1914, when he accentuated the torso of a small figure with a piece of gold paper in Chinese Restaurant. Interior, 1915, his first important work in collage, incorporates a thin, rectangular sheet of silvered paper, mounted at a slight angle in the center of the composition. Carl Belz, author of an article that was perhaps the first probing analysis of Ray’s paintings from this period, attributes the apparent contradictions of Interior to “Dada games.”6 Prompted by the portrayal of a clock weight hanging from a chain in the center of the composition, Belz interprets the number boldly inscribed on the left—“1000”—as an indication of a precise hour: “10 o’clock.” If this number refers instead to the year 1000, then this inscription may not be a totally illogical element. It may refer to 1000 A.D., a date feared by Europeans in the Middle Ages, for it was predicted that on that date the world would come to an end. Ray may have known this historical fact, and by incorporating a reference to war in the same image, he may have been suggesting that the war in Europe would be the modern cause of universal devastation. The clock mechanism then would be an indication that the coming of the end of the world was just a matter of time.

Several of the details in Interior are borrowed from an earlier work; the large, white, heavily outlined form in the background is derived from the horse and rider that appear in the left portion of War, while it has been noted that the three figures on the silvered paper are suggested by other details from this same painting. Thus, like Picasso’s use of newspaper fragments, in strictly formal terms Ray too incorporates into his composition details which assert an inherent two-dimensional quality. However, rather than literally include elements from his environment, he adapts figurative details that have already undergone the flattening process in his earlier work. As Adon Lacroix succinctly put it later in a 1917 catalogue introduction to her husband’s work, “. . . a picture includes a painting and a painting includes a picture and one is both and both are one. The pervading subject in everything is the idea.” From 1914 to 1916 Man Ray explored the full ramifications of the idea of two-dimensionality in an important series of paintings, collages, and collage-inspired paintings.

By the fall of 1915 Ray had prepared enough works in this style for a one-man show at the recently opened Daniel Gallery, located at 47th Street and Fifth Avenue, then the center of New York’s exclusive art gallery district. Daniel, an ex-saloon keeper, was hesitant to assume the expense of framing all the canvases Ray brought in, so the young artist came up with a solution in keeping with his concern for flatness. The paintings were recessed into a temporary wall surface constructed of cheesecloth, making it look as though they had been painted directly on the wall. Of the thirty paintings shown, six were entitled simply Study in Two Dimensions, making it clear that the artist was intent on emphasizing flatness. In fact, it was precisely this theme that most confounded reviewers of the exhibition, who tended to classify the two-dimensional studies with the design experiments of an art student.

Ray recalled that most reviews of this exhibition were “deprecatory or outrightly hostile.” Conservative critics preferred the earlier, more representational portraits and landscapes, which they cited as proof that the artist could paint with skill if he really wanted to. And, as an example of the opposing extreme, they repeatedly singled out his Dance-Interpretation (as it was then entitled), probably because it was conveniently reproduced in the small catalogue accompanying the exhibition. One critic described the painting as “some tailor’s patterns . . . having a good time,”7 while an anonymous reviewer in the New York Sun made a far more insightful observation: “Mr. Ray appears to have cut certain shapes of dancing figures from a paper roughly. Then he cut the figures again into careless segments and pasted the whole together in fine disregard of the original shapes.”8 Whether or not Ray constructed this particular work in the fashion described by this reviewer is uncertain, but the analysis is keenly prophetic, in that it describes precisely the technique Ray was to use the very next year in his most important paintings.

This same reviewer in the Sun also thought Ray’s landscapes noteworthy for their “undeniable charm,” but rightly observed that the real purpose of the exhibition was “. . . evidently to test the larger, two dimensional canvases with the public.” In this light there follows an analysis of Ray’s Dance, comparing its two-dimensional quality with Picasso’s presumed use of a fourth:

Our artist [Ray] instead of using the four dimensions of Mr. Picasso uses but two, but art in two dimensions is even more intricate than in four . . . Picasso is always concerned with form and that thing more than form that gives the fourth dimension, but these dancers of Mr. Ray are of tissue paper thinness. They have width and height only.

This reviewer then notes that this flattening effect can be of some value, and proceeds to establish a connection with the art of the past:

. . . from the mural point of view the two dimensions are theoretically more correct than the four that are used by Picasso. The great success of Puvis lay in his ability to keep his great wall spaces flat. What is fair for classic art is fair for the moderns.

Four months later Dance was once again presented to New York’s gallery goers at the celebrated Forum Exhibition of Modern American Painters, held at the Anderson Galleries, March 13–25, 1916. The show included only the work of American Modernists, with the intent, as the organizers of the exhibition stated in the catalogue, of turning attention away from European art in order to “. . . concentrate on the excellent work being done in America.”9 Most of the artists selected were then working in an abstract or semiabstract mode, and each was given an opportunity to explain his or her work in a catalogue statement, which was to be accompanied by a reproduction of one painting (Ray’s Dance was again reproduced). As might be expected, the argument centered around abstraction vs. representation, with most of the artists agreeing that the plastic elements of composition—color, form, line, etc are of an equal or greater significance than the subject. Ray echoed this position in his statement, but unlike the other artists, he placed an added emphasis on the flat planar surface, which, along with color, texture, and organization of form, he considered an absolute quality shared by the great paintings of all eras:

Throughout time painting has alternately been put to the service of the church, the state, arms, individual patronage, nature appreciation, scientific phenomena, anecdote and decoration.
But all the marvelous works that have been painted, whatever the sources of inspiration, still live for us because of absolute qualities they possess in common.
The creative force and the expressiveness of painting reside materially in the color and texture of pigment, in the possibilities of form invention and organization, and in the flat plane on which these elements are brought to play.
The artist is concerned solely with linking these absolute qualities directly to his wit, imagination and experience, without the go-between of a “subject.” Working on a single plane as the instantaneously visualizing factor, he realizes his mind motives and physical sensations in a permanent and universal language of color, texture and form organization. He uncovers the pure plane of expression that has so long been hidden by the glazings of nature imitation, anecdote and the other popular subjects.
Accordingly the artist’s work is to be measured by the vitality, the invention and the definiteness and conviction of purpose within its own medium.

Along with Dance (for this exhibition, retitled Invention-Dance), Ray showed nine other paintings and three drawings.10 Despite the fact that each artist was given approximately the same amount of wall space, Ray was somewhat peeved at having his work hung off to one side of the exhibition space and hidden in a corner. Nevertheless, Stieglitz, who attended the opening of the exhibition, comforted Ray, not only by noticing his work but also by praising it highly. Commenting on the painting Black Widow (variously known as Invention-Nativity and Femme),11 he claimed to have understood “the hermaphroditic significance of the work.” In fact, Ray acknowledged that the dominant figure in this painting could be that of a man or a woman. Whatever the sexual implications, the large black headless figure with outstretched arms appears to have been “steamrolled” into position, squashed (along with a thin, translucent contour shape) onto the flat surface plane of the painting. The overlap of translucent shapes, with their depth-defying qualities, was given further amplification in another painting also shown in the Forum Exhibition: Promenade (then entitled Invention-Promenade). Here, borrowing a technique employed in earlier still-life compositions—such as Arrangement of Forms, No. 1—the three figures are so intricately intermeshed that it is difficult to tell exactly where one starts and where the other leaves off. The background, however, is rendered in a solid, basically opaque color, serving to restate the surface plane upon which the flattened, overlapping foreground shapes are supported.

It was the critic Willard Huntington Wright, one of the organizers of the Forum Exhibition, who invited Ray to participate in the show. In April 1916 he published a long review of the exhibition, providing a critical appraisal of each of the 17 artists who were shown. Having expressed some regret in an earlier article for his adverse criticism of Ray, in this review he carefully compared his work to Picasso’s, feeling that although the Spanish artist had left his impression, the result in Ray’s work was “. . . of a totally different mental attitude.”12 This difference, he maintained, was due to the fact that Picasso had always been “a slave of objectivity . . . while Ray’s desire to create was inspired less by nature than by thought.” Then, perhaps with information gleaned from Ray’s catalogue statement or from conversations with the artist, he proceeded to discuss the work in terms of Ray’s preoccupation with flatness in painting:

Ray believes that painting, being done on a two-dimensional surface, should satisfy itself with this flat restraint; and he has set himself to beautify his canvas even more diligently than if he were a sculptor. That he has penetrated far into the fundamental problems of formal order in two dimensions is undeniable. That he has achieved much on the way is quite evident.

At just about the time Promenade was conceived (it is based on a small gouache that dates from October 1915), Ray was experimenting with the seemingly unsolvable problem offered by a painting’s background. If the ultimate goal was flatness—and if one dealt with figuration of any kind, no matter how abstracted—then how could one avoid the sensation of depth that would naturally be suggested by any awareness of foreground and background space? One solution would be to literally cut it out, and that’s exactly what Ray did in the small painting aptly entitled Cut-Out. Abstract, overlapping shapes—at least one of which was borrowed from the head of the central figure in Promenade—are painted in oil on the surface of a thin, rectangular sheet of cardboard, which in turn has been trimmed of its flanking background plane and suspended within a shallow, open-backed frame. Thus the figurative elements of the painting hang freely, silhouetted against the wall surface.

Although cutting out the background of this composition was a logical step in the formal evolution of his paintings, one cannot help but suspect that such an unorthodox solution came from a more iconoclastic source, and there was then no better representative of the iconoclastic in art than Marcel Duchamp, whom Ray had just met and befriended. In the summer of 1915, the wealthy poet and art collector Walter Arensberg introduced Ray to Duchamp, who had just arrived in the United States and spoke little English. At first communication was difficult, though Ray’s wife occasionally acted as translator. Despite the language barrier, Ray must have felt an immediate affinity for this man, for from this point on, both Duchamp’s art and ideas were to be a continuing source of inspiration to Ray.

At the time of their meeting Ray was already familiar with Duchamp’s Cubist paintings, which he had seen at the Armory Show, but it is not known precisely when he could have seen Duchamp’s more recent work. He may have seen several paintings in an exhibition of Modern French art at the Carroll Galleries, held in March 1915, three months before Duchamp’s arrival in the U.S. The two versions of Chocolate Grinder were shown there, and were severely criticized for their mechanical execution. On this basis, one critic even questioned their artistic merit: “It is not easy to take seriously as ‘Art’ two such mechanical evocations,” wrote William B. McCormick, in the New York Press, and he went on to describe these paintings as “. . . two engines for grinding chocolate impeccably drawn and colored as if for a machinery catalogue.” But it is precisely the calculated quality of these works that would have appealed most to Ray, who was then employed as a part-time draftsman in a commercial firm. Ray would have been able to see more examples of this mechanical style when he visited Duchamp at his newly installed studio. Late in 1915 Duchamp was just beginning work on the two glass panels that would later become known as the Large Glass. And Ray would also have been able to see the “glissoir” study on glass, which Duchamp had completed in Paris and brought with him to New York.

These works must have impressed the young American painter, for he immediately put to use Duchamp’s method for enclosing forms in lead wire. In Symphony Orchestra, 1916—an important painting often overlooked in evaluations of Ray’s work—many of the major foreground elements are outlined by thin copper-colored bands. As for the subject of this work, analogies to music had long been cited in defense of abstraction, reasoning that if music could be appreciated for its balance, harmony, and tonal qualities, why not painting? In 1917 Arthur Wesley Dow isolated the musical analogy as one of the most desired ambitions of the Modernists: “ceasing to make representation a standard but comparing the visual arts with music,” Dow said, was one of the most important esthetic issues of the time.13 Ray, aware of this analogy, appears to have composed the internal elements of Symphony Orchestra in a consciously balanced and harmonious fashion. Intersecting ovoid forms in the lower right extreme of the painting balance off musical notes that seemingly break from their registers and metamorphose into the necks of stringed instruments in the upper left of the composition. An overhead view of a piano, fully equipped with keyboard and stool, is represented by the large blue form in the lower left quadrant of the painting, while the whole is unified by a twisting white shape in the background, undulating like the theme in a Bach concerto. As Ray was to acknowledge later, “Bach moved me because of my own precise training in mechanical subjects; he was a kindred spirit who inspired me to greater efforts in my line.”

The background in Symphony Orchestra functions in response to the musical analogy. But the background of a painting could not always be rationalized within a totally flat, two-dimensional schema, as we saw earlier with the painting Cut-Out. In Duchamp’s studio, Ray probably witnessed an alternative solution to the treatment of background space, since the issue had concerned Duchamp for several years, though for different reasons. He wished to eliminate the immediate visual field surrounding the various elements portrayed on the Large Glass, partly for the purpose of alluding to the existence of a fourth dimension. Years later he explained his rationale to an interviewer in terms that might not have been very different from the way he would have explained it to Ray in 1915–16:

Anything that has three-dimensional form is the projection in our world from a four-dimensional world, and my Bride, for example, would be a three-dimensional projection of a four-dimensional bride. All right. Then, since it’s on the glass it’s flat, and so my Bride is a two-dimensional representation of a three-dimensional Bride, who also would be a four-dimensional projection on a three-dimensional world of the Bride.14

Duchamp might also have added some information as to how this projection could more easily be explained through the metaphor of shadows, an idea that he picked up a few years earlier from a book on the fourth dimension: “The shadow cast by a 4-dimensional figure on our space is a 3-dimensional shadow.”

Even if Ray did not completely understand all this talk of the fourth dimension and shadows, he must have realized that he and his French companion were working independently on ideas of mutual interest, however differently they put them to use. By 1916, the idea of shadows figured prominently in Ray’s obsession with the art of two dimensions. In what is rightly regarded as his most important painting, The Rope Dancer Accompanies Herself With Her Shadows, the two-dimensional images cast by the rope dancer are essentially the subject of this picture. Moreover, all figurative details in this image (including the shadows) are set against the surface of a gray/white background, creating an illusion not unlike the transparent effect of glass, especially when the painting is hung on a solid white wall.

In his autobiography, Ray revealed the technique used in the construction of this picture:

The subject was a rope dancer I had seen in a vaudeville show. I began by making sketches of various positions of the acrobatic forms, each on a different sheet of spectrum-colored paper, with the idea of suggesting movement not only in the drawing but by a transition from one color to another. I cut these out and arranged the forms into sequences before I began the final painting. After several changes in my composition I was less and less satisfied. It looked too decorative and might have served as a curtain for the theater. Then my eyes turned to the pieces of colored paper that had fallen to the floor. They made an abstract pattern that might have been the shadows of the dancer or an architectural subject, according to the trend of one’s imagination if he were looking for a representative motive. I played with these, then saw the painting as it should be carried out. Scrapping the original forms of the dancer, I set to work on the canvas, laying in large areas of pure color in the form of the spaces that had been left outside the original drawings of the dancer. No attempt was made to establish a color harmony; it was red against blue, purple against yellow, green versus orange, with an effect of maximum contrast. The color was laid on with precision, yet lavishly—in fact, the stock of colors was entirely depleted. When finished, I wrote the legend along the bottom of the canvas: The Rope Dancer Accompanies Herself with Her Shadows.

Thus, by creating a pseudocollage, or what has been referred to as a trompe l’oeil rendition of collage, Ray had managed to produce the illusion of flatness, an achievement which marked the penultimate step in his search for the final expression of art in two dimensions.

Much has been made of the similarities between this painting and the Large Glass, particularly the lower portion of Duchamp’s work where the Nine Malic Molds or “Bachelors” are portrayed. There are indeed formal similarities in the positioning of various elements; the ropes descending from the dancer do mimic the so-called “capillary tubes” that radiate from the Bachelors in the Large Glass. And the placement of the female element in the uppermost extreme of Ray’s painting does resemble the general layout of the Large Glass, where the Bride and related apparatus are confined to the upper panel. Authors have even recognized the similarities between the titles of the two works, noting that Ray inscribed his directly on the surface of the painting, just as Duchamp had done on several occasions, particularly on his famous Nude, as well as on both versions of the Chocolate Grinder. But more than the similarities between these two works, the differences reveal the formal meaning and importance of Ray’s painting. Unlike Duchamp, Ray was not concerned with recording his subject in an accurate, perspectively correct fashion. Even the rope dancer is rendered as a transparent being, portrayed in flat, multiple images against the surface of the painting, with only a white aura to help distinguish her from the planar background whose coloration she shares. Moreover, Ray might have reasoned that if Duchamp were right, and four-dimensional figures did cast three-dimensional shadows, then conversely, when it came to painting on an opaque surface (rather than on glass), a three-dimensional object (the actual rope dancer) would naturally cast two-dimensional shadows—and that is exactly what he portrayed.

Of course there are numerous levels of paradox generated by such an interpretation, but the ambiguities suggested by this picture were not inconsistent with Ray’s general disapproval of art objects that were so highly finished and logical that they lacked the essential ingredient of mystery. For this reason he would often intentionally defy logic. “What IS logic?” he remarked later in life; “To me 2 and 2 equals 22; not 4.”15 He even claimed to possess “an aversion to paintings in which nothing was left to speculation.” “Mystery,” as he put it, “was the key word close to my heart and mind—and everyone loved a mystery; but did he [the viewer] not also want the solution? Whereas I always begin with the solution.”

The “Revolving Doors,” a collage series, consists of ten separate panels, each made from carefully cut pieces of colored construction paper, pasted onto the surface of white cardboard. For their first installation, in 1919 at the Daniel Gallery, each collage was separately framed and hinged onto a revolving support, so that the entire ensemble could be spun around like a revolving door (hence the title). When asked by his dealer to provide a written explanation for this series, Ray’s friend Hartpence advised the artist not to reveal any technical details, but to formulate a statement in abstract, mysterious terms, allowing the spectators to make their own deductions. Actually, by the time this request was made, Ray had already written texts for at least five of the collages, which he published some eight months earlier in his own magazine, TNT, a single-issue review that appeared in March 1919. Although the texts he composed were “long” and “rambling” (according to Ray’s own description), they are insightful, if somewhat abstruse analyses of each panel. Both the titles and written statements for the collages were most likely inspired by their finished forms (and not the other way around), a method the artist frequently employed. Thus the title for the first in the series, Mime, was probably suggested by its general anthropomorphic shape, which, with the vertical color-spectrum/striations and outstretched armlike forms, resembles a mute clown, or mime. Other panels are far more abstract, such as the fourth, entitled The Meeting, where three abstract shapes, or “beings” as Ray called them, are rendered as if they were separate pieces of colored acetate, placed in overlapping positions on an evenly illuminated surface. In places where two or three primary colors overlap, secondary and tertiary colors result, creating the effect of viewing translucent color gels on the surface of a light table (something Ray would have seen or perhaps even worked with himself in his employment as a draftsman). Whereas only four of the ten collages accurately produce an illusion of overlapping color planes, the general effect of translucency is suggested by each panel in the series. This effect, considered along with his elaborate system of installation, makes it clear that Ray intended the white cardboard background of each collage to metaphorically represent glass.

Shadows differs markedly from the other panels in this series. Four separate shapes overlap: one blue, another red, and two yellow. At first this collage appears to have been constructed in the same way as the other nine panels, but further analysis reveals that the four shapes are determined by a method of projection, and not just of simple overlap as in the other collages. On the white cardboard surface of this panel Ray has recorded the shadows cast by a French curve (a draftsman’s template), when held at varying angles above the picture surface. (Curiously, this system of projection closely mimics the principle employed by the Rayograph, a cameraless technique Ray was not to discover until 1921; a similar procedure is also employed in some Aerographs, a method of painting with a spray gun which Ray would not employ until 1917.) As with the Rope Dancer, Ray has captured the two-dimensional reflection of a three-dimensional entity. But here, unlike in the painting, the object responsible for the shadow is not represented within the pictorial field. Instead, we are presented with the effect of something we cannot see—only a shadow, which by its very nature is without mass. In a theoretical sense, this panel is even “flatter” than the other images in the series, for the other collages assimilate overlapping pieces of acetate, which, however thin, still imply a degree of depth through the building up of layers. Later, Ray emphasized the dematerialized effect produced by these images when he described the entire collage series as “an equivalent for light.”16 This may appear to be a minor detail, but it is one of which Ray was aware. Although he expressed it in rather awkward terms, this point was made clear in the first sentence of the introduction to the Revolving Doors: “The concern of a period of time often leads to the disappearance of material space.”

Ray more coherently outlined his theories of design in a small hand-printed booklet, privately published in 1916 under the title A Primer of the New Art of Two Dimensions.17 This remarkable little treatise—heretofore unknown in the literature on Man Ray—attempts to establish a theoretical basis for all the arts by demonstrating that their modes of expression all possess the potential for reduction on a flat surface. He considers painting, sculpture, and architecture the “static arts,” for they can be understood in a single viewing and in an instant of time, while music, literature, and dance are classified under the “dynamic arts,” for they require the passage of time for full comprehension. Each of these arts is then analyzed individually, with the intent of establishing their equivalent form in two dimensions. Ray attempts to convince his reader that these parallel states actually exist, subjecting his reader to some rather tenuous interpolations, especially in the case of the dynamic arts. Music, for example, is said to originate from contact points on instruments, which are recorded as musical notation on (flat) sheets of paper. Literature is similarly interpreted, as the form of words in a given arrangement. The parallel on the static plane for dance is established with greater difficulty. According to Ray, rhythm is the common element, for it lends unity to the temporal components of dance, just as it establishes a relationship between static forms on a two-dimensional surface. The static arts are then individually analyzed with the same intent. Architecture becomes adaptable to the two-dimensional plane through proportion (presumably he means through plan and elevation drawings), while sculpture finds its planar equivalent in its ability to create light and shadow, which, we are told, are plastic values that can be expressed in two dimensions.

Finally, with painting—Ray’s primary medium—we are presented with a formalist theory, which contains the seeds of a critical approach that would not be fully developed for some forty years, not until the so-called “second generation” of formalist critics addressed the art of Abstract Expressionism in the 1940s and ’50s. The three basic tenets of formalism, as it was defined by these later critics, can be summarized as follows: (1) primary interest in the structural order of a work of art; (2) purity of the medium; and (3) integrity of the picture plane. All three of these concerns are either directly stated or implied by Ray’s writings. His interest in structural order, however, was more clearly expressed in the statement he prepared for the Forum Exhibition, quoted earlier, where he explicitly stated that besides color and texture, the creative force in an artist’s work relies on the invention and organization of form on the picture surface, or as he referred to it, “the flat plane.” In the Primer he notes again that it is the organization of points, lines, form, and rhythm on the flat plane that gives the arts their dynamic quality. As for the purity of the medium and integrity of the picture plane, Ray stresses the importance of color and texture in making the viewer conscious of a painting’s material quality, which he notes can be “detached from its representative function and cultivated in itself.” This is an important point, for he goes on to say that the desire for realism in painting can be satisfied by “a parallel realization in the material itself.”

Of course, an exposition on the theory of formalism, as we know it, was not the primary intention of this little booklet. Rather, the organization of forms on a flat plane was utilized only as a vehicle to establish a common ground upon which the static and dynamic arts could be reconciled. In actual practice, Ray put this theory to use in his selection of subject, which he chose from among the separate classifications of the dynamic arts: music (i.e., Symphony Orchestra and Orchestra from the “Revolving Doors” series), dance (i.e., Dance), and literature (in his many illustrations for poems, particularly his own and his wife’s, as well as illustrations for plays).

For precedents to Ray’s Primer one can search in vain through the publications of contemporary critics and estheticians who were noted for their emphasis on form in the interpretation of a work of art—particularly Clive Bell and Roger Fry—to find theories of formalism that are as precise and conclusive as Ray’s. Although his reading of these sources undoubtedly influenced his thinking, we must turn to technical manuals of design and composition in order to find an immediate precedent. Most important were the writings of Denman Ross and Arthur Wesley Dow, especially the latter’s Composition (1899, revised 1913), a book that influenced a host of American painters, particularly Max Weber and Georgia O’Keeffe. Both of these writers isolated the plastic components of design—line, texture, color—and demonstrated how they could be incorporated into a composition through the use of harmony, balance and rhythm. In an article that appeared in 1915, Dow noted that great pictures and artifacts of all cultures and in all periods of history shared the common feature of good design.18 And in another article published in 1917, Dow stated that the primary concern of the modern artist was, among other things, to find “a common basis for all the visual arts.” 19 Other than occasionally evoking the musical metaphor, however, neither Ross nor Dow attempted to establish the nature of this common basis. But earlier books published in America did, such as George Lansing Raymond’s The Genesis of Art-Form (1893), a book whose lengthy subtitle adequately describes its contents: An Essay in Comparative Aesthetics Showing the Identity of the Sources, Methods, and Effects of Composition in Music, Poetry, Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture.20 Except for dance, all the art forms Man Ray considered are fully analyzed in this volume, and Raymond demonstrates that they share common principles of formal organization. No matter how close the similarities of approach, however, no theorist before Ray (as far as this author can determine) so emphatically established the flat plane as a common factor in the unity of the arts.

In November 1919, when the Daniel Gallery held a retrospective showing of Ray’s Modern works, the critics responded with what Ray called “a hue-and-cry.” Royal Cortissoz, the notoriously conservative art editor of the New York Tribune, could make no sense out of the show. Referring to “Mr. Ray’s diagrammatic works,” he wrote: “We have endeavored with the best will in the world to ascertain the abstract meaning of the artist’s purpose. Whatever it may be, we cannot detect in it any relation to the production of a work of art.” C. Lewis Hind, on the other hand, art columnist for the Christian Science Monitor, made a concerted effort to understand such unfamiliar works. After having seen the exhibition three times, he followed up his interest with a visit to the artist’s studio.21 Thus his review of the exhibition is especially important, as it indirectly relays Ray’s ideas about his own work in this period. Hind described the Revolving Doors as “flat and geometrical, never plastic and representative.” He wrote that Ray had “banished the third dimension. They [the Revolving Doors] were all in two dimensions.” Noting that the series was made entirely of collage, and not painted as he had originally thought, Hind tells us he learned directly from the artist that this method was adopted as “. . . a protest against the importance that has been, and is, accorded to technique.” On this point he further elaborates:

He [Ray] strives to escape from technique, to give not a quality of paint, but a quality of idea. He wants to work in a medium that is already controlled, like musical notes, so that he can give all his thought to inventive form and line in two dimensional aspects: he wants his painting to be unworried by tactile values (which Mr. Berenson adores) and to show not handiwork but the idea at the back of it.
To him the idea and the abstract realization are everything; the concrete carrying out of the idea he maintains is mechanical, and can be done by anybody with a little training.

This report indicates a break with Ray’s earlier, formalist theories of painting, and establishes the tenets of a conceptual, or Dada-oriented, approach to art. This sensibility, as others have frequently pointed out, owes a considerable debt to Duchamp, who by 1919 had become Ray’s close friend and collaborator. Duchamp believed that mechanical technique depersonalized the work of art, ridding it of the overbearing effect of an artist’s ego. He also maintained that art should avoid the “retinal” approach, as he referred to it, and that it should instead be a “cerebral” act. The notion of the idea taking precedence over form has one inevitable result: painting as an exercise in the exploration of formal properties will stop. Other than occasional experiments in later years, after 1919 Ray painted only when some other medium was not appropriate for the expression of a specific thought. As he himself clearly put it: “Perhaps I wasn’t as interested in painting itself as in the development of ideas.”

Francis Naumann is preparing a book on the subject of New York Dada, and teaches at Parsons School of Design, New York.



1. Man Ray, Self Portrait, Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1963. Unless otherwise indicated. all Man Ray quotations are from Self Portrait.

2. Karin Anhold Rabbito, “Man Ray in Quest of Modernism,” Rutgers Art Review, II, January 1981, pp. 59-69.

3. Quoted in C. Lewis Hind, “Wanted, A Name,” The Christian Science Monitor, ca. November-December 1919 (exact date unknown, clipping preserved in the scrapbooks of Katherine Dreier, Collection of the Société Anonyme, Beinecke Library, Yale University, New Haven), reprinted in Hind, Art and I, New York: John Lane Co., 1920.

4. Interview with Arturo Schwarz, quoted in Schwarz, Man Ray, The Rigour of Imagination, New York: Rizzoli, 1977, p. 32.

5. Paul Wescher, “Man Ray as Painter,” Magazine of Art, XLVI, No. 1, January 1953, p. 33

6. See: Carl Belz, “Man Ray and New York Dada,” The Art Journal, XXIII, no. 3, Spring 1964, pp. 207-13.

7. A.v.C., “Man Ray’s Paint Problems,” American Art News, Vol. XIV, no. 6, November 13, 1915, p. 5.

8. “Current News of Art and the Exhibitions,” The New York Sun, sec. III, November 14, 1915, p. 7.

9. The Forum Exhibition of Modern American Painters, The Anderson Galleries, New York, 1916.

10. A complete checklist and price list for this exhibition is preserved in the papers of the Forum exhibition, Archives of American Art. I am grateful to Anne Harrell for bringing this document to my attention.

11. In the Forum exhibition it was called Invention-Nativity. Later, in Paris, Ray took the liberty of making sight alterations in the forms and retitled the painting Femme (reproduced under that title in G. Ribemont-Dessaignes, Man Ray, Paris: Librairie Gallimard, 1924, p. 21). For reasons unknown to the author, the work now goes by the title Black Widow (see Roland Penrose, Man Ray, Boston: New York Graphic Society, 1975, p. 41, and Schwarz, Man Ray, p. 42, fig. 29).

12. Willard Huntington Wright, “The Forum Exhibition,” The Forum, LV, April 1916, pp. 467-8. For the earlier reference to Ray see: Wright, “The Aesthetic Struggle in America,” The Forum, LV, February 1916, p. 220.

13. Arthur Wesley Dow, “Modernism in Art,” American Magazine of Art, VIII, January 1917, p. 116

14. From an interview with George and Richard Hamilton, “Marcel Duchamp Speaks,” BBC broadcast, 1959, quoted in Schwarz, The Complete Works of Marcel Duchamp, New York, Harry N. Abrams. Inc., 1969, second revised edition, 1970, p. 23.

15. Quoted in Alexander Watt, “Dadadate with Man Ray,” Art and Artists, I, no. 4, July 1966, p 33.

16. Quoted in Penrose, Man Ray, p. 56.

17. I am grateful to William Camfield for alerting me to the existence of this pamphlet in the archives of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. And I owe a further debt of gratitude to Anne d’Harnoncourt and Marge Klein for making copies and photographs of this document available to me.

18. Arthur Wesley Dow, “Talks on Appreciation of Art,” The Delineator, January 1915, pp. 14-15.

19. Dow, “Modernism in Art,” p. 116.

20. George Lansing Raymond (1839-1929) occupied the chair of oratory and esthetic criticism at Princeton University from 1880 to 1905. His writings on comparative esthetics were published in eight separate volumes between 1886 and 1900 (brought together and republished in a uniform edition in 1909). Professor Raymond’s theories were provided renewed interest in 1914/15, upon the publication of a two-volume compilation containing extracts from his most important writings in poetry and esthetics. See E[dward]. A[Iden]. J[ewell]., “Raymond, George Lansing,” Dictionary of American Biography, VII, New York 1963 (original ed. XV. 1935), pp. 407-8.

21. C. Lewis Hind. “Wanted, A Name.”