Washington D. C.

Man Ray

National Museum of American Art; Middendorf Gallery

The National Museum of American Art’s traveling exhibition “Perpetual Motif: The Art of Man Ray” is a major retrospective. Along with the photographs shown concurrently at the Middendorf Gallery (over 70 vintage portraits from 1921–39), it presents a unique and long-overdue occasion to reassess Man Ray’s extremely diverse body of work. Arranged chronologically, “Perpetual Motif” is comprised of 268 works that span Man Ray’s career from 1912 to 1976, the year of his death. With few exceptions, the exhibition provides a logical progression through Cubism to Dada and Surrealism, establishing links with these movements and revealing recurring motifs in the artist’s work. This installation highlighted selected sculptures, such as the 1920 Obstruction, a lost coathanger work remade in 1961, and offered vistas onto works in adjacent spaces. Even the theater, an open area in the exhibition proper, avoided the usual darkened room (the films were shown on video monitors and allowed comparison of work in different mediums).

Man Ray originally studied photography in order to document his painting; eventually, he began exhibiting his photographs. In this way, he began reusing motifs, each time striving to make something new. Man Ray’s most famous painting, A l’heure de l’observatoire—Les Amoureux (At the time of the observatory—The lovers, 1932–34), is a case in point. The central image of a giant pair of floating lips recurs as the basis of two separate photographs.

As this image suggests, Man Ray was absorbed in the humorous, the absurd, and especially the erotic; he discovered these properties not only in photographic images, but also in common, ordinary things. His notorious Dada object Cadeau (Gift), made upon his arrival in Paris in 1921 and subsequently lost, was simply a flatiron with a row of tacks glued to its underside. But Cadeau was more than just an indiscreet attack on bourgeois notions of art or a historical curiosity. The combination of tacks and iron, both of which retain their materiality and identity, remains an absurd and demonic idea to this day. Unfortunately, these salient features are missing in the artist’s 1970 recreated version of the piece, which is exhibited here as a more conventional work of fine art, with title, signature, and date engraved on its side.

Man Ray’s compulsive manipulation of tangible things reflects a typically American pragmatism connecting art with material reality. This tendency is manifested in his “invention” of the aerograph, rayograph, and solarization processes. In the painting-collage Black Widow, 1915, cutout materials provide the link to reality. In an untitled oval aerograph from 1919, a rasp, a carpenter’s clamp, and a french curve are used as stencils, evoking Cubist subject matter through the traces of physical objects. At the same time, the works hint at an impending conflict between this pragmatism and a sublimated reverence toward painting. This conflict was not to surface until years later, when Man Ray essentially abandoned photography for painting. The tension between present and absent reality is evident in the ghost imagery of the artist’s rayographs, such as the famous 1922 series “Les Champs délicieux” (The delicious fields) and the solarized photographs of the ’30s. Even in his “straight” photographs, a logic similar to that found in his objects appears. The sadistic eroticism of Minotaur, 1936, evokes the mythological man-beast with what are recognizably the raised arms and nude torso of a woman.

By the ’30s, Man Ray was famous as a fashion and studio photographer. The number of portraits of famous artists and celebrities shown at the Middendorf Gallery attests to this. But the more his success as a photographer grew, the more adamantly he identified himself as a painter. When he attempted to transfer the logic of his photographs to painting, the result was often a polemical, forced narrative, as in Le Beau Temps (Good weather, 1939), a fantasy about the collapsing political situation in Europe. While such works betray the artist’s fundamental self-consciousness, they also underscore his dependence upon the physical aspects of objects to stimulate his artistic and intellectual imagination. As these two exhibitions clearly show, Man Ray was not simply a creator of images, but an ingenious manipulator of ideas. His most effective and enduring works are his fetishistic objects and images, which resist total illusory transformation. Such works force the viewer mentally to form new visual and conceptual relationships out of ordinary experience. It is this that makes his vision unique and his art profound.

Howard Risatti