New York

Man Ray

Robert Miller Gallery

Man Ray’s “Natural Paintings” offer a pictorial variation on the Surrealist technique of automatic writing. He began producing these works during the ’50s by squeezing colored paint directly from the tube onto a board in a haphazard manner. He then applied even pressure with another board or sheet of paper, spreading the paint out to create irregular amorphous shapes. Unencumbered by preconceived notions of composition and design, the “Natural Paintings” extend the Surrealist impulse to produce works of art without self-consciousness or calculation.

Like the indexical imprints of his earlier Rayographs or the technique in his signatureless airbrush works, the method employed in the “Natural Paintings” distances the author from his process. Man Ray described this newfound process in his autobiography: “By spreading the colors according to the impulse of the moment, I abandoned brushes and palette knives, and applied pressure with other surfaces, withdrawing them to produce a variation of the Rorschach test. The results were astonishing, with details that could have been obtained only through long and meticulous labor by hand.”

The process of blotting used by Man Ray was not wholly without precedent. In 1936, the technique was first manifested in a series of drawings by the Surrealist Oscar Dominguez, which were exhibited under the name “decalcomania.” Dominguez’s process was similar to Man Ray’s, except that he used a more fluid black gouache that spread out in broader, thinner veils. In the ’40s Max Ernst brought Dominguez’s technique to oil on canvas. Both artists, however, used the process in the service of representation. They capitalized on the liquidity of the medium and exploited its ability to create cloudy and atmospheric effects, often altering the blots to heighten figurative associations. In many cases stencils were used to help control the spread of ink and coax an image from the flow. Ernst and Dominguez’s technique dates as far back as 1785, when Alexander Cozens developed “The New Method” for producing natural landscapes. In his treatise of that year, Cozens proposes an “instantaneous method.” Of his inkblots on paper, he remarked: “The blot is not a drawing, but an assemblage of accidental shapes from which a drawing may be made.”

What distinguishes Man Ray’s technique of blotting from that of his predecessors is that the effect is never used for representational purposes. By applying the paint from the tube, he created a thick, pasty surface that spread less evenly under pressure. Each blotch of color remains somewhat discrete, congealing into ridges like licks of frosting. This effect is most noticeable in the acrylic paintings; in one work from 1971, the individual areas of paint still look crisp and glossy as if they were fresh from the tube. In the end, the “Natural Paintings” rely on a purity of technique that also preserves the paint’s materiality, a quality that separates Man Ray’s work from both Dominguez’s and Ernst’s.

Surrealism was essentially a literary movement and, therefore, Surrealist pictorial imagery is often iconographic. Man Ray’s “Natural Paintings,” however, use the automatic technique to generate a form of creative expression unmediated by the human intellect. The final result, however, is nonrepresentational and nonreferential, and in this respect the works stand alone. Later experiments, such as Gerhard Richter’s process of peeling sheets of plastic from wet painted surfaces, and Arman’s accumulations, are indebted to Man Ray’s unassuming but prescient exercises.

Kirby Gookin