New York

Man Ray, Self-Portrait as a Fashion Photographer, 1936, black-and-white photograph, 8 1⁄4 x 6". All works by Man Ray © 2010 Man Ray Trust/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris.

Man Ray, Self-Portrait as a Fashion Photographer, 1936, black-and-white photograph, 8 1⁄4 x 6". All works by Man Ray © 2010 Man Ray Trust/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris.

Man Ray

Jewish Museum

Man Ray, Self-Portrait as a Fashion Photographer, 1936, black-and-white photograph, 8 1⁄4 x 6". All works by Man Ray © 2010 Man Ray Trust/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris.

ONE COULD SAY of the Jewishness in Man Ray’s work what Theodor Adorno said of it in Gustav Mahler’s: “One can no more put one’s finger on this element than in any other work of art: It shrinks from identification yet to the whole remains indispensable.” Like the Austrian composer, Man Ray—born Emmanuel Radnitzky in Philadelphia in 1890, to Russian-Jewish immigrant parents—lived in a society that, though in many ways progressive, could be intensely anti-Semitic. And like Mahler, Man Ray was Jewish and working-class at a moment when assimilation was not only a frequently practiced route of professional advancement but could also mark a political commitment to a socially enlightened universalism. In other words, both Man Ray’s Jewishness and his disavowal of it were historically specific and multivalent. Curator Mason Klein’s revisionist retrospective, “Alias Man Ray: The Art of Reinvention,” hints at the value a subtly mediated appraisal of the artist’s Jewishness might hold for an understanding of his oeuvre but sadly fails to deliver.

This is particularly true of the psychobiographical account Klein offers in the exhibition’s catalogue. Initially, his essay’s aim seems to be the delineation in Man Ray’s work of a “dialectics of assimilation” (to borrow the author’s phrase), characterized by the desire to simultaneously assert and conceal the self. As Klein rightly suggests, Man Ray’s experience with assimilation may well have enabled him to fluidly traverse the competing factions of bohemian Paris to become its most sought-after portrait photographer, and to deflect attention from himself to better illuminate the glamorous aura of those he photographed, while basking in their reflected glow. A second artist who was likewise a child of working-class immigrants eager to shrug off an ethnic surname and identity, an artist similarly talented at manipulating the medium of photography to pierce the closed circle of celebrity in a way that enhanced his own, immediately springs to mind. That a consideration of Man Ray’s Jewishness should suggest the terms for a comparison with the Catholic Andy Warhol is one indication of a potential Klein left largely untapped.

Indeed, the crux of Klein’s interpretation seems not to be Jewishness at all but an unresolved Oedipal crisis that (in his view) mired Man Ray in an impossible fantasy of pre-Oedipal omnipotence, punctuated by episodes of narcissistically deflated rage, exemplified by his sadistically erotic depictions of his lover Lee Miller. While clearly drawn to intelligent, strong-willed women, Man Ray does appear to have been both macho and insecure in his dealings with them. And reading his correspondence with his sister Elsie, it’s impossible to ignore the contrast between Man Ray’s seemingly endless requests for financial favors and Arrow shirts and the deaf ear he turned to his family’s equally endless entreaties that he visit them in New York. Did Man Ray suffer from a narcissistic character disorder? Perhaps. More striking than any insight Klein’s reading gives into either Man Ray or his art, however, is the assurance with which the curator issues his patronizing diagnosis of another human being’s complex and ultimately unknowable subjectivity, along with the concomitant reduction of complex and ultimately unknowable aesthetic objects to a series of pathological symptoms.

And what of the exhibition? On entering, viewers are immediately confronted with Tapestry, created in 1911, when Man Ray was twenty years old and still living with his parents in Brooklyn. Composed entirely of fabric scraps culled from the sewing room where his garment-worker father toiled in off-hours to augment the family’s income, the large-scale assemblage is impressively vanguard in both its grid construction and its reliance on the found readymade. It also grounds the “life” component of Man Ray’s avant-gardist life-into-art endeavor in a specific and explicitly ethnic milieu. Soon thereafter, we encounter one of very few instances of documentary source material in “Alias Man Ray”: a photograph of “Manny” just after his bar mitzvah, and another of the Radnitzky clan, decked out in their Sunday—or in this case Saturday—best, radiating the kind of willed respectability one finds in so many late-nineteenth-century working-class family portraits (pointing, no doubt, at least in part to what Man Ray sought to escape in disavowing his roots and embracing the life of a bohemian artist).

At the exhibition’s exit hangs La Rue Férou, painted in 1952—the year after Man Ray returned to Paris from his wartime exile in Hollywood, taking up residence on the eponymous street. An instance of the ongoing, and in the final decades of Man Ray’s career increasingly prevalent, recasting of earlier works, the painting is a self-referential meditation on “homecomings” of numerous sorts. The one that becomes privileged in this context is the intractable return of ethnic identity. A hunched pushcart peddler (along with tailor, the ur-profession of America’s Russian-Jewish immigrants) trudges up an otherwise deserted rue Férou, his cart laden with The Riddle or, per its alternative title, The Enigma of Isidore Ducasse, 1920/1971—Man Ray’s homage to the nineteenth-century French writer better known as the Comte de Lautréamont, who coined the notion so prized by the Surrealists of “the beauty of the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on a vivisection table.” Klein emphasizes the object’s “personal subtext,” suggesting a play on identity in Ducasse’s initials, and—together with Tapestry and Cadeau (Gift), 1921/1958 (a clothes iron menacingly adorned with tacks, also on view)—The Enigma of Isidore Ducasse and its reprisal in La Rue Férou form the basis of an argument for a “Jewish” iconography in Man Ray’s work.

But aside from this tendentious framing, Klein’s polemic is largely played out in wall labels and object captions, which (in addition to noting the iconographic connections discussed above) suggest that modernist painting’s collapse of distinctions between figure and ground and Dadaism’s assault on structures of authority held a particular attraction, not to say psychic resonance, for an assimilationist Jew like Man Ray. These texts accompany a fairly straightforward—one might even say traditional—chronological presentation. The exhibition devotes galleries to each major phase of Man Ray’s artistic development, beginning with his early grappling with modernism under the aegis of multiple mentors: Alfred Stieglitz; the anarchist members of the Ferrer Center, where Man Ray studied drawing with Robert Henri; his Belgian first wife, Adon Lacroix, who introduced him to Symbolist poetry and free love; and, perhaps most important, Marcel Duchamp. A gallery devoted to “Dada in New York” reveals Duchamp’s increasing influence, evidenced by Man Ray’s shift from painting toward such unorthodox art forms as the “aerograph,” the readymade, and, of course, photography.

Viewers then follow Man Ray on his exodus from still artistically provincial New York to Paris, where he cannily traded on the cachet of his Americanness to gain almost immediate access to the inner sanctum of its avant-garde. As “Alias Man Ray” shows, these were the artist’s most fruitful years: the years of his ascent to a lucrative career as a commercial photographer and, creatively, the years of his intense engagement with the experimental darkroom techniques of solarization and the rayograph, which not only, in true Dada fashion, flouted distinctions between photography and painting but also, and perhaps just as crucially for Man Ray, conferred on the former an artistic value and prestige previously reserved for the latter. The last two galleries show the artist tenacious but obviously in decline—first in Hollywood, where, having abandoned photography due to its increasingly commercial connotations, he churned out derivative late-Surrealist-style allegorical paintings, and then back in Paris, where he passed his twilight years engaged in the bricolage construction of his “objects of affection” and the consolidation of his legacy through the publication, in 1963, of his memoir, Self Portrait.

While it is easy to fault Klein on ideological terms, as a curator of visual objects he is adept. His presentation of work is elegant and understated, like the soothing gray he has selected for many of the gallery walls. The exhibition is comprehensive without being overstuffed, and as one expects from such competent handling of the monographic format, Klein makes it possible for viewers to chart both the persistence and the evolution of certain tropes and concerns across the arc of Man Ray’s career: the potential reversibility of elements in a binary structure (such as, for example, figure and ground), shadows that by turns obscure their objects and anchor them to their surroundings, the tension between singularity and repetition, the construction and presentation of the self, the mutability of women’s bodies.

In Klein’s analysis, these preoccupations are linked to Man Ray’s Jewishness, or rather, his narcissism. But they could be tied just as easily to the crucial role of photography and the photographic in Man Ray’s oeuvre. Indeed, it is quite possible (arguably even advisable) to overlook Klein’s thesis altogether while moving through the exhibition. In doing so, an image of the artist emerges that is oddly similar to the persona Man Ray himself so carefully and protectively honed. In part, this is due to the show’s biographical framework, which relegates historical context to the role of a supporting actor in Man Ray’s personal drama. In part, it is due to Klein’s insistence on the essentially pluralist nature of Man Ray’s production, which obscures the fact of some very real—and for Man Ray, painful—hierarchies; namely, the naggingly inferior standing of photography in relation to painting, and the vulgar taint that clung to commercial art, particularly compared with the aristocratic disinterest that permeated Duchamp’s brand of Dada. For Klein, Man Ray’s rejection of medium-based divisions and distinctions exemplifies his “assimilative drive.” For Man Ray, it was an assertion (perhaps a defensive one) of creative freedom and a sign that his art was not an instance of craft but an expression of its maker’s ideas. Either way, Man Ray appears as an authoritative, if restlessly protean, subject who stands behind his work; or, better, above it, in the manner of a transcendental signifier.

“Alias Man Ray: The Art of Reinvention” is on view at the Jewish Museum, New York, through March 14.

Margaret Sundell is a curator and independent scholar based in New York.