New York

Man Ray, Macbeth, 1948, oil on canvas, 29 7⁄8 × 24 1⁄8". From the series “Shakespearean Equation,” 1948–54.

Man Ray, Macbeth, 1948, oil on canvas, 29 7⁄8 × 24 1⁄8". From the series “Shakespearean Equation,” 1948–54.

Man Ray

DI DONNA

An eye-opening survey of Man Ray at Di Donna—comprising thirty-two paintings and thirty-four works on paper—possessed what André Breton once called the “extreme degree of immediate absurdity,” a quintessential aspect of Surrealism. Man Ray, one of the movement’s undisputed masters, is well known for his photograms and solarized images, as well as for his fashion and portrait photography. He also produced various avant-garde films and conceptually driven pieces, such as the readymade Indestructible Object (or Object to Be Destroyed), 1923, an image of an eye snipped from a photo and attached to the arm of a metronome (perhaps an ironic self-portrait?). Yet he considered himself first and foremost a painter. He created paintings in Paris, where he lived before and after World War II. But his efforts with the world’s oldest medium crystallized in Hollywood—he resided in Los Angeles between 1940 and 1951. Twenty of these images were featured in this show.

Three abstractions from his 1942 “Revolving Doors” series—Technicolor-rich and assertively flat—took stylistic cues from Stuart Davis, Wassily Kandinsky, and the sleek, sharp angles of modernist graphics. Other paintings were noteworthy because of their mocking, oddly trivializing takes on Shakespeare: See, for example, Julius Caesar, 1948, a painting of a headless and strangely feminine bust that hovers near a phallic, upturned chair leg; or the gaudy biomorphic throne room of Macbeth, 1948, an oil haunted by an image of an obsidian chunk with a vulvar cleave—perhaps a symbol for Lady Macbeth. Man Ray made a number of these “mathematical objects,” which he referred to as “Shakespearean Equations,” 1948–54. They seem to serve an erotic, if defensive, purpose: as tongue-in-cheek displacements of the female torso. But none of this psychological masquerading exists in The Chambermaid (Le corset rouge), 1948, a sexy painting of the actress Paulette Goddard, dressed for her role in a Jean Renoir film. Note the size of Goddard’s hips—they could have been constructed with the same trigonometric “Jacobi amplitude function” that Man Ray used to render the curvaceous architecture of Macbeth—a formula that accentuates Goddard’s seductive glamour yet hollows out the doomed thane’s animus (per Jung).

The artist, like many of his Surrealist confreres, was obsessed with women and fetishized them relentlessly, as we observe in Mademoiselle H . . . , 1952—which depicts a ponytailed prototype of the 1960s French yé-yé girl—and the bizarre Peinture féminine (Female Painting), 1954, a voluptuous abstraction of a mushroom-like figure done in sundry shades of brown. In the drawing La peur (les mains libres) (The Fear [Hands Free]), 1937, a giant, Rasputinlike claw reaches for a terrified crouching naked woman; her breasts hit the ground and her enlarged buttocks are raised above them. In another drawing made that same year, a man’s Brobdingnagian fist tightly clasps a nude woman; one of his fingers penetrates her vagina. Such obscene, not to say sadistic, pictures are characteristic of chauvinistic Surrealist fantasies.

In 1937, Man Ray declared, “Photography is not art,” and realized that Surrealism had to become realism if it was going to survive—thus the wryly humorous still life of two apples (Adam and Eve, 1948) and the representationalism of the titular object in Le songe de la clef (The Key’s Dream), 1942, both of which are oil on canvas. They feel influenced by pedestrian Hollywood verisimilitude (think film sets, prop design)—but the latter was definitely inspired by Magritte. Perhaps the most innovative object Man Ray made when he returned to Paris after World War II was the painting–sound work Talking Picture, 1957, with its continuously playing radio, an intermedia piece that showed he was still ahead of his time, as this kind of art did not come into its own until the mid-1960s. This hybrid thing—a clever acknowledgment of cinema and the power of novelty—despite its clunky realness, still manages to be quite surreal.