Comments/Context: The Man Ray retrospective now on view at the Jewish Museum is a show with a point of view. Rather than delivering a dispassionate survey of the artist's work over a lifetime and allowing the viewer to draw his or her own conclusions about its significance, this exhibit opens with a hypothesis and then proceeds to use the works as supporting evidence. Given the venue, it is not at all surprising that the line of thinking here revolves around Man Ray's Jewish heritage, and the central pivot for the show is his evasion/assimilation of this background throughout his life (including the changing of his famous name). And while this analysis likely has its points of validity, both tangible and psychological, I didn't find the Jewish narrative compelling enough to be a definitive guide for all of the twists and turns of his life and art. Luckily, the breadth and depth of the work on view is such that an excellent portrait of Man Ray's evolution over time comes through, regardless of the religious back story.
In his early years, Man Ray was a relentless filterer. The paintings and watercolors from the 1910s are forgettable Cubist variants, with figures transformed into colorful geometric planes and positive and negative space often interchanged. After meeting Marcel Duchamp, readymade objects started to find their way into his work; soon the Cubism was gone, and witty Dada puns (L'Homme as a hand mixer) and more spontaneous found sculptures came forth. In my view, the sculpture made of wooden coat hangers (Obstruction, 1920) is an important and transformative piece. The interconnected hangers (which foretell the work of Calder) go beyond being pared down objects and find a lyrical quality, especially the patterns of shadows that fall on the wall behind the sculpture when light is shown through it. This was an "aha!" moment for me, as I now saw the thread between his early Dada work and the Rayographs - he was starting to truly experiment with light and shadow.
Man Ray's time in Paris between 1921 and 1940 was clearly the most productive of his career. While I might have vaguely understood this previously, the show really drives this point home. Although he continued to experiment with a variety of mediums, the weaker paintings fell away for the most part and Man Ray spent more time with photography, bridging (and reinventing) his Dada ideas and influences into Surrealism and the avant-garde. Out of this came iconic images like Le Violon D'Ingres, 1924, and Noir et Blacnhe, 1926, the entire series of stunning Rayographs, a large body of superlative nudes (including studies of Lee Miller), a group of solid still lifes, and a surprisingly inventive and original set of portraits and self-portraits. In these works, he's diving into the process of photography, pushing the edges, using cropping, multiple exposure, solarization, positive and negative cameraless images, and other manipulations and techniques to achieve his desired results.
The level of quality across this period is astounding. I had forgotten about his wild portrait of Berenice Abbott (Harlequin Composition, 1922), the penetrating gaze of Lee Miller's eye (1932), the intimacy of Retour a la Raison (a nude from 1923) and Anatomics (a neck, 1929), and the simple solarized Calla Lilies (1930). There are also a few early Rayographs on view that I hadn't seen before, along with better known images of light bulbs, wires, combs, tops, film strips and other objects. The portraits of Joyce, Breton, Hemingway, Duchamp, and Cocteau (among many others) are all much stronger than I remembered; Man Ray's portraits are perhaps under appreciated amidst this embarrassment of riches.
The end of this period however sees Man Ray start to spin his wheels; the mathematical models of the late 1930s are pretty mundane in comparison to what had come before. After he leaves Paris, and really throughout the rest of his career, he seems to have lost his touch. He goes back to painting, tries new things, goes against the grain, but is out of step with the prevailing trends (and seems to miss Abstract Expressionism entirely); his sculptures look like tired reworks of forgotten ideas. From my perspective, the last two periods (exile in Hollywood and Paris again) have very little of merit to recommend them; my reaction to the work in these final rooms was that it was all pretty sad, or perhaps just trying too hard to be relevant.
The comprehensive nature of this exhibit helps to tease out these overarching themes across his career. By seeing his work in all the mediums across all the decades hung together, the successes and failures stand out more, and the connection points and interrelationships become clearer. As an educational vehicle, this exhibit helped me to gain a larger perspective on Man Ray's whole career and to put some of his most important works in a deeper context. While I'm not sure the Jewish heritage motif deserves such prominent placement in the overall narrative of his life, the idea that Man Ray was a restless experimenter and assimilater generally rings true I think. In his prime, his fluidity of ideas generated more top quality bodies of photography than most photographers could hope for in an entire lifetime. As such, this exhibit is one worth making a detour for, both for the highlights, and for the missteps along the way that help to tell Man Ray's complicated story.
Collector's POV: Man Ray's photographs are routinely available at auction, with plenty of works on offer at nearly all price points. Vintage Rayographs and iconic works consistently fetch between $100000 and $450000, while lesser known works and later prints can be as inexpensive as $3000-5000; a majority of his middle of the road photographs range between $10000 and $40000.
For our particular collection, many of Man Ray's nudes and florals would fit nicely into our existing groups. We actually already own one Man Ray flower (here), but could certainly imagine adding more standout works from either genre.
Rating: *** (three stars) EXCELLENT (rating system described here)
- Reviews and Features: NY Times (here), Huffington Post (here), Daily Beast (here), TimeOut (here), Vogue (here), FT (here), New York Social Diary (here)
Through March 14th
The Jewish Museum
1109 5th Ave at 92nd St
New York NY 10128