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October 20, 1989 - Image 38

Resource type:
The Detroit Jewish News, 1989-10-20

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Man Ray

Continued from preceding page

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abstrct art revolutionalized
the walls, converted the
22-year-old to modern art.
"In machine age-America,"
Foresta points out, "what art
was and how it would look
were continual questions." At
291, photography's role in
modernism was endlessly
debated, but Man Ray, as he
now called himself, came to
the medium as a practical
matter. Dissatisfied with
studio reproductions of his
paintings for his first exhibi-
tion in 1915, the artist did the
work himself, delighting in
the new technology. But his
"real talent," Foresta says,
"lay in his grasp of
photography's own role as in-
termedium between art and
A 1920 portrait of the
writer Mina Loy broadly
hints at work that would give
him a place in art history. In
the photo, which like most of
his work is layered with sym-
bolic references, Man Ray
parodied the work of commer-
cial portrait photographers.
Set within a traditional oval
format, Loy, her chin thrust,
her eyes curiously closed,
sports a darkroom ther-
mometer as an earring. A
self-portrait taken the same
year in his equipment-filled
studio was snapped just as the
artist moved — "a blurred
face the indication of a racing
mind," Foresta notes.
For Man Ray, such work
raised the camera from a
mechanical device to a per-
sonal aesthetic. The results
caught the eye of Duchamp
and other advocates of the
Dada movement, essentially
a free-wheeling revolt against
conventions, both in art and
life. The idea for a work of art
— not the work itself — they
esteemed. Without leaders, or
principles, its creations il-
logical, ephemeral and in-
conclusive, Dada (which the
followers themselves really
never could define) was
readymade for Man Ray.
Dada, however, did not fit
America in the '20s, a coun-
try — critic Janet Flanner
once wrote Man Ray — where
the citizens "are suspicious
now of anything that doesn't
look real, natural and if possi-
ble all right for little Mable,
aged 8 . ." Assuredly, the
citizens were not ready for
Man Ray, who from about
1917 to 1921 discoverd the
most of his ideas were best ex-
pressed through the use of ob-
jects, and at times finding
that a photograph of an object
better conveyed his thoughts
than the object itself. Only
the Dada precedent could ex-
plain Man Ray's exhibition of
an unwound lampshade or a
sculpture created out of

coathangers. In 1917, -Man
Ray charged unexpected
drama into some thin, wood
strips, C-clamped together,
when he titled the simple
work "New York." And
similarly, his photograph of
an eggbeater, called "Man,"
takes on all new meaning. In
presenting only the photo of
the eggbeater and then label-
ing it, Man Ray, according to
one interpretation, could sug-
gest the object's visual kin-
ship to the male figure and
thus "exercise complete con-
trol over the spectator's point
of view."
American resistance in the
'20s to any form of aesthetic
expression became impossibly
repressive to Man Ray, and to
scores of others. In July 1921,
he sailed for the creative at-

"Man Ray 'had a
mix of American
Jewish deadpan
humor and French
wit . . . which
explains why he
was so integrated
in French life and
never rejected by
the artists: "

mosphere of Paris. Says
Foresta: "He was a star when
he arrived. His reputation
had preceded him." Lamp-
shade was understood.
Managing to straddle the
sometimes strident, sidewalk-
cafe chat over the finer points
of Dada, Man Ray, now 30 and
sporting a beret, got along
well in Paris. Within the year,
he "had an important posi-
tion in Montparnasse because
of his inexhaustible inven-
tiveness, his friendliness and
the new use he made of the
camera," one pal said. "He
dazzled us all with his cars,
and the girls he went out with
were beautiful."
Man Ray "had a mix of
American Jewish deadpan
humor and French wit," notes
University of Nice historian
Michel Sanouillet, "which ex-
plains why he was so in-
tegrated in French life and
never rejected by the artists."
Not long after his arrival,
however, Dada seemed to be
more of a cliche than a fresh
idea. With dwindling gallery
prospects, Man Ray put aside
his objects and painting, pick-
ed up the portrait camera and
focused on the international
cast for a livelihood. In the
process, and quite by acci-
dent, Man Ray happened to
make a darkroom discovery
that bears his name, the
"rayograph." These
cameraless, artistic images,

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