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Envisioning the Man Behind the Man

January 14, 2010 By:
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Emmanuel Radnitzky, an ambitious, art-minded young man, born to Russian immigrant parents in Philadelphia in 1890, began his career as a painter. But by the time the 1920s rolled around, he had taken himself to Paris and completely reimagined his persona; he'd already adopted the moniker Man Ray (extracted from his given and family names) and, though he created many different types of art, became known primarily for his startling, mind-bending photography.

Paris at that time was, of course, the center of the cultural world, teeming with experimentation. Ray didn't hesitate about surrendering to the zeitgeist -- and did so with commendable abandon (he swore allegiance to the Dadaists, and was the rare American the Parisian surrealists felt comfortable with). The artist, who generally tinkered in unconventional, often shocking and always witty ways with the images and films he composed and the objects he constructed, insisted that his greatest artistic moments were made through sheer happenstance. Ray enjoyed calling some of his experiments "timely mistakes."

This is not to suggest that the photographer had no discipline. Far from it. His was the work of a controlled and controlling master -- a point that's made again in a new art book that's chock full of text, and a wealth of images, called Alias Man Ray: The Art of Reinvention. The publisher is the ever-estimable Yale University Press, once again in collaboration with the Jewish Museum, where a Ray exhibit now holds sway.

The overriding point of this new work is that it's difficult to pigeonhole Ray. His photos may be the most recognizable part of his oeuvre, but he was far from just a photographer -- and far from just an experimental one. His services were much in demand from fashion editors, and he made a good part of his living early on in Paris by doing portraits of some of the period's most distinguished writers and artists. (He also obviously had a weakness for self-portraiture.)

He was much influenced by Marcel Duchamp, perhaps the most playful of the Dadaists. Like his "master," Ray was always up for a good game and enjoyed stretching the boundaries of art. The somewhat older artist was Ray's "guide" in the creation of his many "objects." Not for nothing is the cover of this new Yale volume graced by Indestructible Object (or Object to Be Destroyed) -- a metronome with a cutout photograph of an eye on the pendulum.

Alias Man Ray also reminds us that, though the artist moved from medium to medium, he never really gave up painting completely. And these essays also discuss his output as a writer -- as a memoirist and poet, primarily.

All this shifting among disciplines and the incessant self-examination are the point here and, I imagine, the exhibit that accompanies it. Ray liked playing the trickster role on the modern art scene, but his control of what he did and what he let the world see is undeniable.

As Mason Klein, the curator of fine arts at the Jewish Museum, says in the first of the four essays in the book, Ray's life and work are "a deliberate, ongoing attempt to reinvent himself and his art, and to reconcile his need to obscure but still declare himself. A psychological reading allows for an understanding of the seeming contradiction between Man Ray's achronological methodology and the fact that he not only kept extensive notes on the whereabouts of his works but could recall the 'virtual month, day and year of their creation.' On the occasion of his first retrospective, in 1944 at the Pasadena Art Institute, for example, Man Ray made it clear that an artist's career should not be bound to linear, developmental logic: 'The chronological list of paintings does not imply any fancied progress. I do not believe in progress in art.' This patent disregard for progressive development accorded with his rejection of the rules of the game that more often than not confounded those who sought to situate him critically, or assess his work in terms of its quality, coherence or purpose."

This book does its best to make sense of it all, and very nearly wrestles its subject to the ground in the process. Still, it's highly provocative and always stimulating to the eye. 

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