Buenos Aires Herald. Published October 15, 2000.
An influential modernist
Photographs, litographs and objects by Man Ray at the Centro Cultural Borges.
By Alina Tortosa
Man Ray was well trained in design and the economical use of the material at hand since childhood, as his father, a taylor, worked at home. The bits and pieces, samples and left overs of cloth, where used by the mother, with the aid of the artist and his brother and two sisters to make carriage blankets and kilts. Economy, texture and design were inbred, not appropiated. His first known piece, true enough, was a tapestry made of different samples of cloth.
As a young adolescent he was exposed to the art shown by Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946) in his 291 Fifth Avenue gallery. Stieglitz was instrumental in introducing the latest work by talented and avant guard European artists to an attentive and cautious American audience, including photography, as Stieglitz was a talented photographer himself. This experience did not prepare him, however, for the reverberating shock suffered by himself and others on the opening of the famous and notorious Armory Show in 1913. This major exhibition -more than one thousand and six hundred pieces by European and American avant guard artists-, was a commotion that unsettled the understanding and perception of artists and lay persons to a point of no return. Man Ray confessed that after the show he did nothing for six months: I took me that time to digest what I had seen.
The Stieglitz influence, the Armory Show, and his reading of Rimbaud and Lautréamont prepared our artist to understand Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968) when he met him in 1915. Their friendship and collaboration lasted for fifty years.
Man Ray, who had evolved from abstraction to a vaguely cubist style, became disenchanted with painting. He needed to go beyond the brush and the easel. The airbrush, an instrument used by illustrators to produce a light, even spray of ink or paint, provided the alternative he was looking for. He enjoyed painting without touching the canvas. It gave him enough physical distance from the support he was working on to make him feel he was engaged in a cerebral activity. The first work, an aerograph, as work done with an airbrush is called, Suicide, 1917, is now in the Menil Collection in Houston.
Influenced by Marcel Duchamp and Francis Picabia (1879-1953), Man Ray investigated mechanical devices and the construction of objects. He was also involved with photography and the process of printing it. His photographic portraits of women and of men, of surrealist scenes and motifs and his self portraits have influenced the visual conscience of succeeding generations. He was also involved in film making, engraving, sculpture, illustration, philosophy and in the writing of essays and poetry.
In 1921 Man Ray went to Paris, where Marcel Duchamp, who had left before him, was awaiting him. He was happy to leave New York, as he felt constrained by an unappreciative audience who did not understand his innovative spirit. He became acquainted with artists and intellectuals and made a living as a photographer, while he pursued his own investigations. Sylvia Beach, owner of Shakespeare and Company, the bookstore and expatriate literary gathering place, referred many of the prestigious British and American novelists to him for photographs.
He was welcomed by the European Dada movement, together with Duchamp and Picabia, as a member of the small New York Dada group. Later, as Dada fell through and Bréton proclaimed the Surrealist Manifest, he became an independent member of the Surrealist movement as well. Though he would not bind himself to one circle or group, and liked to be able to move from one to the other freely.
When the nazis invaded France he returned to the US via Spain and Portugal. He lived in Hollywood for ten years. Then he returned to Paris, where he felt at home. He died in Paris in 1976.
Clever, ingenious, mysterious, sadistic, ironic, Man Ray rebelled in the energy and enthusiasm generated by the creative process, rather than by the action or the object accomplished. His portrait as a modernist artist is untarnished by the critical contemporary appreciation of avant guard totalitarian movements. His was a world without bounderies, open intellectual spaces unfettered by aesthetic limitations or dogmatic dialogues.
Man Ray, was born in Philadelphia on 27 August 1890, the eldest child of an immigrant Russian Jewish family. It is possible that his iconoclasticism and anarchist leanings stemmed from his Jewish background. Christians were -and mostly are- expected to believe rather than to discuss the Churches teaching, while being Jewish implies generations (of men) discussing the Torah and its interpretation by diverse religious scholars, to a point in which even non religious Jews inherit this passion for dissent and reinterpretation.
(Man Ray, Centro Cultural Borges, at the Galerias Pacífico. The work shown in this exhibition belongs to Giorgo Marconi, an Italian collector and a friend of Man Ray. A hundred and forty photographs, fifty litographies and ten objects.)