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Man Ray’s Jewish Identity: ‘Concealing And Revealing’

The figure  becomes overshadowed by the images it projects. Right, a self-portrait of Ray taken in 1936. Images courtesy of 2009 Man Ray Trust/Artists Rights Society, New York/ADAGP, Paris
The figure becomes overshadowed by the images it projects. Right, a self-portrait of Ray taken in 1936. Images courtesy of 2009 Man Ray Trust/Artists Rights Society, New York/ADAGP, Paris

by Eric Herschthal
Staff Writer

Mason Klein stood before “The Rope Dancer Accompanies Herself with Her Shadows,” an early Man Ray painting. Completed in 1916, five years before the notoriously elusive artist set off for Paris to become the most renowned American working among the European avant-garde, Man Ray made this colossal work. It is barely comprehensible: an abstract crystalline structure is etched against a gray background, with six ropes hanging from it. Each rope is attached to a large geometric mass painted in red, green, yellow, blue or black.

“For me, I think this painting’s a narrative for the whole show,” said Klein, the curator for The Jewish Museum’s new exhibition, “Alias Man Ray: The Art of Reinvention.” Klein explained that much like the artist himself — born
Emmanuel Radnitzky, in 1890, to Russian Jewish immigrants living in Williamsburg — the barely visible crystalline shape, meant to represent the dancer, seems secondary to the dominating colored shadows.

Those shadows, Klein explained, represent Man Ray’s various artistic personae — painter, photographer, Surrealist, Cubist, Dadaist. But what the artist was born as — a Jewish child to a tailor and seamstress in Brooklyn — has largely been obscured. “It’s not as if I wanted to out him,” said Klein. “It’s just that his need to repress his Russian Jewish immigrant past has not been addressed thoroughly through his art.”

Indeed, the “Alias Man Ray” exhibit, which opens on Sunday, Nov. 15, is nothing short of art-historical revisionism. The show argues that far from having little relation to his creative process, Man Ray’s Jewish identity — and his relentless desire to escape it — manifests itself throughout his career. It is in his refusal to stick to any one medium, be it photography, film or painting. It’s in his close association with the Dadaists, who mocked any type of categorization. And it’s in all those shadows, a recurring motif found in much of Ray’s work.

That biographers have overlooked his Jewish identity is perhaps no fault of their own; the artist was notoriously vague about his past. Even in his autobiography, published in 1963, when he was 73, Ray does not mention a word about his Jewishness. “It’s been elided completely,” Klein said. “He only tells us about his artistic creations as if it was the only thing he wanted you to know about him.”

But the exhibit makes a strong case that there was more to Ray than he said. In the exhibition catalogue, Klein writes that his reading of Ray’s work is “psychological,” meaning that the Jewish references must be understood to have arisen subconsciously.  When, for instance, abstract forms faintly resemble a flatiron or stitching, they could be unintended allusions to his parents’ professions. When a later painting, “Le Rebus” (1938), made just before Ray fled Paris for Hollywood, contains creased lines that resemble body crevices, it might be a sign of physical weakness.

“He felt impotent to change,” Klein said, noting that the works Ray made while he was in Hollywood, from 1940 until 1951, were his most Jewish ones yet. Only when he was forced to flee Paris — which he refused to do until just days before the Nazis invaded — did his Jewish identity re-emerge as something worth considering.  “He thought he’d never have to deal with it again,” said Klein.  And yet when the war ended, Ray left for Paris once more, living there until his death in 1976.

Ray began his career as a painter, creating most of his early canvas work in the 1910s. Alfred Stieglitz introduced him to New York’s art crowd, but it was the Armory Show in 1913 that captured Ray’s imagination. Europe’s great modern painters — Picasso, Matisse, Braque — displayed their work there, convincing the young painter that his real future lay in Europe.

The exhibit contains several paintings from this early American period that bear an uncanny resemblance to the Cubists; Ray’s “Promenade” (1916), for instance, seems to prefigure Picasso’s “Three Musicians” (1921), with its vertical figures painted in muted blue, rusts and browns.

Ray gained a considerable reputation in this period, changing his name at this time too, but Klein argues the artworks themselves reflect his identity transformation. Ray’s evasions about his past are legion, with the exhibit even opening with his well-known quote: “You see, I try to walk the tightrope of accomplishment between the chasms of notoriety and oblivion.”

Because of this lack of biographical detail, Klein said you have to use the art as your guide. “Look at how he conceals and reveals,” Klein said. “You have to see how he reveals himself in his work.” In his paintings, human figures seem to dissolve into the background, which, Klein suggests, symbolize the artist’s effort to lose his identity.

To this day, however, Ray is best known for his photographs. And the exhibit has dozens of them, including the iconic “Le Violon d’Ingres” (1924), in which a violin’s F-holes are inlaid over a woman’s back. Ray created most these works in Paris where he was eagerly embraced as the American Dadaist, after he founded the movement’s New York branch.

Ray collaborated most often with Marcel Duchamp, and the exhibit highlights one photographic collage they made together. Titled “Portrait of Rrose Sélavy” (1921) it shows Duchamp dressed in drag, Both artists were mocking the supposedly fixed idea of identity — in this case sexual — but the story behind the photograph indicates that they actually considered dressing Duchamp up as a Jew first. The idea was dropped for reasons not known, but the picture nonetheless reflects the show’s underlying thesis: identity transformations can be found throughout Ray’s oeuvre.

These Dadaist works weren’t how the general public knew Man Ray at the time, however. In America at least, glossy magazines made him famous. There is a telling quote on a wall text by Sylvia Beach, the founder of the original Shakespeare & Company bookstore in Paris, which quotes her as having said: “To be done by Man Ray means that you were rated as somebody.”

Portraits in the exhibit of James Joyce, Jean Cocteau, Gertrude Stein and Marcel Proust on his deathbed are proof enough. In fact, while Ray is known today for his hybrid photographic collages and “rayographs” — objects placed on light-sensitive paper, which left their image behind like an X-ray — those fairly unimpressive portraits, published by the likes of Vanity Fair and Vogue, made Ray the Annie Leibovitz of his day.

The catalogue contains an authoritative essay about Ray’s ever-shifting critical reputation. Written by Merry A. Foresta, curator of an important Man Ray exhibit in the 1980s at the Smithsonian, it describes how Ray’s constant artistic transformation contributed to his askance posture within the modern art canon. “Like Baudelaire’s flâneur, the observer who strolls through the crowd but is really not a part of it, Man Ray navigated through the art movements of the twentieth century.” But he is an artist, she continues, “who ultimately got lost in translation.”

Because he crossed so many boundaries — demolishing some, creating others — critics have found it difficult to place him within any one movement. His reputation was revived in the late 1970s and ‘80s, she writes, in large part because postmodernists found his taste for irony and categorical deconstruction suddenly fresh. And he remains relevant today for still another reason: because his transatlantic career, and indeed his hybrid identity, mirrors the careers of so many young artists today.

Klein suggests that Ray may have even been the first Jewish avant-garde artist, though it is a tenuous claim given both the movement and Ray’s disavowal of ethnic identity. Indeed when Klein began working on this exhibit, he said several art world cognoscenti were puzzled by his theme. “Why are you reducing him to an ethnic category?” some wondered. Klein said others were even more blunt: “What? A Man Ray exhibit at The Jewish Museum? He’d roll over in his grave.” But Klein was not deterred. “My answer is that I think he’d appreciate the irony of being looked at another way.”

“Alias Man Ray: The Art of Reinvention” opens Sunday, Nov. 15, at The Jewish Museum. 1109 Fifth Ave., at 92nd Street. (212) 423-3200.


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