Painter, designer, photographer, and mixed-media artist Man Ray was an important contributor to Dada and Surrealism and an innovator that transformed how we view art. His deft layering of meanings was both erudite and entertaining, and his works are often only truly completed upon the viewer’s analysis and reaction: startled, then delighted, and challenged to solve the visual puzzles that Man Ray set out. The crux of Man Ray’s work, in any medium, can be boiled down to the conceptual—the idea takes precedence over all else.
Born in Philadelphia and raised in Brooklyn, Man Ray (a self-styled nickname adopted in 1905 derived from his given name, Emmanuel Radnitzky) learned photography from avant-garde photographer and New York gallerist Alfred Stieglitz. It was through Stieglitz’s 291 gallery and the 1913 Armory Show in New York that Man Ray was first exposed to European avant-garde art and artists such as Pablo Picasso, Constantin Brâncuși, and Marcel Duchamp. In 1915, Man Ray was introduced to the provocative rabble-rouser Duchamp, who was visiting New York from France. Duchamp’s first “readymade,” Bicycle Wheel, had sent shockwaves throughout the art world two years prior, irrevocably changing the establishment and its players. Although Ray and Duchamp did not speak a mutual language, they forged an immediate bond through an unconventional game of tennis. Man Ray recounts in his 1963 autobiography: “I brought out a couple of old tennis rackets, and a ball which we batted back and forth without any net…I called the strokes to make conversation: fifteen, thirty, forty, love, to which he replied each time with the same word: yes.” This volley would set the tone for their friendship for the next 50 years, as they bounced ideas off of each other and pushed one another to further their individual artistic inventions. Their rigorously intellectual repartee inspired Man Ray to create a custom wood chess set for his friend Duchamp, who renounced art in favor of chess in the 1920s. The traditional game pieces are replaced by unexpectedly simple, modernist geometries, though their metaphorical meanings and references remain deep and complex.
The well-connected, revered Duchamp was Man Ray’s entrée to the Parisian cultural elite of the roaring 20s when he moved to Paris in 1921. Man Ray was quickly accepted as part of the group and became its unofficial photographer, resulting in stunning and surprising portraits of Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway, Catherine Deneuve, Salvador Dalí, Gertude Stein, Le Corbusier, James Joyce, Joan Miró and more. Surrounded by the constant flurry of creative activity, Man Ray began to experiment with photography, and he soon invented his “rayographs.” Similar to a photogram, mundane objects such as thumbtacks, combs and other everyday shapes were placed on photographic paper and exposed to light. The element of unpredictability innate to the medium and seeing ordinary objects anew appealed to Dadaists, while the mysterious, abstract forms that resulted were celebrated by Surrealists who relished the chance to interpret their dreamlike meanings.
In the 1930s, Man Ray continued to expand his artistic output in painting, photography and sculpture. Even though he is now mostly known as a photographer, Man Ray despised the label, insisting that he only made photographs in order to pay for his paints, brushes and painting studio. He spent decades at this disavowed day-job, creating striking photographs for fashion houses such as Chanel and Lanvin, and magazines including Harper’s Bazaar, Vogue and Vanity Fair. His unorthodox, graphic images, full of sculptural shapes and bold, dramatic poses, brought advertising jobs to his door as well, for commercial clients such as Wrigley’s Double Mint chewing gum.
Man Ray became an influential fixture in the French artistic milieu, but Nazi occupation of Paris forced him to move back to the United States in 1940. The displaced artist chose to live in Hollywood this time around, continuing to work in fashion photography. Due to the disruption of war, the epicenter of the art world had shifted from Paris to New York, but Man Ray still returned to the City of Light at his first chance, right as the war was ending in 1951. In Paris, Man Ray continued to create sculptures, paintings, films and photographs until his death in 1976. Because of the varied nature of his oeuvre, Man Ray is often considered elusive and difficult to pin down: he continued to create alongside the Surrealists and the Dadaists, taking the best of both worlds but never claiming allegiance to any one group, and he worked mainly in photography but never called himself a photographer.
Take for example his iconic image, Larmes (Tears) (1930-32): we see a tightly cropped shot of a woman crying; plump, melodramatic tears dot a silent film siren’s face. The highly contrived scene pulls at our heartstrings or perhaps our ardor for drama. But, genuine understanding of the work is truly in the mind’s eye. Closer inspection reveals that in fact we are looking at carefully placed glass beads upon a mannequin’s face. Her false tears ridicule overwrought emotion and undisciplined sentiment, in life and in art. True to his lifelong friend Duchamp’s directive to place art back “in the service of the mind,” Man Ray’s work remains a thinking man’s game.