Sight Lines

The exhibition provides disparate examples of Man Ray's various experiments with photography. The "rayograph," made without a camera by placing objects on sensitized paper and turning on the light in the dark room to create an x-raylike image, was Man Ray's most celebrated invention. The form is represented here by only one piece, a 1966 silver print of various objects, including Le Cadeau, with the iron laid on its side. But the lack of rayographs is compensated for by the inclusion of Man Ray's lesser-known negative prints of flowers, which have a somber beauty of the kind later seen in Robert Mapplethorpe's floral still lifes. Highlights of the exhibition are Man Ray's abstract photographs of "mathematical" objects -- geometric models constructed by mathematicians at Paris's Institut Poincare to illustrate algebraic equations. Another technique that Man Ray made frequent use of was the solarized print, and the Norton show includes portraits whose subjects exude a glow, as well as landscapes with a shimmering, moonlit quality.

A 1976 replica of Man Ray's best-known work, Object to Be Destroyed, stands alone on a pedestal. A metronome with a photo of an eye -- Lee Miller's -- fastened to its wand, it was made originally in 1923 and re-created by the artist numerous times: retitled Object of Destruction in 1932, Lost Object in 1945, Indestructible Object in 1958, et cetera. It is a complex work, with sadistic and anarchic readings; the image of the eye, destined to wag back and forth, forever watchful, recalls the image on the back of the one-dollar bill. As the piece itself implies, it is timeless, an enduring comment on the politics of authority.

The rest of the works on display are of a more mundane nature. These are small poetic objects or sculptural editions, private rather than museum pieces, some of which were used to decorate the artist's studio. There are two chess sets, one of sculpted wood, the other of a more spectacular brushed aluminum in electric-red and silver; a chrome phallus and two balls on a black base, used as a paperweight (the artist's proof of an edition of eight); Square Dumb Bells in a black velvet box (1944); and a Plexiglas cylinder filled with ball bearings titled New York (1920/1970s). The eye, one of Man Ray's trademark symbols, is repeated on a handsome eye-shaped box, and again on a small enamel piece.

The exhibition also includes portraits of celebrities Man Ray photographed in Hollywood, where he moved at the outset of World War II. Among them are images of Ava Gardner and Catherine Deneuve, the latter adorned with a pair of the artist's earrings. These commercial portraits are the least interesting pictures in the show. More intriguing are a number of posed photos of Juliet, with whom Man Ray lived out his last years in Paris, the city where he always felt most at home.

"Everything is art," Man Ray once said. "I don't discuss those things any more. All this antiart business is nonsense, they're all doing it. If we must have of a word for it, let's call it art."

Despite the numerous works on display in "Man Ray's Man Rays," it feels like a small exhibition. Rather than a retrospective of the work of an important artist, this private collection provides the viewer with a portrait of a man whose life, for want of a better word, was art.

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