Sight Lines

The American artist Man Ray had his first Paris show at the gallery Librairie Six in December 1921. The opening party, as recounted in the catalogue of "Man Ray's Man Rays," an exhibition now on view at the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach, was one of the principal Dada events of the season. The Paris gallery was decorated with dozens of helium balloons, ceremoniously popped at a designated moment by guests wielding lighted cigarettes. In the midst of this artistic merriment, Man Ray stepped out for a drink with a friend, the composer Erik Satie. On their way back to the opening, the artist bought a flatiron and some nails, then glued the heads of the nails to the sole of the iron. Calling the resulting "work" Le Cadeau (The Gift), he added it to the photographs and paintings on display in the gallery.

True to its name, the construction quickly disappeared from its place, but Man Ray later re-created the work, and it remains one of the most widely recognized surrealist objects made by a member of the group of artists who gathered in Paris between the two world wars. Although Le Cadeau is not included in the Norton show, two other objects reminiscent of it are present: A sleek, stainless-steel flatiron from 1967, with its title, Phare de la Harpe, etched into its base, has an inviting, tactile quality, quite the opposite of the aggressiveness expressed by the earlier spiked iron; and an undated miniature iron, fit for a doll's house, is painted red and enclosed in a leather box.

These two objects are displayed in a Plexiglas case along with a tiny cast-metal sculpture of a faceless nude woman, number four from an edition of eleven. Small-scale pieces -- personal-size -- with an implicit intimacy, they are representative of many of the 142 works included in "Man Ray's Man Rays." The constructions, photographs, drawings, and prints exhibited at the Norton are part of the estate left to the artist's second wife, Juliet Man Ray, when he died in 1976 at age 84. While some of these works have been loaned previously for major Man Ray exhibitions, this is the first show to focus on the holdings of the U.S.-based Man Ray Trust. (The rest of the estate's holding are in France, and have been ceded as patrimony to the French National Museums.)

Both informative and nostalgic, this biographical overview of works left to the artist's family traces the multifaceted genius of Man Ray, born Emmanuel Rudnitzky in Philadelphia in 1890. During his lifetime, Man Ray was known primarily in the U.S. as a portrait and fashion photographer; in France he was celebrated as a seminal member of the European Dada and surrealism movements. He later became something of an avant-garde cult figure, and ultimately has been recognized, in every medium he explored, as one of the most transcendental and influential artists of this century.

At the Norton, a mobile made of hangers that resembles a flock of birds in flight swings from the ceiling in the first of two exhibition rooms. A 1920 version of the same construction can be seen in a photograph from that time elsewhere in the room; it also appears in a 1960s photo of the artist's Paris studio.

The earliest work in the show is a drawing of a nude from 1912, when Man Ray was beginning his career as an artist in New York City. -- series of bright geometric prints called The Revolving Doors, visually pleasing but artistically immature, is also present from this period. More interesting are early photographs, which foreshadow Man Ray's later artistic experimentation with the camera. He makes a visual pun, combining the torso of a nude model with a coat rack, in 1920's Dada Photo (Coatstand). Also around this time, Man Ray made his first, groundbreaking conceptual photos; after he photographed his constructions, he destroyed the actual objects, thus leaving the picture to stand as a work of art in itself.

In New York, Man Ray met Marcel Duchamp, then in 1921 followed him to Paris, where the American artist made a living as a photographer of artworks and other artists. Vintage silver prints of widely published portraits of Jean Cocteau, Juan Gris, Pablo Picasso, Gertrude Stein, Duchamp, and Fernand Leger are among the early photographs included here. There are several pictures of Kiki of Montparnasse -- artist's model, muse, and Man Ray's mistress -- including a later print of the famous 1924 photo Le Violin d'Ingres, with Kiki's curvaceous backside depicted as a violin. The photographer Lee Miller, Man Ray's assistant and lover, is seen in several portraits, most memorably as a very young woman in one undated photo. Miller also served as a model for the outstanding surrealist photo Two Midgets With Lee Miller's Legs, from 1933.

More informal photographs portray the camaraderie of the artists' community at the time. Group Including Georges Malleine and Robert Desnos shows two men kissing playfully, while another pair looks on, and a fifth person stares bleary-eyed at the camera. A later photograph, 1958's Jacqueline, Picasso, Toreador, Juliet and Man Ray at La Californie, catches the group enjoying a summer afternoon.

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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