"Man Ray: Photography and Its Double," Nov. 18, 1998-Jan. 24, 1999 at the International Center of Photography Midtown, 1133 Avenue of the Americas, New York, N.Y. 10036.
The encyclopedic survey of photographs by the American Surrealist Man Ray, organized by the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, has now arrived at the ICP in New York. Its selection of nearly 250 works includes everything from fashion shots and celebrity portraits to classic Surrealist images and abstract Rayographs. Still, this assemblage represents just a small percentage of the 13,500 negatives and the 5,000 contact prints in the Pompidou's Man Ray archives from which this exhibition was drawn.
Curators Emmanuelle de l'Ecotais and Alan Sayag have included several prints demonstrating how the photographer cropped and otherwise manipulated his images, thereby, in their words, "denaturing reality" to reveal "the fundamental ambiguity of the world."
Part of that ambiguity for Man Ray was that reality itself was becoming photographic. Man Ray's chemically fixed fictions were more seductive and convincing than anything he could encounter outside the darkroom, even in the damp dreams of his fellow Surrealists. And that fiction was equally available to him, whether he was taking fashion photographs or female nudes or melodramatic mini-novellas.
Man Ray worked diligently to layer, frame and distort his images (rather than coming upon them serendipitously, as he sometimes reported). This artistic effort attests to a radical discontent with things as they are, and a quest for relief in an estheticized narcissism. "I am not a photographer of nature," Man ray declared, "but of my own imagination."
His fashion photography could be prosaic and dated or wonderfully inventive. The best images, either very simple or elaborately superimposed and inverted, emanate glamour tinged with psychological sophistication. In these rather spare and elegant pictures, one can perceive the dim outlines of the Godzilla that fashion imagery was to become. As one of the principal photographers for Harper's Bazaar in the 1930s, Man Ray's audience expanded from the sequestered world of the avant-garde to the public at large.
In the exhibition's third gallery, positioned between Man Ray's fashion and portrait work, is a concentrated selection of images of nude or semi-nude women. Here the artist seems to be operating in an autonomous zone of erotic omnipotence. According to Man Ray, the combination of art and lust fulfills the artist's "only objective," which is to be free "of all social constraints" in the "pursuit of liberty and pleasure."
We see the famous naked back of Kiki of Montparnasse as L'Violin d'Ingres (1924). A quartet of images shows a model in a costume that is half fashion, half S&M. She seems both abject and cheerfully exhibitionistic. A naked Lee Miller (a noted photographer in her own right) poses with cage-like metal armatures, à la Helmut Newton. Suzy Solidor, naked, looks like a blond art deco Venus, while Meret Oppenheim, equally naked -- well, you'll just have to see this one for yourself.
The melodramatic series of seven photographs called "The Prayer" features the encounter of a pair of illicit lovers with a vengeful husband (played by Man Ray), ending in the wife's murder. The fifth photograph is one of Man Ray's emblematic images, frequently reproduced independently from the group (and itself titled The Prayer). It shows the posterior of a kneeling woman with her fingers covering her vulva.
Compared to the preceding gallery of perversely erotic images, the extensive selection of Man Ray's commercial portrait work from 1921-40 is of interest primarily for its cavalcade of famous faces. They range from Picasso, looking like a chunky Frank Sinatra, to Jacqueline Goddard, who could pass for a Warhol superstar. Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray's long-time co-conspirator, is pictured (with outakes) as a soapy faun, a pose Duchamp struck for his own Monte-Carlo gambling bonds. While often straightforward or perhaps solarized (a Man Ray rediscovery), occasionally there is an image of stunning invention, such as the portrait of Marquise Luise Casati with triple exposed eyes, which launched his career as a celebrity photographer.
Built into Man Ray's working process was a methodical staginess. In the two versions of The Tears, glass droplets glued to a model's face take on the stylized aura of romantic stigmata. A woman's head next to an African mask, printed in the negative, somehow transcends its "art moderne" associations. In the series "Erotique Violée," the man with a fake beard tying up the woman on a printing press probably didn't convince anybody, even in 1933. But the image culled from the group showing a naked woman with black printing ink on her hand and arm still shocks.
The exhibition concludes with three groups of work: Rayograms for the book Champs Delicieux, appearing overly designed; Integration of a Shadow, images of sexualized ready-made assemblages; and studies of three dimensional models of mathematical equations, which wind up looking not more, or less, interesting than they sound.
JOHN MENDELSOHN is a New York artist who writes on art.