"The Long Arm of Coincidence: Selections from the Rosalind and Melvin Jacobs Collection," Apr. 2-May 2, 2009, at Pace-MacGill Gallery, 32 East 57th Street, New York, N.Y. 10022
Any museum would be thrilled to exhibit the 20th-century gems recently on view at Pace-MacGill Gallery. It was a small feast that celebrated connoisseurship. Dove gray walls provided an intimate ambiance for the display of the almost three dozen rarely seen items by Man Ray, Rene Magritte, Max Ernst, Marcel Duchamp, Yves Tanguy and other luminaries of Dada and Surrealism whose ideas of the extra-rational, transformations of banal objects and dreamlike images continue to exert profound influence on so many contemporary artists. All of the works were borrowed from the private collection built by Rosalind and Melvin Jacobs during the 1950s and 1960s; the material result of friendship when relationships in the art world were still more personal than opportunistic.
Roz Jacobs always says that she and her late husband never set out to be "art collectors." The art they acquired was the result of lasting friendships. And one artist led to another. The iconoclastic painter and dealer William Copley -- aka "Cply" (pronounced "c-ply")-- and his wife Noma invited Roz to dinner with Man Ray in 1954 on her first trip to Paris when she was a buyer for Macy’s. ("Man always likes pretty girls," Cply remarked at the time). Despite their pre-World War II fame, by the 1960s many of the artists who the Jacobs would befriend and then champion were middle-aged and no longer center stage in the art world. The war had been hard on them, finances were precarious and sometimes these artists needed money as much as they needed a new and wider audience.
And just who were these friends? After the Jacobs were married in 1957, they met Lee Miller and Roland Penrose, Max Ernst and Dorothea Tanning, Rene Magritte and Marcel Duchamp. The dealer Julian Levy, a stalwart supporter of the Surrealists in New York, also became an important part of what turned into a kind of extended artistic family in Paris and Manhattan.
One of the most haunting images, repaying a long look, is L’Eloge de la Dialectique, the first work of art Roz Jacobs ever owned. Magritte painted this small picture in 1948, not long after the end of the war. The image of a house façade within a corner window of a larger house at l’heure bleu is like a dream of a lost place, more evocative and mysterious than many of his larger, dryer oil paintings. The Coplys once gave this little treasure to Roz for her birthday. The five other Magritte gouaches and drawings on view at are equally poetic.
Then there’s Dorothea Tanning’s s tiny painting of a woman with a cape of flowers (Moeurs Espagnoles, 1943), who flees toward a mysterious doorway. The picture retains a creative freshness that makes you want to revisit works of this rather neglected artist. (Once married to Max Ernst, she is now almost 100 years old but has never gained the stature that longevity awarded to both Louise Bourgeois and Georgia O’Keeffe). Other drawings, constructions and gouaches by Dali, Tanguy, Delvaux, Joseph Cornell and Cply are excellent examples of the dream-like, incongruous visions of these now iconic artists. Here also is Duchamp’s famous La Boîte en Valise, the witty 1958 ur-multiple that was Duchamp’s self-created miniature retrospective in a box. Lee Miller’s 1930 vintage photograph of Charlie Chaplin is atypically Surrealist in positioning a brass chandelier as if it sprouts from the great comic actor’s head like strange spiky horns.
But the main focus of the collection is incontrovertibly Man Ray, who was the Jacobs’ close friend for over 20 years until his death in 1976. They eventually acquired over 20 of his paintings, drawings and photographs. The exhibition offers a chance to see several of his exquisite, unique black-and-white rayographs which the artist concocted by superimposing, then exposing, simple geometric shapes on light-sensitive paper, as well as his 1944 photograph of an ostrich egg floating against a deep black ground. It looks like an imposing oval planet. There’s also his Red Hot Iron, a combine he spontaneously manufactured for Roz Jacobs after a walk around the Left Bank, where he bought a bunch of flat irons to take home and convert into art objects.
The ultimate show-stopper here, though, is the unusually large and spectacularly rich print of Man Ray’s well-known masterwork, Le Violon d’Ingres (19 x ca. 15 in.), which the expatriate artist first produced in 1924. He printed his photograph of his then-girlfriend -- the notoriously exhibitionistic Kiki de Montparnasse -- over a blank piece of paper upon which he had previously exposed the two f-holes, transforming her sinuous nude back into the visual pun. It’s a joke that pays simultaneous homage to Ingres, his odalisques and his violin-playing hobby, and to Man Ray’s own photography, which he considered his hobby. (At the time he fancied himself a painter.)
Man always told the Jacobs that this version of the image was the original one. But until now nobody was absolutely sure. The gallery show galvanized a team of experts, who analyzed the Jacobs print to determine if it was actually the original image. They used MoMA’s conservation lab as a venue to unframe the photograph and analyze all aspects of its condition, chemicals and paper. The conclusion? Bingo. The Jacobs print is the original from which all other, later versions of the print are derived. And when you see this amazing version of Kiki’s sumptuous nude back, which radiates authenticity, somehow you don’t have to be an expert to know Man Ray was telling the truth.
ALEXANDRA ANDERSON-SPIVY is a critic and art historian living in New York.