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Alias Man Ray: The Art of Reinvention

November 15, 2009 - March 14, 2010

Man RayMan Ray (born Emmanuel Radnitzky)
The Rope Dancer Accompanies Herself with Her Shadows, 1915–16
Oil on canvas
52 x 73 3/8 in. (132.1 x 186.4 cm)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York, Gift of G. David Thompson, 1954
© 2009 Man Ray Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris

Born Emmanuel Radnitzky, Man Ray rejected his birth name and his family. Moving as an expatriate to Paris in 1921, he secured not just a comfortable distance from his roots but also a new status as the only American within the Parisian avant-garde. This erasure of origins precipitated the cultivation of his distinctive artistic persona—integral to his aesthetic strategies to subvert authority and deny the relationship between name and self. In changing his name from the colloquial “Manny” to the unmoored “Man,” the artist lost and found himself in anonymity.

As an art student, Man Ray was stunned by the unnatural anatomy in the paintings of Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, and overwhelmed by the art of the European avant-garde presented at the notorious Armory Show of 1913. In classes at the Ferrer Center, a hotbed of anarchy, Man Ray integrated social concerns with art. It was there that he learned the importance of subverting tradition to free himself from the past. Freedom, however, did not come naturally to Man Ray—as a child of Jewish immigrants, it was difficult to distance himself from Old World traditions, to carve out a geographical and psychological space within which he could create.

Shortly after the Armory Show, Man Ray moved from his family home in Brooklyn to bucolic Ridgefield, New Jersey, where artists and writers had begun to congregate. Quickly mimicking a swarm of styles, he began to assert his artistic persona, inscribing his name in the Cubist influenced Man Ray 1914. In this painting, as well as others, Man Ray accentuates the ambiguity of the relationship between figure and ground, illustrating his perhaps unconscious need to blend in with the environment—indeed, to assimilate.

Within the formal terms of two dimensions, of flatness, of shadows, Man Ray found a vocabulary to balance his desire for both notoriety and oblivion. He combined landscape and figuration to depict an abstract figure within a two-dimensional realm, as in Promenade. “Perhaps the final goal desired by the artist,” he said, “is a confusion or merging of all the arts, as things merge in real life”—an apt metaphor for assimilation. The artist’s early aesthetic strategies, and his paradoxical need to conceal and reveal himself, culminated in The Rope Dancer Accompanies Herself with Her Shadows.

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The audio component is produced by The Jewish Museum in association with Acoustiguide and includes critical commentary by curator Mason Klein; Neil Baldwin, author of Man Ray: American Artist; and Man Ray scholar Merry Foresta.

Audio guides made possible by Bloomberg