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Man Ray and his artworks

Mark Rothko Portrait Man Ray (1890 – 1876) has long been considered one of the most versatile and innovative artists of the twentieth century. As a painter, writer, sculptor, photographer, and filmmaker, he is best known for his intimate association with the French Surrealist group in Paris during the 1920s and 30s, particularly for his highly inventive and unconventional photographic images.

Until recently, Man Ray’s contribution to the history of American modernism has been largely overlooked. The majority of critics have found his work derivative or, for those with an even more myopic vision, little more than a pastiche of work by more accomplished painters and sculptors. The issue of influence is one that Man Ray was well aware of, and for which he had established a simple defense: “I had never worried about influence. There had been so many – every painter whom I discovered was a source of inspiration and emulation…sufficient that I chose my influences – my masters”

The "problem" of Man Ray begins with the matter that he cannot be classified as an artist in one genre. Painter, photographer, filmmaker printmaker, object-maker, poet, essayist, philosopher - his eclecticism flaunts the ground rules of art history. Man Ray is a chain of enigmas. Paradoxes characterize each phase of his long and complex career and combine to make him the quintessential modernist personality.

Why, to begin with, did he believe that family ties and roots existed to be severed? Information about Man Ray's childhood and formative years was exceptionally difficult to obtain because Man Ray did not want people to know about his youth. He did not want his family in America to grant interviews about his past. The special tension of Man Ray's early life emerges like a photographic print slowly developing in the tray.

He insisted that dates were meaningless and bore that out within the stream-of-consciousness, out-of-sync narrative of his memoirs; yet at the same time, he compulsively catalogued all his works over nearly three-quarters of a century, to the extent that he always knew at any time the status, ownership, and location of everything he had ever produced. Man Ray participated centrally in Dada - a loosely formed movement motivated by the urge to subvert the entire range of artistic endeavor preceding it-yet at the same time he maintained a reverence for the Old Masters, and for the value of tradition as it shaped individual talent.

Even with disappointments and embitterment about his position as an artist, he insisted upon making his way as a painter, to the point where visitors to his studio who sought to bring up the subject of photography were brusquely turned away.

Was the fabrication of a persona called Man Ray ultimately more significant to him than the reputation of the artist Man Ray? If the impression his paintings made was important to Man Ray, why did he pride himself on being such un type rapide (quick study), able to knock off a portrait in a headlong rush? why did he insist upon the inherent passivity of the artist as the most harmless member of society-when his passion and commitment were boundless and electrically apparent to anyone in his presence?

Man Ray's greatest conflict was his lifelong struggle with the one form of expression in which he had no peer: photography. His unerring eye could pick out a constellation of details and frame them so that they appeared to have arranged themselves. In the studio on the rue Ferou, among thousands of outtakes from portrait sessions and en plein air ramblings never revealed to public view, it is nearly impossible to find a bad picture.

Man Ray's photography is great because it embraces variety. It represents a virtual new order of reality; it is its own world. It is restless and omnivorous, taking on all the possibilities of perception as its territory.

The supreme present, another modernist obsession, was all that mattered, and the photograph, as a "certificate of presence," in Roland Barthes's definition, embodied that instant in time. In 1966 Man Ray told Jules Langsner, the curator of the Man Ray retrospective at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, that:

A camera alone does not make a picture. To make a picture, you need a camera, a photographer, and above all a subject. It is the subject alone that determines the interest of the photograph.”

Talking to journalist Colette Roberts, Man Ray alighted upon another metaphor for photography's place in his life, calling it a "second violin for me, just as necessary in the orchestra as the first violin."

Man Ray was blessed with lifelong curiosity verging upon voyeurism; he was naturally intrigued by the way people looked and lived. The camera was "his passport, permitting safe passage across otherwise perilous boundaries" - however, he did not inhabit these new and exotic countries for very long. The camera was also a shield defending him while serving as a key to the secrets of others, and therefore a perfect vehicle for Man Ray's reflective personality.

To his detractors, Man Ray's solarizations, rayographs, and distortion studies were trucages, the ultimate technical tricks produced by a magician who was not to be taken seriously. However' his admirers were - and continue to be - those who recognized his capacity to pierce the protective veil of what seemed real. The eyes in Man Ray's portrait photographs always appear liquid, softened just enough for us to think they might indeed open upon the soul. His outdoor shots force us to rethink nature as something less than natural and closer to imaginary. His fashion photography is so dynamic it wants to leap from the page. His nudes manage to be sensual and untouchable simultaneously.

Man Ray admitted:

It has never been my object to record my dreams, just the determination to realize them.”