Man Ray: Human Equations
October 20, 2015 – January 23, 2016
Curators: Adina Kamien-Kazhdan, Wendy A. Grossman, Andrew Strauss, and Edouard Sebline
Assistant curator: Neta Peretz
Exhibition design: Rona Cernica-Zianga
The exhibition was co-organized by The Israel Museum, Jerusalem, and The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC
Website Design and Development: The New Media Department, The Israel Museum; Web design: Haya Sheffer; Development: Avi Rosenberg; Head of the Department: Susan Hazan
Photography: Elie Posner
I need more than one factor, at least two. Two factors that are
not related in any way. The creative act for me rests in the coupling
of these two different factors in order to produce something new,
which might be called a plastic poem.
Emmanuel Radnitzky (1890–1976) was born into a Russian-Jewish immigrant family in Philadelphia, raised in Brooklyn, and reborn in 1912 as the young artist Man Ray. Throughout his career, Man Ray created witty, self-referential works that helped form the modern cosmopolitan image and the mysterious artistic persona he diligently strove to project. In 1921, Man Ray left New York for France, where he remained for nineteen years. In 1940, as an American citizen, he was granted passage out of France mere days before German troops occupied Paris. He sailed for New Jersey in August, leaving behind almost twenty years of work, and reached Hollywood by October. Ten years later, in 1951, Man Ray and his wife Juliet returned to France, where they remained until the end of their lives.
Charting a path from object to image, from photography to painting, from Surrealist Paris to Golden Age Hollywood, and from mathematics to Shakespeare, Man Ray – Human Equations reveals the inventive manner in which Man Ray moved across disciplines, challenging conventional boundaries among photography, painting, object making, and film. For Man Ray, there was no hierarchy amid the original physical object, the photographic or painted rendition, or the replica; every permutation maintained ostensibly interchangeable value, even as its meaning shifted within its new context.
The metamorphosis from object to image characterized Man
Ray's artistic practice throughout his career. Many of his most
lasting innovations reside in the use of three-dimensional
objects to create works in two dimensions, most prominently
his Aerographs (airbrush paintings) and pioneering photographic
experiments (such as Rayographs [photograms] and solarization)
that represented a radical new approach to the medium and
which generated new appreciation for photography as an avantgarde
Shapes born of the mania of mathematicians without any ulterior
motive other than the putting into concrete form of an abstract vision
Geometrical forms of all kinds provided inspiration for Man Ray and permeated his work in all media. He inventively employed cubes, cones, spheres, and pyramidal structures in his first chess set in 1920, and artistically appropriated a discarded lampshade to create a spiral hanging sculpture.
On the recommendation of his friend and fellow Surrealist Max Ernst, Man Ray visited the Institut Henri Poincaré, a school of higher mathematics in Paris, in 1934. There he discovered an extraordinary collection of mathematical models in plaster, wire, wood, and papier-mâché, important tools used by students of mathematics in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in order to visualize geometrical properties in three dimensions, as well as to investigate and teach algebraic equations. The majority of models were acquired from the Leipzig firm of Martin Schilling, which designed, manufactured, and supplied an extensive catalogue of models to universities and other institutions around the world.
Inspired to capture these objects in photographs that transformed
their appearance through innovative lighting and composition,
Man Ray highlighted forms that would be both intriguing
and disturbing to the observer. He emphasized anatomical
associations, exploiting the viewer's propensity to seek out readily
recognizable human forms. Originally, Man Ray photographed
the models mostly in pairs: he associated them according to their
formal qualities and playfully positioned one above the other.
However, the published photographs were tightly cropped and
highly contrasted, thus accentuating the strangeness of the
forms, and with one exception, showed only a single model.
Every step in this creative photographic process from object to
image served to achieve the Surrealist goal of dépaysement,
or estrangement, the removal of the real and tangible from its
usual spatial environment
I've been working all year and produced a whole new series
of paintings based on mathematical equations from an erotic
standpoint – very discreet!
Man Ray, 1948
Forced to flee Paris at the outbreak of World War II, Man Ray returned to the United States, eventually settling in late 1940 in Hollywood, where he lived for a decade. Fearful that the work he left behind in France had been destroyed, he set about recreating his most important paintings and making new works that frequently incorporated geometric and scientific themes. During his time in Hollywood, he produced more paintings, objects, and Rayographs than he had in the previous thirty years of his life. Among these new works was a series of paintings he initially referred to as Human Equations, revealing his intention to humanize the inanimate mathematical forms.
This section of the exhibition explores the artist's intriguing
photographs of mathematical models in the 1930s and his
transformation of these images a decade later into a series of
imaginative paintings he titled Shakespearean Equations. Man
Ray transformed the mathematical models into characters in
a series of theatrical tableaux, naming each painting after a
specific play by Shakespeare. The Shakespearean Equations
paintings were the centerpiece of Man Ray's 1948 exhibition at
the Copley Gallery in Beverly Hills, California. He transformed
the show's opening night into a Parisian-style soirée, attracting
Hollywood personalities, as well as friends, artists, composers,
writers, and filmmakers. A core group of the paintings from this
series is united here for the first time, with both the photographs
and the mathematical models that served as their inspiration.
Forms worked out by mathematicians . . . to prove or visualize
their algebraic equations . . . some of them had a suggestiveness
that is conveyed by any portrayal of human anatomy.
The inspiration that Man Ray found in the mathematical models reflects his proclivity throughout his career to humanize inanimate objects and, conversely, to objectify the human body. In disorienting exchanges between object and human forms, he transforms the fragmented body into a vessel of mystery and eroticism. These implications relate to Man Ray's known fascination with the Marquis de Sade, the subject of passionate discussion in Surrealist circles.
In Man Ray's endeavors to create confusion between the animate and inanimate, he commonly employed fragments of plaster casts of classical sculptures, such as numerous compositions of a plaster cast of the Venus de Milo. These conventional symbols of ideal beauty became mechanisms of displacement and transformation in witty and often eroticized compositions. Man Ray employed his well-practiced techniques – highly orchestrated compositions and lighting, and a frequent rotating and cropping of the image – in an effort to shift the observer's attention from the body of the model as an individual to the depersonalized body or commoditized body part as object. Man Ray presented the viewer with challenging compositions, displaying the body partially concealed and disguised as an object, or anatomy concealed and replaced by a replica object. The reflected or mirror image recurs throughout Man Ray's work, as both a motif and a technique. In Man Ray's eyes, mirrors can show us reality but also act as a mechanism of displacement and transformation.
The artist's treatment of his lifelong fascination with the
automaton oscillates between the symbolism of the dehumanization
of man, and the possibility that geometry could serve
as the basis of the human form. Geometric shapes, in the form
of wooden solids of the type used by art students, recur in
Man Ray's work of the 1920s and 1930s, frequently employed
in photographs in combination with either human sitters or
even surrogates of the human form, such as mannequins.
In numerous works throughout his artistic career, Man Ray
employed mannequins with such skill that their demeanor belies
their inanimate nature: they seem to come alive.