The following essays were written by Francis M. Naumann and Gail Stavitsky for the illustrated catalogue Conversion to Modernism -- The Early Work of Man Ray, ISBN 0-8135-3147-0, which accompanied a February 16 - August 3, 2003 exhibition at The Montclair Art Museum. The essays are reprinted with permission of the Montclair Art Museum and without illustrations. If you have questions or comments regarding the essays, or wish to purchase a copy of the catalogue, please contact the Montclair Art Museum directly through either this phone number or web address:


"Conversion to Modernism"

by Francis M. Naumann



From an Art in Two Dimensions to the Higher Dimension of Ideas (1920-1921)


In concluding his review of Man Ray's exhibition at the Daniel Gallery, C. Lewis Hind attempted to find a single term that would suitably describe the artist's work over the course of the previous seven-year period. (The show included paintings and drawings from 1913 through 1919.) After rejecting a few tentative possibilities - from "Abstract" and "Intellectual" to "Geometrical Joy Pictures" - Hind concluded that it might be best to simply call Man Ray's work "Ray Paintings," a designation that he deemed appropriate "for," as he observed, "in them are rays of a new vision."[1] The critic doubtlessly offered this suggestion with the intent of leaving his readers with a witty and amusing comment at the close of his review. What Hind probably could not have foreseen at the time is that his casual observation would soon prove to be remarkably accurate.

Man Ray's paintings did indeed contain the seeds of "a new vision," but it was not, as Hind might have assumed, a vision confined exclusively to the realm of painting and drawing. As we saw in works dating from as early as 1916, when the situation called for it, Man Ray was perfectly willing to break from a strict adherence to the physical limitations of an art defined exclusively by the confines of two dimensions. In Chinese Theatre (fig. 130) and Interior (fig. 151), for example, he used collage, and in the assemblage Self-Portrait (fig. 172) he attached two bells and a pushbutton to the surface of his painting.

It should be noted, however, that, in the collages and assemblages he made, the addition of these objects appears to have been generated by the formal and/or iconographic configuration of the object itself. In other words, it is likely that these details were conceived of and added only after the two-dimensional surface of the object was completed, and then they were probably attached or grafted to the finished product in the form of an embellishment - as a decorative enhancement or physical extension of the object itself. Before long, however (by the end of 1917), Man Ray would - without hesitation - break into the world of three dimensions, creating his first mature and fully realized contributions to a sculptural oeuvre that would later be considered among the most important and exemplary works of the Dada and Surrealist movements - works Man Ray himself would eventually categorize by the warm and intentionally emotive title "Objects of My Affection."[2]

Once Man Ray discovered the expressive potential of objects - particularly when these objects were combined with amusing or provocative titles in order to provide a newfound literary context - he would no longer consider himself exclusively a painter, at least not a painter in the fashion to which he had earlier aspired (in the tradition of an artisan dedicated to the physical properties of his chosen medium). Man Ray wanted his creative efforts to go well beyond the five-hundred-year tradition established by the representational arts. For him, it no longer made any sense for an artist to carve some material into a predetermined shape or to manipulate pigment on a flat canvas surface in order to represent something other than what it was - even if that something were nothing more than abstract planes of color arranged in a certain order. The airbrush offered one solution in attaining this goal, but objects offered an even more alluring and exciting alternative. Once the idea for a given object took precedence over all other considerations, it was only for Man Ray to select the medium that best expressed his intentions.

In strictly formal terms, the first of these objects, Boardwalk (fig. 200), could be considered an intermediary step in Man Ray's evolution to an art of three dimensions. In the lower center of a nearly square piece of thick, discarded plywood - its surface heavily textured by numerous coats of weatherworn paint - Man Ray painted the vertical and horizontal divisions of an irregularly shaped checkerboard. At the base of the composition, the individual tessellations of this pattern stretch to inordinate lengths, while at the same time they rapidly diminish in size approaching its center, suggesting the incorporation of a geometrically accurate linear perspective system, without, however, providing any additional visual cues to create a convincing spatial recession. This defiance of perspectival diminution - which, for all intents and purposes, takes place on the two-dimensional surface of this object - is further enhanced by the addition of three physical elements grafted directly to its surface, each of which, in differing ways, addresses various aspects of traditional artistic practice, particularly those pertaining to the history of illusionism and our spatial comprehension of a given object.

First, it appears as though Man Ray has attached an irregularly shaped scrap of tweed fabric to the upper right corner of the work; closer inspection, however, reveals that this detail is completely illusionistic. Just as the European Cubists had employed the technique of trompe l'oeil, with the deft illusionism of a trained draftsman Man Ray has here simulated the pattern and texture of this fabric sample, employing only the traditional materials of the artist (namely, paint). Then, as if intended as a comparative test to his skills, directly below this detail he has attached a strip of rectangular, wood-grained veneer, to the center of which he has, in turn, affixed a small circular furniture knob, of the type customarily found on kitchen drawers. Three other knobs have been added toward the periphery of the composition, and two separate loops of cord are stretched over them, creating parallel lines that hover slightly above the checkerboard pattern and intersect at the position of the central knob. Finally, the title, like so many other works by the artist from this period, probably came after the construction was completed, and it was probably suggested by a detail in the object itself. In the case of Boardwalk, it may have been the fact that the object was constructed on the surface of a thick slab of plywood - or a board - and that the roped-off area might have suggested the path where one was allowed to walk (whereupon, if we take this reference further, the furniture knobs would represent pedestrians). It is more likely, however, that the stretched-out checkerboard format simply suggested the recession of wood planks on a seaside promenade, or boardwalk.[3]

Another sculpture dating from this same year, New York (fig. 201), was not so laboriously constructed, nor was its title so cryptically conceived. Like Boardwalk, the work was probably inspired by materials lying about in the artist's studio. Utilizing nothing more than a carpenter's C-clamp and ten wood strips of varying lengths (probably discarded scraps of canvas stripping used to protect the outer edges of his paintings), Man Ray created an image whose sleek verticality and ascending angular profile produced the general impression of a New York skyscraper, reminiscent of the sharp geometrical style given to numerous high-rise constructions for which the city had already become well known. Indeed, most Europeans residing in New York during the war years saw the skyscraper as a symbol of American progress and industrialization. Within months of his arrival in New York, for example, Duchamp denounced this country's artistic dependency on European tradition, citing the skyscraper as a specific example of how America had gone far beyond European precedent. "Look at the skyscrapers," he told a reporter. "Has Europe anything to show more beautiful than these?"[4] To this same interviewer, the artist even confessed that he had tried to find a studio "in one of their lofty turrets," until he had been informed that people were not permitted to live in them. And a few months later, in January of 1916, Duchamp wrote a long note to himself that concluded with the reminder: "Find an inscription for the Woolworth Building as a ready-made."[5]

There can be no doubt that Duchamp's concept of the readymade had a tremendous impact on Man Ray's willingness to incorporate found objects into his work, but there are vast differences in their approaches. When asked to distinguish between his treatment of objects and Duchamp's, Man Ray always took great care to emphasize the more poetic nature of his approach:


My attitude toward the object is different from Duchamp's for whom retitling an object sufficed. I need more than one factor, [I need] 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.[6]


Thus, while Man Ray readily acknowledged the importance and revolutionary impact of Duchamp's introduction of the readymade, he did not seek to merely duplicate its operating principles in his own work. Rather than select an object with what Duchamp called "aesthetic indifference," Man Ray preferred to alter, or in some other way manipulate the design of the manufactured object, sometimes combining it with other objects and adding provocative titles to create a sense of what he preferred to classify within the realm of poetical expression. "Whatever elements that may come to hand or that are selected from the profusion of materials," he explained, "are combined with words to create a simple poetic image."[7] Man Ray sought no historical or aesthetic justification for his procedure, which he preferred to regard as simply an activity of "gratuitous" invention.[8]

When questioned about the meaning of his objects, Man Ray repeatedly emphasized that the objects themselves should not be admired on the basis of their technical construction - as in the evaluation of traditional sculpture - but rather should be appreciated on the basis of their poetic qualities. "Whenever I made objects," he later explained to Arturo Schwarz, "never would I make anything with the idea that it should be pretty, decorative, or attractive or fascinating. I would pick up something absolutely meaningless, add a little something or detract something from it and transform it a little bit, so as to get almost a poetic image rendered in three dimensions. And the title would be as important as the object itself, as a clue to it."[9]

For an eighteen-month period - from January 1920 through June 1921 - Duchamp and Man Ray saw quite a bit of one another, solidifying a friendship that would endure for the remaining years of their lives. They frequented a local café known as the Pepper Pot and played chess quite often, eventually both becoming members of the Marshall Chess Club in the West Village. We know they also visited one another's studios. Duchamp had a small ground-floor apartment on the Upper West Side, a short walk from the area he had known well from the time when he lived with the Arensbergs. Man Ray, who had just recently moved out of the apartment he shared with Adon Lacroix and her daughter, still occupied the small basement studio on West Eighth Street (fig. 192). Duchamp reportedly found the mechanical instruments lying about in Man Ray's studio fascinating, and Man Ray was quite impressed by the clutter of his friend's studio, which always looked as if someone were just moving in or out: "There was absolutely nothing in his place," he recalled years later, "that could remind one of a painter's studio."[10]

In this period, Man Ray and Duchamp worked so closely together that some have described their work as the product of a collaboration. In truth, however, with the exception of a failed attempt to make a film together, because of Man Ray's exceptional skills as a photographer he served more in the capacity of a "documentalist" (albeit an exceptionally creative one) for Duchamp's various projects and experiments. In 1920, with the support and encouragement of Katherine Dreier, a wealthy collector who had served on the board of the Independents exhibition, Man Ray and Duchamp founded the Société Anonyme, Inc., the first museum in America devoted exclusively to the display and promotion of modern art. And in April 1921 they co-edited New York Dada, the first and only publication issued in America to fully embrace the tenets of the European Dada movement. But, as Man Ray later recalled, "the paper attracted little attention. There was only one issue. The effort was as futile as trying to grow lilies in a desert."[11]

In an interview conducted just a few years before his death, Man Ray was asked to sum up the spirit of Dada during this period in New York. "There is no such thing," he asserted. "I don't think the Americans could appreciate or enter into the spirit of Dada any more than they could enter into the spirit of learning the French language."[12] In spite of the tone of conviction this denial was intended to convey, in a statement prepared for a Dada exhibition in Germany, the artist not only acknowledged his participation in Dada activities in New York but even claimed to have been its principal exponent: "I might claim to be the author of Dada in New York," he wrote. "In 1919, with the permission and with the approval of other Dadaists I legalized Dada in New York. Just once. That was enough. The times did not deserve more."[13]

Though the times may not have deserved more, Man Ray was convinced that he did. In June of 1921, in a letter written to Tristan Tzara, the ardent proselytizer of Dada in Europe, Man Ray proclaimed: "Dada cannot live in New York." Neither could he. If he could raise the capital necessary for the trip, he would leave on the next boat.

Since his paintings were not selling well at the Daniel Gallery, Man Ray decided to seek advice from another dealer, Alfred Stieglitz, who, on an earlier occasion, had helped to sell one of his paintings. As luck would have it, a day before their meeting, Stieglitz received a visit from Ferdinand Howald, a wealthy collector from Columbus, Ohio, who had already purchased a number of Man Ray's paintings from the Daniel Gallery and had reportedly spoken highly of the artist's talents as a painter.[14]

Howald was in the process of setting up a residence in New York, and Stieglitz thought that he might be interested in acquiring more examples of Man Ray's work. That night, Man Ray sat down and wrote a letter of appeal, offering Howald a free choice of one or more paintings if he would consider financing his European trip. A few days later the artist and his patron met for lunch. According to Man Ray, "Mr. Howald was a florid gentleman with a white mustache, very distinguished-looking, not very talkative." When the artist repeated his appeal, Howald reportedly responded with candor: "How much do you need?" The only response Man Ray could come up with was "I have no idea," whereupon the quiet and reserved collector wrote out a check in the amount of five hundred dollars. Man Ray told Howald that he could select anything he wanted from his work that was placed on deposit at the Daniel Gallery, or, if he preferred, he could wait and select from whatever new work he would produce in Paris.[15]

. . .

Within months of his arrival in Paris, Man Ray discovered a photographic process that virtually solved the formal problems he had been trying to work out during the course of the previous ten years. One evening, while preparing some contact prints from plate glass negatives, he accidentally developed a sheet of light-sensitive paper, which earlier had been inadvertently exposed to the overhead light in his makeshift darkroom. The resultant print produced a startling impression. In a sort of reversed silhouette, an uneven pattern of opaque white shapes described the periphery of objects that had been lying on the surface of the light-sensitive paper at the time when it was exposed. It was not long before Man Ray realized that if he used translucent objects, or if he simply held any object at a slightly removed distance from the surface of the paper while it was being exposed, subtle yet rich and detailed tonal gradations could be achieved.

Although photographers had experimented with similar techniques in the past, Man Ray believed his results were so unique that - eventually - he decided the process should carry his own name: hence, the invention of the rayograph. In 1922, the American magazine Vanity Fair ran a full-page article reproducing a portrait of the artist and four of these new photographic images (fig. 202), each of which is captioned by a long descriptive title. The accompanying text provides an explanation of the artist's method and includes an insightful comment by the poet Jean Cocteau, who proclaimed that with this new technique "he [Man Ray] has come to set painting free again."[16]

Initially the artist thought his discovery was so important and meaningful in relation to his earlier work that, before long, he began informing friends that the new technique had replaced his need and desire to paint. In April of 1922, he provided an intentionally vague description of this new procedure in a letter to Howald:


In my new work I feel I have reached the climax of the things I have been searching [for] the last ten years,-I have never worked as I did this winter - you may regret to hear it, but I have finally freed myself from the sticky medium of paint, and am working directly with light itself. I have found a way of recording it. The subjects were never so near to life itself as in my new work, and never so completely translated to the medium.[17]


Although Howald responded to Man Ray's report with a certain degree of curiosity-and he eventually purchased a number of photographs from the artist - we can be reasonably certain that the veteran collector would have preferred to see this young American painter pursue the "sticky medium" he had elected to abandon. Duchamp, on the other hand, who by this time was living back in New York, reacted quite differently. Upon learning of his friend's new work, he wrote, "I am delighted to know that you are having fun, and that above all you have given up painting."[18]

In retrospect, it is possible to understand why the artist came to this dramatic conclusion about his earlier work (even though he would eventually go back to painting, which he always considered his "first passion"). It is true, as he mentioned in his letter to Howald, that a good part of the previous ten years in New York and Ridgefield had been devoted to a search - a formal search, as we have seen, that led from the development of a reasonably sophisticated treatise on the art of two dimensions to a gradual liberation from these very theories, in his attempt to express the essence of a particular idea. From the time of his camping trip in the Ramapo Hills in the fall of 1913 - at which time he decided to free himself from a strict reliance upon forms in nature - Man Ray actively pursued the more purely self-reflective concerns of picture-making, concentrating, as he later explained, upon acknowledging the inherent two-dimensional properties of a painting's surface. With this in mind, he freely experimented with the tactile aspects of the medium. Initially he worked with a variety of transparent and translucent shapes, allowing these entities to overlap one another to create the illusion of a compressed space, or flatness. He then drew attention to the physical characteristics of a painting by manipulating its surface with a palette knife. Alternately, in the airbrush paintings, he allowed the pictorial surface to preserve only the physical residue of a procedure that took place directly before it, thereby emphasizing its materiality and physical presence. Eventually, these formal concerns gave way to the expression of ideas through the use of actual objects, which, when combined with a literary or poetic title, were elevated to the realm of another dimension-to what we have identified as a higher dimension of ideas.

The rayograph, then, can be seen to represent the culmination of these formal concerns, because, as the artist himself acknowledged in his letter to Howald, "the subjects were never so near to life itself... and never so completely translated to the medium." Indeed, unlike the case with painting - where, at best, the painted surface represents only a visual reflection of its chosen subject - through the rayographic process, the medium itself represents a literal two-dimensional replication of the very object or objects that were used in its making. Subject and medium were never so inextricably intertwined. And nothing could be more Dada in conception or spirit, for the resultant images virtually made themselves. At long last, Man Ray had arrived. He had accomplished what he strove to achieve for nearly ten years, and he could not have found a better time, nor a better place in which to realize his creative efforts.

During the course of the next fifty years - whether associated with the Dadaist or Surrealist movements, identified as a painter or a photographer, called a Parisian or an American - Man Ray longer took precedence over the idea he wished to express. "I paint what cannot be photographed," he repeatedly explained, and "I photograph the things that I don't want to paint."[19] Whatever it took, from this point onward Man Ray never painted a picture, took a photograph, or created an object without allowing his idea to take precedence over the medium. "Perhaps I wasn't as interested in painting itself," he later confessed, "as in the development of ideas."[20]



1. C. Lewis Hind, "Wanted, a Name," Christian Science Monitor, ca. November-December 1919 (exact date unknown; clipping preserved in the scrapbooks of Katherine Dreier, Collection of the Société Anonyme, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut; reprinted with minor variations in Hind, Art and l [New York: John Lane, 1920], pp. 180-185).

2. Exactly when Man Ray chose to categorize these works as "Objects of Affection" is uncertain. He first assembled photographs and prepared brief texts for a publication by this title in 1944. (The book was never published, but several variant maquettes were prepared.) In a catalogue for an exhibition held at the Museum of Modern Art in 1961, the artist published a text entitled "Preface from a Proposed Book: One Hundred Objects of My Affection" (William C. Seitz, The Art of Assemblage [New York, 1961], pp. 48-49). This preface was not included, however, in the earliest appearance of these objects in book form: Oggetti cl'affezione (Turin: Giulio Einaudi editore, 1971; including a brief introductory comment by the artist, with black-and-white reproductions of 119 objects dating from 1917 through 1968). After the artist's death, a catalogue raisonné of the objects was prepared by Philippe Sets, Man Ray: Objets de mon affection (Paris: Philippe Sets, 1983), which lists 187 separate objects.

3. In 1957, when Boardwalk was included in a Dada exhibition at the Galerie de l'Institut in Paris, a group of students invaded the exhibition and fired some shots directly at the assemblage, striking it twice. (The holes have never been repaired, officials reasoning, apparently, that they are an important part of this work's history.) Man Ray recalled the episode in his autobiography (SP, p. 39,).

4. "The Nude-Descending-a-Staircase Man Surveys Us," New York Tribune, September 12, 1915, sec. 4, p. 2.

5. This note is reproduced in facsimile in Marcel Duchamp, A l'Infinitif (New York: Cordier & Ekstrom, 1966); reprinted with an English translation by Arturo Schwarz, ed., Marcel Duchamp: Notes and Projects for the Large Glass (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1969), n. 8, pp. 94-97

6. Arturo Schwarz, Man Ray: The Rigour of Imagination (New York: Rizzoli, 1977), p. 158.

7. Man Ray, "Objects of My Affection," Oggetti d'affezione (see n. 2 above).

8. Man Ray, "Preface from a Proposed Book" (see n. 2 above).

9. Arturo Schwarz, "Interview with Man Ray," in New York Dada: Duchamp, Man Ray, Picabia (Munich: Prestel Verlag [for the Stadtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus], 1973, p. 100); this interview was reprinted - excluding (curiously and without explanation) this important statement Man Ray made about his objects - in "This Is Not for America," Arts 51, no. 9 (May 1977), pp. 116-21.

10. SP, pp. 68-69, 81. Duchamp's impressions of Man Ray's studio were recalled by Man Ray in an interview with Carl Belz in 1962 (see Carl Belz, "Man Ray and New York Dada," Art Journal 23, no. 3 [Spring 1964], p. 208, and n. 12, p. 213).

11 SP, p. 101.

12. "This Is Not for America," p. 121.

13. "Dadamade," July 8, 1958, original handwritten text reproduced in Dada: Dokumente einer Bewegung, Kunstverein für die Rheinlande und Westfalen, Düsseldorf, 1958, n.p., and reprinted in SP, p. 389.

14. It is not known exactly when Howald purchased his first painting by Man Ray from the Daniel Gallery. We know from the ledger books he kept, however, that by 1921 he owned at least three paintings by the artist: two still lifes (figs. 111, 112) and the Madonna (fig. 127), purchases he had made from Daniel in 1918 and 1919 (information provided by the Columbus Museum of Fine Arts, Columbus, Ohio).

15. Man Ray described this exchange with Howald in his autobiography (SP, p. 103).

16. "A New Method of Realizing the Artistic Possibilities of Photography," Vanity Fair, November 1922, p. 50.

17. Man Ray to Ferdinand Howald, April 5, 1922 (University Libraries, Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio).

18. Marcel Duchamp to Man Ray, undated but, based on internal evidence, written in the spring of 1922 (Humanities Research Center, University of Texas at Austin); published in Francis M. Naumann, ed., Affectionately, Marcel: The Selected Correspondence of Marcel Duchamp (Ghent and Amsterdam: Ludion Press, 2000), pp. 106-107.

19. See "Interview with Man Ray," in Jean-Hubert Martin, ed., Man Ray: Photographs (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1982), p. 35.

20. SP, p. 340.


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