What’s in a name? That which we call Man Ray, by any other name, would still be Emmanuel Radnitzky. Or something like that.
When you walk into The Phillips Collection space that houses Man Ray—Human Equations: A Journey from Mathematics to Shakespeare, you’re confronted with a wall text bearing the only mention of the Surrealist and Dadaist artist’s given name.
Mason Klein is curator at The Jewish Museum in New York City, where he presented an exhibit titled Alias Man Ray: The Art of Reinvention in 2009. He says Man Ray was one of the first Jewish artists of the avant-garde, and to a certain extent, it required him to deny his Jewish background.
“He had to dialectically lose and find himself in the kind of anonymity of ‘Man Ray,’ because he really had to divorce himself from his past and not be tagged ‘a Jewish artist,’ which most everybody was,” Klein says.
While Man Ray fought to expunge the Jewish label from his legacy, he nevertheless found himself thrust into a box: one full of photos. Organized by The Phillips Collection and The Israel Museum, Jerusalem, Man Ray—Human Equations dispels the most common misconception about him: that he was purely a photographer.
Curator Wendy Grossman says many of the people she speaks with about the show are familiar with Man Ray’s pioneering contributions to 20th century photography, “but they didn’t know that he actually started as a painter and that’s in fact [what] he wanted to be known for.”
The exhibit includes 70 photographs in all—along with 25 paintings, 8 assemblages and 25 original mathematical models. Combined, the pieces explore the intersection of art and science.
There are 14 pieces from the artist’s Shakespearean Equations series. Among oil paintings with names such as Romeo and Juliet, Othello and Merry Wives of Windsor, visitors will also discover Diderot’s Harpsichord or The Merchant of Venice (The Monument) (1948).
Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice presents Jewish themes, albeit controversial ones. Shylock, a Jewish moneylender, is the play’s main antagonist. But Man Ray’s portrayal of The Merchant of Venice doesn’t feature ducats or diamonds, but a chess piece, a sphere—which mirrors the round pawns found in Man Ray’s 1920 chess set—and a tall, geometric object that loosely resembles an hourglass. The plaster mathematical model it’s based on, Conic Point with Six Real Tangents (1900), is part of the show.
Visitors see not only the finished works, but also the objects that inspired them. So when a visitor gazes upon the oil on Masonite work Julius Caesar (1948), he or she sees a sort of headless bust placed in front of a chalkboard with random equations written on it. Sitting in the center of the same room. a visitor can see the plaster piece from which Man Ray created that bust-like subject, Real Part of the Function w=e (1900).
Grossman says bringing all the different components together required some major detective work.
“The core of them have never been shown together in combination with the original mathematical models, with the photographs and the paintings,” Grossman says. “This is the first time that’s ever happened, so you really do get an appreciation standing there in front of them of what he saw, how he rendered what he saw in photography, and then how he transformed it.”
A clear symbolic connection to Man Ray’s past can be found not in the Shakespearean Equations series, but in Obstruction, a replica made in 1964 of the original 1920 hanging sculpture piece comprised of 63 wooden coat hangers.
Matthew Baigell, a former professor of art history at Rutgers University and the author of Jewish Art in America (2006), says the piece can be interpreted in different ways. “There’s the obstruction in his life, something he can’t get around,” he says.
But it’s hard to ignore the hanger’s intended use outside of art installations. The hanger is designed for organizing and storing garments.
“It’s a reminder of what his father did as a tailor, so there’s all kinds of ways of reading that,” Baigell says. “He thought of that merely as a totally abstract, hanging sculpture.”
Baigell notes that, physically, the cascading hangers are spread out and difficult to walk around.
“If you look at them in the context of ‘I have to get away from this, but I can’t get away from this somehow,’ then you can speak to the Jewish issue in his mind,” he says.
Baigell says Man Ray “reinvented himself as an internationalist” and excised his Jewishness and his family from his history. “He spoke only about his art.”
But the art speaks for itself. The show also includes The enigma of Isidore Ducasse (1920, reconstructed 1971), a lumpy-looking object, undeniably a tool of Man Ray’s father’s trade, wrapped in cloth and string.
“Literally, the sewing machine is hidden by this burlap sack,” Baigell says. “You don’t really know what’s inside. And this is all a way of Man Ray hiding his past.”
Man Ray—Human Equations, open through Sunday at the Phillips Collection.