In my last MoMA Offsite (which, as it happens, was also the first-ever MoMA Offsite), I set the agenda for this column, which is to reveal and discuss MoMA collection works on loan to other institutions. I chose to explore both works that are infrequently on view here at Fifty-third Street as well as those that are regular residents in our galleries, assuming that each entry would take me to different artists from different time periods, featured in different shows in different parts of the world. But in the infancy of this mission I am already going to break the pattern by speaking exclusively this week about one artist and one show, just up the road: Alias Man Ray: The Art of Reinvention, on view at The Jewish Museum through March 14.
Though we might think of solo shows as commonplace, there remains something strikingly special about the total-immersion experience that a true retrospective exhibition provides, wherein the viewer finds herself awash in the many varied products of a particular vision. And in the case of someone like Man Ray, whose modus operandi was “Just be yourself and you’ll be original,” the experience is heightened by the ultra-personal quality that is threaded through all of the work. Alias Man Ray succeeds wonderfully in acquainting you with the art and the man. In fact the show prioritizes his personal history in a way that few institutions perhaps would (or could), because the museum is so dedicated to questions of identity. On the museum’s website, Director Joan Rosenbaum states that with every show mounted, The Jewish Museum seeks to tackle two queries: How have the Jewish people been able to thrive for thousands of years, often in difficult and even tragic circumstances? What constitutes the essence of Jewish identity? In this exhibition, Curator Mason Klein underscores the pursuit of an answer to the second question in particular by repeatedly referring to Man Ray’s own quest for acceptance of his background, and eventually his fame. An expressive quote on the subject becomes an anchor of the exhibition, appearing in full and in excerpted form many times in various wall texts: “You see, I try to walk the tightrope of accomplishment between the chasms of notoriety and oblivion; were I not a product of my time, I should never be conscious of anything but my accomplishments. Hence the desire to become a tree en espalier!”
MoMA contributed to this decoding of Man Ray by lending eight exemplary works of art to The Jewish Museum: five photographs, two drawings, one painting, and one sculpture. These are but a handful of our collection of 180+ works by Man Ray, many of which we rarely have the opportunity to show. The drawings and photographs are good examples: Untitled (1908), pictured above, was last shown in 1991; Ridgefield Landscape (1914) was last shown one year earlier in 1990; Untitled (Silhouette) (1930) and Untitled (1933) were shown together in 1958; and Jacqueline (1930) has no exhibition history at all. Some of the other works on loan, including the painting The Rope Dancer Accompanies Herself with Her Shadows (1916) and the sculpture Gift (c. 1958; replica of 1921 original), appeared more recently at MoMA in the summer 2006 blockbuster exhibition DADA, which occasioned one of the largest showings of Man Ray works ever mounted at the Museum. In 2000, a small exhibition called Making Choices: Man Ray, Photographer showed thirty-four photographs by the artist—including Lee Miller (1929), now on view in Alias Man Ray—but other than that we have never been able to present a retrospective exhibition of the artist and have only individually celebrated Man Ray in memoriam: after his death in November 1976, we installed one painting and one photograph accompanied by a blurb about the artist’s impressive career and legacy.
Man Ray is, however, an artist to whom gallery space at MoMA is always dedicated in some way. Currently, Gallery 14 on the fifth floor (the one that transitions into a stairwell leading to the fourth floor, visible through a window overlooking the Marron Atrium) is devoted to Dada, and it exclusively contains works by Marcel Duchamp, Francis Picabia, and Man Ray. The Rope Dancer is often shown in this room. Anatomies (1929), the final work in the group lent to The Jewish Museum, was shown in the gallery dedicated to Dada when MoMA opened its new building in 2004.
The works MoMA lent to The Jewish Museum date to the best-known period of Man Ray’s career, his Dada and Surrealist output created in New York and Paris. Yet Man Ray was a prolific artist, active for nearly seventy years. Alias Man Ray reflects this, showing doodles from high school (juxtaposed with his Bar Mitzvah portrait) along with mature, contemplative paintings from the 1950s and 1960s. These “bookend” periods, however, are not well recognized now; nor was Man Ray’s later work well appreciated while he was still alive, after he was celebrated for much of the early twentieth century. But today they can be viewed as part of a whole portrait of an artist, a man whose body of work is a veritable time capsule of modernism due to the vast number of movements and turns he lived to witness and interpret. Man Ray once declared, “The tricks of today are the truths of tomorrow,” and it is certainly true that the artist’s sundry tricks—including some you might not know before visiting The Jewish Museum—impart insight on the changing currents of modernism with acumen for the viewers of today.