Man Ray

American photographer and painter. He was brought up in New York, and he adopted the pseudonym Man Ray as early as 1909. He was one of the leading spirits of Dada and Surrealism and the only American artist to play a prominent role in the launching of those two influential movements. Throughout the 1910s he was involved with avant-garde activities that prefigured the Dada movement. After attending drawing classes supervised by Robert Henri and George Bellows at the Francisco Ferrer Social Center, or Modern School, he lived for a time in the art colony of Ridgefield, NJ, where he designed, illustrated and produced several small press pamphlets, such as the Ridgefield Gazook, published in 1915, and A Book of Diverse Writings.

Man Ray was a frequent visitor to Alfred Stieglitz’s influential gallery, 291, where he was introduced not only to a dizzying array of European contemporary art, from Auguste Rodin’s drawings to collages by Braque and Picasso, but also to photographs by Stieglitz and others. Like many American artists, he was also greatly influenced by the avant-garde art exhibited at the Armory show. He pursued his interest in the flatness of modern abstraction in a series of paintings and collages that culminated in his masterpiece from this period, the Ropedancer Accompanies herself with her Shadows (1916; New York, MOMA). Inspired by a performance of a circus tight-rope walker, he composed the painting by arranging large pieces of coloured paper on the canvas. Once painted, the flat, brilliantly hued ‘shadows’ created a powerful overall design.

Demonstrating a flair for diplomacy, which later served him well among the Surrealists, Man Ray was one of the few artists to be admitted to both of New York’s avant-garde circles. He attended Walter Arensberg’s Salon and, at Marcel Duchamp’s invitation, also became a founder-member, with patron Katherine Dreier, of the Société anonyme, one of the first organizations to promote and collect avant-garde art. In 1921 Man Ray collaborated with Duchamp on New York Dada, one of the first official chronicles of the movement.

By 1921 Man Ray was eager to experience his European influences first-hand. A timely sale of paintings to the industrialist Ferdinand Howald provided him with the funds for a trip to Paris. Unlike many American artists who spent only a short time in Paris, Man Ray made it his home for 20 years, while remaining firm about his identity as an American. There he was an influential member of the international Dada and Surrealist circles of artists and writers, which included Tristan Tzara, Jean Cocteau, Max Ernst, Dali, Paul Eluard, Picasso and André Breton. Free to experiment, he produced works in a variety of styles and in many different media; in 1922 he began to exploit his personal variant of the photogram, which he called the ‘rayograph’, a method of producing images directly from objects on photo-sensitive paper. His rayographs were usually made with recognizable objects combined in an apparently casual and arbitrary way. A group of such images was published in 1922 with the title Les Champs délicieux , with an introduction by Tristan Tzara. Tzara and other colleagues from this late Dada milieu, which prefigured the Surrealist movement, appreciated the transformation of ordinary objects into mysterious images. Man Ray himself equated his technique with painting, stating in letters that he was ‘painting with light’. Although he continued to paint and make objects such as Emak Bakia (cello fingerboard and scroll with grey hair; 1926, untraced; replica 1962, New York, MOMA) throughout his career, it was as a photographer that he made his greatest impact on 20th-century art.

The more commercial aspects of Man Ray’s photography provided him with a steady income. Famous as a portrait photographer, in the 1920s and 1930s he was also one of the foremost fashion photographers for magazines such as Harper’s Bazaar, Vu and Vogue. Begininning in the late 1920s he experimented with the Sabattier, or solarization process, a technique that won him critical esteem, especially from the Surrealists. Many of the central figures of Surrealism—Breton, Magritte, Dali—followed his example in using photography in addition to other media. Other photographers, such as Maurice Tabard and Raoul Ubac, were directly inspired by Man Ray’s techniques, while photographers such as André Kertész and Brassai were indirectly influenced by his innovative approach to the medium.

Man Ray also made substantial contributions to avant-garde film. In his earliest incursion into film, Le Retour à la raison, made in 1923 for the Dada soirée du Coeur à Barbe, Man Ray created the first ‘cine-rayographs’, sequences of cameraless photographic images. Later films, Emak Bakia (1926), L’Etoile de mer (1928) and Les Mystères du Château de Dé (1929), have become classics of the Surrealist genre, along with films by Luis Buñuel, Dali and Hans Richter.

Man Ray left Paris at the onset of World War II and spent the war years in Los Angeles, where he concentrated on painting and making objects. There and on his return in 1951 to Paris, where he lived for the rest of his life, he continued to pursue the many strands of his art that had already marked him as one of the century’s most innovative artists.

Man Ray's three submissions to the Imagery of Chess show

Silver Chess Set

Painting - Knight's Tour

Photograph - End Game

Man Ray tried hard to market his chess set.

The Spring and Summer of 1946 were marked by a new surge of creative activity in an area that had always been of interest to Man Ray, the fabrication of chess sets. The regular, geometric pattern of the chessboard had been a key image in Man Ray's work since as far back as 1911., when he had made the Tapestry, as well as other compositions based upon grids of squares. The famous Lips had begun as a similar grip upon a photograph of Kiki's mouth, "It helps you understand the structure, to master a sense of order," he wrote at the time. "When the ancient masters composed a painting, they used to divide the surface into regular squares."
With the chess sets made during this period, Man Ray set out to build up a cottage industry of sorts, construction a first group of thirty-six sets in wood and anodized aluminum and selling them as a edition, signed and numbered on the base of the white king. Unlike Yves Tanguy's rough-hewn approach to the project, chessmen cut from a broomstick, Man Ray's were cast firmly in Deco mode, sleek and minimal. The bishop's mitre was reduced to a Brancusi-like curve with a V-incision at the top; the knight's steed evoked by a quarter-circle arc with an eye-hole drilled through it; the rook's castle a rectangle on end with a crisscross incision. "The art galleries have handles it for me," he told Elsie, "retailing for $60.00 and giving me $40. Of course, if produced in quantity, they will sell cheaper and many more people will buy." He had also managed to interest department stores on the West Coast in marketing the sets. By fall, Man Ray had developed enough momentum to commission fifty more sets in aluminum. The endeavor gave him a much-needed lift, allowing him to mass-produce a product straddling art and design without compromising his principles about either.
-Man Ray, American Artist by Neil Baldwin

silver set

aluminum set

wood set

Man Ray with his chess set 1946

clockwise, left to right: Juliet Browner, Man Ray, Dorothea Tanning, Max Ernst

Juliet Browner was a Bronx pharmacist's daughter. Her mother mother was incapacitated, leaving Juliet to fill the void by helping to raise her five younger brothers and younger sister. She had worked as a model during the W.P.A and studied dancing under Ray Piazza. She once had a brief affair with the Dutch painter Willem de Kooning. Man Ray, who was leaving NY for LA in 1940, was asked by a young lady, Elsa Miler, to phone her friend, from dance school, when he got there and possibly give her a job, since the only employment she could find was being a part-time nanny which didn't pay enough to live on. Elsa's friend was hoping to earn enough to buy a train ticket back East. Man Ray called Juliet Browner, as he had promised, and immediately became smitten by her and she by him. After they married, she would call herself Juliet Man Ray.

Sometime after their double wedding Ernst, Browner (Lee Miller?) Tanner and Ray goof around androgynously

Night Sun Abandonned; A chess-themed Ray painting