Man Ray and the Art of the Idea

Shannon Halwes

Most of Man Ray’s art making between 1917 and 1921 was devoted to assembling everyday objects into what the artist would come to call objects de mon affection. Often, he discarded these objects after having photographed them. But not necessarily. Consequently, no one can quite agree on what to do with the object photographs: are they themselves objects, photographs, or simply documents?1
There is no precedent for these photographs. While photography of art works was not new, nor was the photography of the mundane items in our surroundings, Man Ray’s intentions for this work were a distinct departure from the norm. He pushed photography beyond the experimentation with technique and formal composition encountered in Paul Strand’s early work, or even the investigation into time and motion, such as was seen in Anton Giulio Bragaglia’s futurist photographs and the abstract Vortographs of Alvin Langdon Coburn. Man Ray’s object photographs were made in the pursuit of a new art of the idea—one based on the theories expressed by the French artist Marcel Duchamp and embodied in ready-made sculpture.
Man ray’s photographs record his ideas, but they represent more than mere documentation. In his hands, photographed objects are more complex than the objects themselves and, as Merry Foresta has suggested, “were, in fact, many things in one, photographs and objects, illustrations and works of art.”2 The artist himself would have probably agreed. One thing is certain” in making use of photography to record his objects and to develop his art, Man Ray became the first conceptual art photographer.
Duchamp created his first ready-made two years prior to meeting Man Ray in New York in 1915. InBicycle Wheel (1913), Duchamp selected a common, utilitarian object and proclaimed it art. It became art essentially because the artist willed it so. Once Duchamp wrenched the object from its original purpose, he furthered its transformation into art by altering its normal orientation—in this case, by affixing the bicycle wheel to the top of a kitchen stool. For works like his 1915 snow shovel, Duchamp added an ironic title, In Advance of the Broken Arm, to change its original intent and to distance the object from its normal context.
With the ready-made (in essence, art by appropriation), Duchamp asserted the primacy of the artist’s decision over his skill as a craftsman. The ready-made was a way in which Duchamp attempted to return art to the service of the mind—a clear rejection of l’art pour l’art, of formalism’s absorption with the visual aspects of art. The idea was the art.3 The ready-made was the evidence.
Man Ray’s use of photography established his role in the development of this art idea. He liked the fact that this mechanical process was even further removed from the artist’s hand and traditional notions of craftsmanship. At about the same time a few European artists, Christian Schad in 1919, László Moholy-Nagy, and Max Ernst slightly later, were experimenting in cameraless photography and photo collage with the same desire to remove art from the hand of the artist. Man Ray often stated that he considered the photograph to be a record of the concept not the artifact. Photography was the means by which all of his objects (or the idea of them) remained permanent.4 Consequently, some objects existed only for the photograph—where Man Ray had absolute control over the image. In these cases, once the idea was recorded, the object became redundant. The photograph was an equivalent, if not more successful, vehicle for the concept.
The object depicted in Man, an eggbeater, could be considered a ready-made, but the work of art, completed in the photograph, is the simple kitchen utensil and its cast shadow. The object itself is not altered, but as it melds with its shadow on the plane of the photograph, it is transformed into a phallic form. Both the visual and conceptual aspects of Man rely on the controlled perspective—including the shadows—of the photograph. Ultimately, it is the title that makes the anthropomorphic connection and converts the object into the image of a man (probably self-portrait),5 and links it to correlation between man and machine explored in contemporaneous work by Francis Picabia and Duchamp. Historic photographs of Man Ray’s New York studio show the eggbeater itself displayed as a work of art, but eventually Man probably was returned to its former life as a kitchen utensil.
Clearly, Portmanteau (1920), an object incorporating a live model behind a clothes display stand, existed only for the photograph.6 In the photograph, a creature—half human, half mannequin—appears to emerge from a mysterious black space. The model wears one black stocking that gives her the appearance of missing part of a leg;7 she seems mutilated and subhuman. The artist’s control over the image is essential: the illusion would simply self-destruct upon seeing the figure in the round. Man Ray later incorporated the photograph into a collage entitled dadaphoto for reproduction in the only issue of the magazine New York Dada.8 Man Ray designeddadaphoto to look like an advertisement. To reinforce the commercial aspect, rather than singing the work, he attached an anonymous tag line: Trademark Reg.9 The woman thus evolves into not only an object, but a commodity, an item for sale.
New York 1920 is a photograph of the contents of a spilled ashtray. A photograph that aesthetically and conceptually breaks completely with existing artistic standards; this truly absurd image of the city is also his most radical work of the period. Whether Man Ray created New York 1920 for the purpose of being photographed or was simply recording a chance event, the circumstance is an issue less significant than the content of the image. As a subject for art or photography, the spilled ashtray was completely unprecedented. Carl Belz noted that while the various elements of composition are discernible, and even the text is legible, the contents make no sense, constitute no literal theme or statement, and cannot be related to any traditional type of subject matter.10 In its rejection of acceptable aesthetics, New York 1920 calls into question the validity of the concept of an appropriate subject matter.
Man Ray’s interest in art as idea and his disdain for art as mere craftsmanship do not mean that his photographs were not well made, deliberate works of art. The artist used the photographs to control the way the viewer perceives the objects recorded therein, carefully composing them—by including shadows, by changing the scale, or by defining a new context—in order to present more than the object itself. This becomes apparent when comparing Man Ray’s photograph The Enigma of Isadore Ducasse with a later three-dimensional edition of the object. The photograph transforms what is otherwise an unremarkable combination of rope and woolen blanket into something vaguely anthropomorphic, mysterious, and even eerie.11 Nothing illustrates this more clearly than when exhibiting these three-dimensional editions; the curators often reproduce Man Ray’s original photograph in the catalogue instead of a photograph of the object in the show.
Walter Benjamin wrote of the loss of aura one experiences with the reproduction of a work of art.12With Man Ray’s objects, however, it is the mechanical reproduction that provides the aura and elevates these photographs from the level of simple documentation. If the concept of making art by declaration were enough, then Duchamp would have had no need to make more than one ready-made. Man Ray would not have made these photographs. In fact, there would be no need to document the concept at all; it could all just be a rumor.

Shannon Halwes works at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, as a curatorial assistant for the Department of Twentieth-Century Art.

1. For example, Woman, a concoction of photography paraphernalia, is included in the catalogue raisonné of Man Ray’s objects, yet its companion piece, Man, an eggbeater, is curiously excluded. Both, however, are in the monograph on his photographs.
2. Merry Foresta, introduction to Perpetual Motif: The Art of Man Ray. New York: Abbeville Press, 1988, page 25.
3. George Heard Hamilton discovered Duchamp’s notes for Bride Stipped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even that Duchamp had given a name to the idea behind the artwork: the word cervelliés, or brain facts. G.H. Hamilton, “In Advance of Whose Broken Arm?,” Art and Artists 1, no. 4 (July 1966), page 30.
4. Alexander Watt, “Dadadate with Man Ray,” Art and Artists 1, No. 4 (July 1966), page 33.
5. One of Man Ray’s favorite methods of self-portraiture was to employ the word Man (or the French equivalent, Main) in the title.
6. The photograph was titled Portmanteau after Man Ray arrived in Paris in 1921. Foresta, Perpetual Motif, page 24.
7. Francis Naumann suspects that the model is the Baroness Freytag von Loringhoven, a German member of the New York avant-garde. Conversation between thisauthor and Naumann, 5 October 1989.
8. Dada, a revolutionary European art movement, was introduced in New York as early 1917, but American artists took no particular notice until about 1920. Man Ray and Duchamp produced New York Dada in 1921. It was abandoned after one issue, which as some have noted, is very dada.
9. Foresta, Perpetual Motif, page 24.
10. Carl Belz, The Role of Man Ray in the Dada and Surrealist Movements, Ph.D. dissertation, Princeton University, 1963, page 90.
11. For an illustration of an edition of Enigma, see William C. Agee, “New York Dada 1910-1930,” Art News Annual, 34 (1968), page 112.
12. Walter Benjamin, Illuminations, translation by Harry Zohn, New York, 1968, page 225.