Man Ray (1890–1976) is a peculiar choice for the Yale University Press’s “Jewish Lives” series. Not that he wasn’t Jewish; in fact, his early life followed a traditional course for American Jews of his generation. His parents, Melach Radnitsky from Kiev and Manya from near Minsk, had an arranged marriage and met for the first time on their wedding day, the day Manya arrived on American soil. They settled in Brooklyn, where Emmanuel Radnitsky attended Boys’ High, an excellent school whose alumni rolls later included Norman Mailer, Isaac Asimov, and Aaron Copland. While not particularly observant, the Radnitskys gave Manny a traditional bar mitzvah.

But he was having none of it. “I abhor all biographical facts,” he said later in life, “consider them useless and distracting from one’s accomplishments.” He and his brother urged their parents to anglicize the family name to Ray, and Manny became Man Ray. The upwardly mobile Melach and Manya were more than happy to become Max and Minnie Ray, but they expected the close family relationships typical of Jewish immigrants to persist as their children grew up. His siblings were compliant, but Man Ray withdrew almost totally from the family, apparently seeing such ties as compromising his vital independence as an artist: “To those who ask how I got my name—supposing I had changed my name originally for certain reasons—wouldn’t an explanation nullify the effect I intended to obtain by this change?”

Arthur Lubow documents this process in Man Ray: The Artist and His Shadows, a brief biography like all those in the “Jewish Lives” series. “Like a butterfly who has spread its wings, Man Ray preferred not to acknowledge his caterpillar days,” Lubow writes. One hesitates to classify him as a self-hating Jew, but he certainly avoided any reference to his ethnic origins, not even mentioning them in his “autobiography,” Self Portrait (1963), an impressionistic and totally unreliable document if what one is looking for is facts.

If Man Ray purposely cut himself off from his origins, he also cut himself off from posterity—excluding the artistic variety of course, for in this area he was infinitely ambitious.

If Man Ray purposely cut himself off from his origins, he also cut himself off from posterity—excluding the artistic variety of course, for in this area he was infinitely ambitious. It never seems to have occurred to him to produce children, and his relations with women make for queasy reading. Lubow sees a pattern: “He wasn’t aware that his companion was unhappy until she resolved to leave him. By that time, the rupture was irreparable, and he would slip into a self-lacerating depression.” His first wife, a Belgian poet named Adon Lacroix, with whom he lived in an artists’ colony in Ridgefield, New Jersey, and then in Greenwich Village, was depressed by his neglect; as their relationship came to a crisis, he forced himself on her “brutally,” as he recalled, and later whipped her with his belt. His own mental health was tenuous at the time, and he toyed with the idea of suicide. Eventually he settled in Paris and into a relationship with the famous Kiki de Montparnasse; she nursed him through severe depressions, modeled for some of his most iconic photographs (Le Violon d’Ingres, 1924; Noire et blanche, 1926), and provided reliably cheerful companionship. But their liaison broke up after eight years, in large part because Man Ray was threatened by Kiki’s independence; she was satisfactorily malleable as a photographic model but outside of the studio tended to exercise a will of her own. (Lubow records the end of the affair but does not say why it ended; for this information, and for many more details, one must turn to Neil Baldwin’s full-length 1988 biography, Man Ray: American Artist.)

This little defect was even more pronounced in Man Ray’s next amour, the American photographer Lee Miller. She started out as his studio assistant but quickly graduated to becoming his collaborator as well as, inevitably, his lover. She, too, was a memorable model for Man Ray’s photographs: Neck (1929), Nude Bent Forward (ca. 1930), and—probably, though we can’t be sure it’s her—Prayer (1930) are examples of Man Ray’s method of extreme stylization of the female body. “She inherited from Kiki the role of Woman, that bewitching muse of Surrealist art,” claims Lubow. But she aspired to be more than a muse. As a photographer she moved swiftly into the more threatening category of competitor; even experts are not always able to tell which prints from the three years they worked together are his and which are hers, and she claimed that it was she, not he, who discovered the striking technique they dubbed “solarization.” And once again, the “menace of sexual violence flickered over Man Ray’s affair with Miller, as it had throughout his relations with Lacroix and Kiki.” Lubow finds especially disturbing the fact that this was an accepted practice in their Montparnasse circle. The Marquis de Sade was a hero of Man Ray’s, though perhaps not so much for his “sadism” as for his passion for “total liberty”—a state Man Ray aspired to without ever being quite able to attain—and in 1938 he painted a Portrait imaginaire de D. A. F. de Sade, with the Bastille burning in the background.

Like de Sade, Man Ray dreamed about an ultimate love that would be peaceful and comforting. It was not something he was likely to get from the fiercely individualistic Lacroix, Kiki, or Miller, but in 1940, shortly after fleeing occupied France for the comforts of Los Angeles, he met an American dancer named Juliet Browner, twenty years his junior and as placid, pliable, and self-effacing a woman as he could ever have fantasized about. Content to live quietly in his reflected glory, she spent the next thirty-six years ministering to his physical needs and his sensitive ego.

Berenice Abbott, who worked for a time as Man Ray’s laboratory assistant, commented, “His portraits of men were good, but he always made the women look like pretty objects. He never let them be strong characters in themselves.” This sounds glib but is true, I think; look at his superb depictions of Picasso, Joyce, Sinclair Lewis, Ezra Pound, Joan Miró: not stylized, being nothing but themselves. A 1928 portrait of the young Hemingway was particularly successful, Lubow tells us:

Stopping in the bathroom, Hemingway mistook a chain that operated a casement window for the toilet flush. The window crashed on his skull. After Man Ray bandaged Hemingway’s forehead, he took a picture of the handsome writer looking dashingly wounded. Hemingway loved it.

He was a man’s man, in fact, a good comrade to countless fellow artists throughout his life. “In the corrosive world of Parisian arts and letters, he was the universal emollient,” Lubow writes. He was remarkable for being on good terms with both the Dadaists and Surrealists, so often at daggers drawn with one another, and he was considered a member in good standing of both movements. He was forever grateful for France and all it gave him, most of all its unquestioning reverence for the vocation of artist. New York he found—like others before and since—an unforgiving atmosphere in which to practice experimentation and idiosyncrasy. His lifelong alliance with Marcel Duchamp, whom he initially met in Ridgefield in 1915, was the strongest and most enduring of his many friendships; he dined with Duchamp the night before the French artist died, in 1968, and returned the next day to photograph his old companion on his deathbed. Sometimes indeed, as Lubow admits, he came across primarily as Duchamp’s wingman.

The problem is that once Duchamp invented the readymade there was not much further one could go with it—the idea was out there, and no iteration of it could equal the initial impact. Man Ray infused his works with mystery and brilliant humor, but it is tempting to see his readymades as reflections of Duchamp’s. Still, the two men’s connection was “a true testament to conceptualism—the primacy of mind over matter.” With his use of the airbrush and in his “rayographs,” Man Ray attempted to free himself from the medium of paint—to turn the process into a purely spiritual and cerebral one. And in the spirit of Duchamp, Man Ray insisted that what mattered in a work of art was the idea; the execution was tangential and could be achieved by anyone possessed of minimal skills. This is a destructive philosophy that has given birth to a century of lousy conceptual art.

Man Ray’s single-mindedness was unusual even for an artist.

Man Ray’s single-mindedness was unusual even for an artist. He steadfastly refused any sort of political engagement, even during the engaged decade of the 1930s—even during the Holocaust. World War I, amazingly, passes by without a mention from Lubow, except for a brief description of Man Ray’s Uccello-influenced paintingAD MCMXIV. In the lead-up to World War II he didn’t seem to think about getting out of France until it was almost too late, escaping in 1940 through Spain and Portugal to embark for the United States. It is unknown whether, as a Jew, he specially feared persecution. Either way, he did not fancy the prospect of life under the Occupation or in the Vichy zone. (Miller stayed on in Europe and became a renowned war photographer.) He missed France, but after the end of the war he lingered in California, for which he professed contempt, for several more years. “Knowing the hardships being endured by Parisians in the war’s aftermath made him especially loath to disrupt his comfortable day-to-day existence,” says Lubow, and in the end he did not return until 1951. (What forced the decision was the phasing out of the California rent-control regulations.)

In this very brief life, Lubow does not attempt a great deal of criticism. His judgment that the good work was done in the first half of Man Ray’s career, while the second half consisted of consolidation and reprise, is a fair one. Lubow stresses the fluidity of Man Ray’s conception of art:

Freely crossing back and forth between painting, photography, film, object-making, and writing, he only lacked bona fides as a performance artist to be the model of the contemporary multidisciplinary practitioner. And even there, his contributions to Dada evenings might qualify him.

Man Ray always gave primacy to painting in his artistic hierarchy, despite his fondness for eschewing actual paint in his technical experimentations. He would not have wanted to be remembered primarily as a photographer, and especially not as a portrait photographer. Nevertheless, this has come to pass, and some have claimed that he was the greatest portrait photographer of the twentieth century, edging out Yousuf Karsh, Arnold Newman, Irving Penn, Cecil Beaton, and other worthy rivals.

For all his many good qualities, Man Ray was a self-involved person, and this biography leaves a sour taste in the mouth—as Neil Baldwin’s much more comprehensive study did before it. One might think that a short chronicle of Man Ray’s life would make for a fun read, but it really doesn’t. Lubow posits that “the self-absorption and self-protection” that alienated Lacroix, Kiki, and Miller “also contributed to a missing element in his art—the reliance on inventiveness and wit, the lack of self-revelation and emotion.” One might point out that these qualities were characteristic of the era—Dada and then Surrealism—that Man Ray did so much to adorn, and that it could hardly have been otherwise. Man Ray did not change during his American years, 1940–51, but the art world had changed, and he found himself sadly out of step with “the gestural abstract art, prizing emotion and authenticity, that prevailed after World War II.” His moment was over, in fact.

Late in life he stated his “personal creed”: “To paint as much as possible unlike other painters, above all, to paint unlike myself—so that each succeeding work, or series of works, shall be entirely different from preceding works.” Is this the creed of an adult? Is it possible? Is it desirable? The effort to live up to it is perhaps what stopped his progress halfway through his career. Only someone truly shallow, or with no individuality, can “make it new” all the time, over and over. Man Ray’s individuality—what makes his works recognizably his and not “entirely different” from one another—is what made him as good as he was.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 40 Number 7, on page 66
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