Man Ray, La Fortune, 1938.
Sherrie Levine: La Fortune (After Man Ray), 1990
NOT in “Alias Man Ray.”
Reductio Ad Absurdum
“Alias Man Ray: The Art of Reinvention” at the Jewish Museum (until March 14) has over 200 artworks by this important Dadaist. See the show but don’t read the wall texts; they’ll ruin the art.. Man Ray’s inventiveness in paintings, photography, assisted readymades, and cinema has long been celebrated.
“Alias,” alas, has a thesis. The thesis, such as it is, is that there’s a direct connection between Man Ray’s art and a supposed flight from the clutches of his Jewish roots, symbolized by his name change from Emmanuel (“Manny” to his family and friends) Radnitzky to Man Ray. This idea so trivializes Man Ray’s art, Dada, art in general, plus Judaism, that I cannot resist some correctives.
Whereas both the Wassily Kandinsky at the Guggenheim and the Georgia O’Keeffe at the Whitney are merely exhibitions with bad or weak themes, the Man Ray gives a bad name to psychology.
Wassily Kandinsky, Improvisation 31, 1913
1. At the Guggenheim we were led to expect that Kandinsky’s paintings would be arranged thematically rather than chronologically. Surprise: his themes are chronological, so we end up with the same old exhibition — early, middle, and late. And there is another surprise. His first abstractions were, as everyone already knew, better than the clean-edged, Kleelike, twittery ones he made in Paris late in his life.
Georgia O’Keeffe, Special NO. 12, 1918, charcoal on paper.
2. At the Whitney we are promised a revelatory look at O’Keeffe as a pioneer abstractionist who has been horribly underrated. But when we see the art, it proves that again the consensus was right. Her early “abstract” charcoal drawings (but not as early as paintings by Hartley or Dove) show promise. She might indeed have been, as her lover — photographer, dealer and then husband, Alfred Stieglitz — proclaimed, “at last a woman on paper.”
What he really meant was that at last we had pictures of vaginas and penises done by a young woman. Happily, she herself was photogenic, and Stieglitz could use his photographs of her as part of a publicity campaign. But the follow-up to her foray into abstraction was banal.
Divorced from Stieglitz, she now and then continued to produce some quasi-abstractions, even when she retreated to a rich-person’s New Mexico desert, buried under her close-ups. Although her big flowers always look better in reproduction or as posters, in real life they do not look quite as bad as her “abstractions.” You know what I mean: This painting looks like a Rothko but it’s really a door in an adobe house. Her biggest influence was not upon feminist art but upon the pretentious way elderly women artists are now expected to hold forth, and be photographed. Here’s an example of her mannered and insufferable way of expressing herself, from a letter written in 1952:
I’ve had a priest — Catholic — visiting me for a week — it was very pleasant but when he is gone I realize how uncatholic — in his sense — my soul is — as I read a little book he left me — “The Cloud of Unknowing” by an unknown monk of the 14th century — I am startled to realize my lack for the need of the comfort of the Church.
When I stand alone with the earth and sky a feeling of something in me going off in every direction into the unknown of infinity means more to me than any thing any organized religion gives me.
…..Letter to William Howard Schuburt,
Georgia O’Keeffe: Art and Letters, National
Well, Emersonian. Sort of. However, O’Keeffe off-handedly dismisses one of the great books of Western mysticism.
3. And finally we have another current exhibition that also does not deliver, but in a really big way. “Alias” reduces everything Man Ray produced to a supposed conflict with his Jewish past.
The replicas are the same as the original except for the names:
Man Ray, The Object to Be Destroyed, 1923.
Man Ray, Object of Destruction, 1932.
Man Ray, Lost Object, 1945.
Man Ray, Indistructible Object, 1958.
Man Ray, Last Object, 1966.
Man Ray, Perpetual Motif, 1972.
NOT in exhibition..
The Name Game
Since one theme of this Artopia entry involves names and naming, notice that I, like almost everyone else, will always refer to Man Ray by both his names, abandoning the usual rule that after using the full name of your subject, you subsequently need only employ the last. Or you use the first name only if the person in question is an actor and you are writing in a fanzine. Of course, royalty is totally on a first-names basis: Queen Elizabeth is usually not called Elizabeth Mountbatten.
Also, art-world social climbers, hoping to make it appear that they are best friends with their betters, have been known to use “Andy” instead of Andy Warhol, “Jasper” instead of Jasper Johns, “Cindy” instead of Cindy Sherman. And, yes, this applies to critics too: “Clem” instead of Clement Greenberg; “Arthur” instead of Arthur Danto. And this is from folks who have not even come within spitting distance, never mind been introduced.
Vis-à-vis Man Ray, the only one who got away with using “Man” alone in print was Roland Penrose — I mean Sir Roland Penrose — in “the first major monograph on Man Ray,” published in 1975. I suppose he is allowed to call the artist by his first name, since Sir Roland married Man Ray’s one-time lover and photography assistant, the American model (and brilliant war photographer, it turns out) Lee Miller. Earlier on, fresh from Poughkeepsie, she was discovered by Mr. Condé Nast. He was an actual person who once published Vogue and founded what would become the Condé Nast magazine empire.
Nast rescued Lee (I am allowed; see later) from an oncoming car on a Manhattan street and began using her as a fashion model. Later she seems to have forced herself on Man Ray as a studio assistant. She was also the statue that comes to life in Jean Cocteau’s Blood of a Poet. She was — you guessed it — very beautiful.
I met her once, which allows me to refer to her by first name; allows me to name-drop (again!); allows me to tell a story.
In 1974, I met Lee in an historic summer palace with a view of Mount Fuji. I was the U.S Commissioner (thank you again Linda [Nochlin] for recommending me) of the First (and only) Biennial of Figurative Art. It was sponsored by a Tokyo department store. Roland — Sir Roland to you — was the British Commissioner.
After the opening there was the obligatory celebratory banquet. The palace was lovely and austere, with the exception of an historically correct Steinway displayed as a work of sculpture and an equally exotic Singer sewing machine, also on a platform. The view was unbelievable; Hokusai could not have improved it. The food came in many tasty courses; the sake flowed; and late in the evening the department store higher-ups did the usually drunken Japanese male-thing of singing sentimental songs into an open mike to prerecorded music.
Throughout, each guest had a geisha in close attendance. Mine, as was traditional I assume, kept slapping my thigh while pouring the icy sake. And here’s the rub: women usually were not allowed to attend such festivities. But feisty, still-gorgeous Lee, I was told by an English-speaking confident, had insisted upon attending with her husband. Sir Roland, in turn, announced he would not attend without Lee, otherwise known as Lady Penrose. What to do?
The solution was surprising. All the wives of all the Japanese businessmen were suddenly required to attend, a first. And every wife had a traditional geisha seated next to her, maybe not slapping her thigh, but certainly waiting on her and pouring even more and still more icy sake.
Lee Miller, solarized photo by Man Ray, 1930
What’s In A Name?
But back at the Jewish Museum, in New York, in 2009. This is the museum that was once known for avant-garde exhibitions: “Primary Structures” in 1964; “Software” in 1970, plus some stellar solos – Robert Rauschenberg (not Jewish), Jasper Johns (definitely not Jewish); and Larry Rivers, né Yitzhok Loiza Grossberg (Jewish). Jewish or not, Jewish had nothing to do with it — except perhaps, dimly or subtly, the suggestion that Jewish patrons had a lot to do with the new art.
Now at this very same institution, refocused on Jewish themes since 1972, we are supposed to be surprised that Dadaist Man Ray grew up in New York City and that he came from a Jewish background. In New York! And then as a young artist escaped to Ridgefield, New Jersey!
Or that his 1911 Tapestry – a prescient, geometrical patchwork of men’s suiting, displayed as a painting — might have had something to do with his father’s employment as a tailor and his mother’s as a seamstress..
What, he wasn’t French? Pick up any book on Man Ray and all this supposedly secret information will be yours, usually in the first two pages.
It would be like constructing an exhibition to show the world that Kandinsky was Russian. Or that Duchamp was actually French. And that — and here is the offensive part — that because they were such is the only reason their art came out the way it did. One wall text in “Alias” reduces the push and pull of an early Man Ray landscape to the push and pull of his Jewish background, as if Cézanne had never existed.
Here’s an even better scolding: imagine an exhibition that “discovered” Andy Warhol was gay and that this is the key to his art. I don’t think so. One Liza Minnelli painting does not make any point really worth making.
Humanity is appalled, of course, at the treatment Jews have been subject to throughout the ages. For instance, 1492 should be remembered not only for Columbus’ “discovery” of America, but also as the date of the expulsion of Jews from Spain, which was basically, leave or die. Gracias, Isabella and Ferdinand, for the Alhambra Decree. Some Jews, the Inquisition hanging over their heads, had already “converted” and were thereafter referred to as conversos; some of these continued to practice their religion secretly and became crypto-Jews or marranos. Most left. And then there was Hitler…
Isabella and Ferdinand, The Alhambra Decree, 1492.
By all accounts, Man Ray was the son of fully assimilated parents — neither conversos nor marranos — who did not practice the religion of their mothers in public or in secret. It was not only Emmanuel who changed his name in 1912. His younger brother was first, followed by his father, his mother and his sister. In early-20th century America, even within the environs of the Big Apple, it was more difficult to find employment if you had a “Jewish” last name.
Emmanuel had passed his twenty-first birthday and both he and brother Sam were having difficulty finding steady work. He still harbored bitter memories of having been teased at school because of his foreign name—and now the brothers felt their name was making it hard for them to get by without experiencing discrimination.
The two brothers came up with “Ray” as a direct shortening, an abbreviation of Radnitzky. Despite sister Dora’s protestations when she found out, too late, that it sounded “too Irish”…the whole family, not just Emmanuel, took the new name….
Neil Baldwin: Man Ray, American Artist, Clarkson-Potter, 1988.
Many in the U.S., Jewish or not, have anglicized their names. My father went from Jean to Gene because he had been teased about having a girl’s name. He also dropped his middle name, Baptiste. My mother, who was Modka Urzendowski, became Mary. My middle name honors my Polish grandfather; but Lukas became Lucas. Obviously, I have been hiding my Polish identity, and that no doubt explains the many roles I have assumed in adulthood, the many disguises: poet, artist, performer, art critic.
Then too, I discovered that both grandparents on my mother’s side, when they came over from what used to be called “the other side,” came with Austrian passports, although Polish was their language — and in the case of my grandmother her only language. The part of Poland they both came from must have been under the thumb of the Austro-Hungarian empire. So you see, I have been fooling you all along; I am older than you think and have been concealing my Austrian heritage; who wouldn’t, all things considered?
Yes, America is the land of name changes and probably the capital of changes of identity, too. Just think of all the slippery identities that hold forth on Melville’s symbolic riverboat in The Confidence-Man. But false names, assumed names, stage names, pen names are international. Many women still change their last names when they marry.
In literature, when women authors did not dare touch controversial subjects, Mary Ann Evans became George Eliot. In show business, wherein various Guilds require their members sport unique names and memorable and easily pronounced monikers are desired, Fredrick Austerlitz when German names were frowned upon became Fred Astaire. In art, within which nicknames, disambiguations, disguises and places of origin abound: Andrew Warhola became Andy Warhol.
Man Ray: Obstruction, 1920; Obstruction, 1964, lithograph.
A Name by Any Other Name Is Still a Name
Sometimes you have to change your name because you have changed your life — or have to. If you want to become someone else, the place to start is to change your name. Your name is how you keep track of yourself. Or if you are many, then you need many monikers.
One of my artworks is a map that shows the whereabouts of the 62 John Perreaults in the United States. Another artwork is a slide show of a number of John Perreaults found on the internet.
Should I change my name? It is so difficult to pronounce. Almost everyone misspells it. And there are so many name-robbers across America — in Canada and in Brittany too. The first short story I ever published, which was in a college literary magazine, was credited to the mysterious Bob Johnson, a name I chose because it was so ordinary. Funny that I remember the name and not the story.
But if you change your name once, why not twice? If twice why not 26 times?
like the Japanese artist we know as Hokusai (1760-1849), who also stated he didn’t make any really good art until he was 72:
· 1779: Shunro
· 1781-1782: Zewaisai
· 1785-1794: Gumbatei
· 1795-1798: Sori
· 1797-1798: Hokusai Sori
· 1798-1819: Hokusai
· 1798-1811: Kako
· 1799: Fasenkyo Hokusai
· 1799: Tatsumasa Shinsei
· 1803: Senkozan
· 1805-1809: Kintaisha
· 1800-1808: Gakyojin
· 1805: Kyukyushin
· 1805-1806 and 1834-1849: Gakyo-rojin
· 1807-1824: Katsushika
· 1811-1820: Taito
· 1812: Kyorian Bainen
· 1812-1815: Raishin
· 1814: Tengudo Nettetsu
· 1820-1834: Iitsu
· 1821-1833: Zen saki no Hokusai Iitsu
· 1822: Fesenkyo Iitsu
· 1831-1849: Manji
· 1834: Tsuchimochi Nisaburo
· 1834-1846: Hyakusho Hachemon
· 1847-1849: Fujiwara Iitsu
This was excessive, even for an artist working in the Chinese tradition of the scholar/artist. As an enlightened “amateur,” rather than a work-for-hire craftsman, you were allowed to change your nom-de-brush whenever you wanted: for instance, when you came under the influence of a particular teacher or you altered your style or subject matter.
Hokusai: 36 Views of Mount Fuji (The Great Wave of Kanagawa), 1831.
The question isn’t why someone changes his or her name, but why you don’t.
Are you your name?
Change it all you want, but your identity just stays the same. When budding-artist Man Ray lived in Ridgefield, New Jersey, one of his friends was the poet William Carlos Williams, who was a doctor. However, he never called himself Dr. William Carlos Williams when he signed his poems, some of which were published in Man Ray’s magazine, The Ridgefield Gazook. Centuries later, Dr. Williams was baby Bob Smithson’s pediatrician. Williams must have known a thing or two about identity. He once wrote: “I know who I am because my dog knows me,” no doubt one of the best short poems ever written.
Just remember this:
1. It is true enough that in Self Portrait, Man Ray’s name-dropping autobiography, he never mentions his name change or his Jewish background. But because references to the fact that the painter Philip Guston was born Philip Goldstein are virtually nonexistent, are we now to assume that he concealed his Jewish background and that his hidden Jewishness is the key to all the style changes in his art?
2. If Man Ray was so tormented by his Jewish background and so secretive, then why did Marcel Duchamp, a.k.a. R. Mutt, name his female alter-ego Rose and/or Rrose Sélavy in front of one of his best friends, the so-called secret Jew who was photographing him for the label on the Assisted Readymade Belle Haleine (1921)? To taunt him?
Here’s Duchamp’s explanation, via historian and art dealer Francis Naumann:
“The first idea that came to me was to take a Jewish name,” he later explained. “I was Catholic, and it was a change to go from one religion to another! I didn’t find a Jewish name that I especially liked, or that tempted me, and suddenly I had an idea: why not change sex? It was much simpler. So the name Rrose Sélavy came from that.” The name Rose Sélavy not only succeeds in changing gender, but, to a somewhat lesser extent, the Jewish identity he originally desired. Sélavy is a close phonetic equivalent of Halévy, a common Jewish name in France. Moreover, in America the name could be pronounced “Say Levy,” but of course the most obvious pun is with the French phrase “c’est la vie” [that's life].
One could say that when Duchamp became Rose Sélavy he was expressing conflicts with his Catholicism — no doubt the religion of his family — by adopting a Jewish-sounding name.
One could also say he was giving vent to conflicts concerning his masculinity by making his newly invented persona a woman and, furthermore, by dressing up as a woman to be photographed, expressing the sexual perversion of exhibitionism. It could also be claimed that this “dressing up” — never mind that a majority of transvestites are heterosexual — proves his previously cleverly concealed homosexuality. Flitting about from one medium to another was also a sign of his inner gayness and his repressed desire for other men clearly expressed by his deep friendships with other artists, such as Man Ray.
Marcel Duchamp:Belle Haleine (1921); photo: Man Ray.
In the Name of the Rrose
Certainly we want more intelligent exhibitions that add something to our understanding of art. But we do not want or need term papers disguised as exhibitions. Bad term papers.
Perhaps the exhibitions that I am calling thesis-driven can more correctly be identified as market-driven. How can we promote the same old art? Can we make some money on the gate and on the catalogs and the coffee cups and the note cards and the DVDs? Will Georgia and Alfred play on TV?
These phony exhibitions aspire to eventness. As a former arts administrator, I know the importance of the buck. You need those donors and the paying customers just to keep the lights on and pay for the medical insurance of all the worker-bees. What museums really require, however, is some genuine philanthropy, individual donors or even corporations that will come up with the cash to prevent another round of pointless exhibitions designed to rope in the tourists.
Here’s the money to stop the Andrew Wyeth show you were planning, the Picasso print extravaganza, the foray into the last of the minor Impressionists, the complete blueprints of Frank Lloyd Wright’s staircases. There could even be a plaque in the lobby: An Exhibition of the Flower Paintings of Andy Warholhas successfully been prevented by funding from the Henry Dalloway and Zebra Corporation for a Greater Tomorrow.
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