Early in the Jewish Museum’s ambitious and sometimes overreaching show “Alias Man Ray,” there’s a 1903 bar mitzvah photo of little Emmanuel Radnitzky—Manny, the tailor’s son. The artist, who grew up to be Man Ray, would have been horrified. Notoriously resistant to efforts to pin down his biographical details, he never discussed his childhood in a Russian–immigrant household in Philadelphia and then Brooklyn, or any other aspect of his cultural and ethnic identity.
But he did summon it in his art. “Alias Man Ray” (which runs through March 14) opens with Tapestry (1911), an abstract quilt composed of swatches from his father’s workroom floor. Then, as a rising star of New York Dada, Man Ray produced a mobile of coat hangers called Obstruction (1920). Gift was a tack-studded iron he showed upon his triumphant arrival in Paris, in 1921. The Riddle, or The Enigma of Isidore Ducasse, his infamous sewing machine wrapped in a blanket, makes many appearances here: in a photo of the 1920 original; in a painting (the 1952 La rue Férou) showing a peddler dragging it on a pushcart past the artist’s Paris studio; and as the multiple produced by Arturo Schwarz in 1971. This modernist icon, as art–history texts and museum wall labels explain, illustrates a catchphrase of Surrealism. Does it also illustrate Man Ray’s attitude toward his Jewish heritage?
Just why an artist so eager to repress his past would choose to hide it in plain sight is the theme of “Alias Man Ray,” the first major show to examine the master from a Jewish angle. According to curator Mason Klein, Man Ray suffered “intense separation from and passive aggression toward what his family represented”—expressed more colloquially, Jewish guilt over a slight case of self–hatred. In other words, even as he became an art star on both sides of the Atlantic, a successful fashion photographer, a portrait photographer of a who’s who of cultural icons, and the lover of some of the most glamorous women of the avant–garde (including Kiki de Montparnasse and Lee Miller), he experienced conflict over the divide between his public and private selves. He expressed this, as Klein explains in the exhibition catalogue, by embedding his work with duality, concealment, and shadows that reflect his feelings of otherness.
Man Ray’s work hasn’t traditionally been considered “Jewish art.” But after all, isn’t the process of alienation, assimilation, and reinvention common to the Jewish American experience? From that perspective (not to mention Klein’s Freudian reading), this seems an appropriate strategy for a Jewish museum to take. It’s intriguing, for example, to consider the subject of The Rope Dancer Accompanies Herself with Her Shadows (1915–16) as a stand-in for Man Ray, who withdrew behind the veil of his artistic persona. But once Klein puts him on the couch, he won’t let him up. Less convincing is Klein’s attempt to explain Man Ray’s formal experiments in Cubism and photography through the lens of his identity conflict.
When the show opened, the Jewish Museum announced a new prize, the Man Ray Award, given in part for “advancing understanding of the limitless possibilities of identity”—an apparent reference to the artist’s particular brand of crypto–Jewish art, in which clues to his heritage are cloaked beneath the imagery. Given the scope of Man Ray’s art–historical achievement, this seems a bit reductive. And it raises questions about what the museum is trying to say about its own identity—the winner was Cindy Sherman.
Robin Cembalest is executive editor of ARTnews.