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Courtesy of The Jewish Museum
The quintessential modernist, Man Ray recast the concept of artistic identity, working as a painter, photographer, sculptor, printmaker, filmmaker, poet, and essayist. He perpetually tinkered with material at hand, putting to ingenious use the practical skills learned in a variety of jobs, from advertising to mapmaking to engraving. Man Ray airbrushed paintings to make them look like photographs and exposed objects on light-sensitive paper to create cameraless “rayographs.” He met the demand for originality in the world of fashion by creating a hybrid of Surrealism and high style, and even became a celebrity himself as a portrait photographer—indeed, his fame as a photographer overshadowed his accomplishments as a painter. A conflicted identity, however, was central to an artist who yearned to escape the limitations of his Russian Jewish immigrant past.
For Man Ray, a sense of otherness was deeply connected to the problem of assimilation—the wish for both “notoriety” and “oblivion”—and hence “the desire to become a tree en espalier,” a tree trained to grow into a vine that becomes entwined with others, its origins disguised. The artist’s self-consciousness was an outgrowth of his time, a period that witnessed the rise of nation-state identity and xenophobia, and an unprecedented wave of immigration, class consciousness, and anti-Semitism. His life and work powerfully reflect his contradictory need to obscure and declare himself.(read less)
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