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A biography of the elusive but celebrated Dada and Surrealist artist and photographer connecting his Jewish background to his life and art
Man Ray (1890–1976), a founding father of Dada and a key player in French Surrealism, is one of the central artists of the twentieth century. He is also one of the most elusive. In this new biography, journalist and critic Arthur Lubow uses Man Ray's Jewish background as one filter to understand his life and art.

Man Ray began life as Emmanuel Radnitsky, the eldest of four children born in Philadelphia to a mother from Minsk and a father from Kiev. When he was seven the family moved to the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, where both parents worked as tailors. Defying his parents' expectations that he earn a university degree, Man Ray instead pursued his vocation as an artist, embracing the modernist creed of photographer and avant-garde gallery owner Alfred Stieglitz.

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Man Ray

The Artist and His Shadows


New Haven and London

Jewish Lives® is a registered trademark of the Leon D. Black Foundation.

Copyright © 2021 by Arthur Lubow. All rights reserved.

This book may not be reproduced, in whole or in part, including illustrations, in any form (beyond that copying permitted by Sections 107 and 108 of the U.S. Copyright Law and except by reviewers for the public press), without written permission from the publishers.

Frontispiece: Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp, chess, rue Férou, c. 1955

Frontispiece and all plates (except Portrait of Man Ray by Alfred Stieglitz [public domain]) copyright © Man Ray 2015 Trust/Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY/ADAGP, Paris 2021. Used by permission.

Yale University Press books may be purchased in quantity for educational, business, or promotional use. For information, please e-mail (U.S. office) or (U.K. office).

Set in Janson Oldstyle type by Integrated Publishing Solutions.

Library of Congress Control Number: 2021932186

ISBN 978-0-300-23721-4 (hardcover : alk. paper)

A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.

This paper meets the requirements of ANSI/NISO Z39.48-1992 (Permanence of Paper).

For Wendy


Introduction: Man Ray and His Shadows,

1. The Radnitsky Clan,

2. Alfred Stieglitz and the Avant-Garde,

3. Adon,

4. Charles Daniel,

5. Marcel Duchamp,

6. Tristan Tzara and Francis Picabia,

7. Everybody Who Rated as Somebody,

8. Kiki,

9. André Breton and Paul Éluard,

10. Lee Miller,

11. Meret Oppenheim,

12. Juliet Browner,

13. William Copley,

14. Man Ray’s Own Shadow,

15. The Shadow of Death,

Epilogue: The Afterlife,




Illustrations follow pages 38 and 142



Man Ray and His Shadows

MOST MODERN ARTISTS achieve renown by discovering and exploring a singular new territory: Jackson Pollock’s allover skeins of paint, Joan Miró’s biomorphi; c dreamscapes, Piet Mondrian’s primary-color grids, Francis Bacon’s agonized blurry figures. Each artist developed a style that became as recognizable as a brand. Man Ray was atypical. His achievement arose from multiplicity, and his reputation rests on a restless investigation into new techniques and ideas. His signature was an avoidance of a signature style. Although atypical, he was not singular. The same could be said of his closest colleague, Marcel Duchamp, and also of their mutual friend Francis Picabia.

These friendships and others were key to Man Ray. Supportive exchanges with fellow artists and enduring bonds with onetime lovers characterize his career. People took to him immediately. They strove to get to know him, undeterred—indeed, enticed—by his ultimate unknowability. He was a self-made man who had tailored his own image so seamlessly that only at moments of great stress did the inner man seep out.

Approaching Man Ray sideways, through an investigation of his most important relationships, suits this master of oblique strategies. Nothing could be more in the spirit of Man Ray than to transpose one of his ideas into another sphere and, by so doing, to twist it into a suggestive new form. His earliest masterpiece, the painting The Rope Dancer Accompanies Herself with Her Shadows (1916), is composed of large, brightly colored shapes that seem to have little to do with the title. Man Ray had been tracing the figure of the rope dancer (what we now call a tightrope walker) on sheets of colored paper and then cutting out the shape with scissors. He was well along in the process when he looked at the bright remnants on the floor and realized that this was his picture. He arranged the colored cutouts into a pleasing pattern, which he reproduced as a painting. At the end, though, he determined that to nail down his subject, he needed to include the rope dancer herself, and he painted her at the top, very small, and connected her with filaments to the large, vivid “shadows.”

This introduction serves the purpose of that miniature figure at the top of the painting. Compressed and graphic, it provides an outline of Man Ray’s life—to orient the chapters that follow, which will color in his significant personal connections. As Man Ray once said of his images, “The shadow is as important as the real thing.”1 But first, a glimpse of the real thing.

Born Emmanuel Radnitsky in Philadelphia, the eldest of four children, Man Ray grew up in Brooklyn. His immigrant parents hoped their brilliant son would become a professional, perhaps a doctor or lawyer, but Man Ray from an early age was called to art as a vocation. Enrolling in art schools in Manhattan, he rebelled against academic training until he eventually found a congenial home at the Ferrer Center, a hotbed of anarchist thinkers with a first-rate faculty of artists. In the yeasty downtown New York art scene, Man Ray made frequent visits to the gallery of Alfred Stieglitz, the great photographer and champion of the avant-garde, who helped guide him.

At the Ferrer Center, he also made friends who brought him across the Hudson River to Ridgefield, New Jersey, which was then open countryside. There, having rented a cabin, he made two pivotal connections: Adon Lacroix, a Belgian poet, became his first wife; and Duchamp, after being taken to Ridgefield by a wealthy collector, embraced him as a lifelong friend.

Both Lacroix and Duchamp inculcated a fascination with avant-garde French culture. New York seemed governed by money, but France! France was the place for art. In 1921, his marriage in a shambles, Man Ray—who spoke no French—decided to move to Paris. Like an older brother, Duchamp took him in hand once he arrived. Picabia was invaluable in other ways, and Tristan Tzara, the Romanian Jew who had been one of the central figures in the creation of Dada, met in Paris the man he knew only through exchanges of letters, as the American who had promoted the concept-driven, convention-defying art movement in New York.

The Parisian avant-garde accepted Man Ray instantly upon his arrival. He managed, too, to maintain alliances with these intellectuals even when they turned on each other and clamored for partisan allegiance. Unlike most of the Americans who flocked to the city, Man Ray chose not to congregate with his compatriots. Instead of expatriate Paris, he dwelled among the French in the cosmopolitan milieu of Montparnasse.

It helped that he attracted as his lover the most colorful, vibrant, and popular Frenchwoman in the district: Alice Prin, better known as Kiki de Montparnasse. They were together for six years. Man Ray’s intimacy with talented women sometimes had a sexual component, as with Kiki or, for a shorter time, with the Swiss Surrealist Meret Oppenheim. There were other women, though—the American photographer Berenice Abbott being a prominent example—whom he encouraged and supported within a strictly platonic framework.

The romantic relationship that brought the most artistic rewards and cost the greatest emotional anguish was with the American photographer Lee Miller. Like Kiki, Miller served Man Ray as a frequent nude model. More than that, though, she was a photography collaborator who later said she couldn’t tell which of them had taken a particular picture. When she ended their three-year romantic and professional partnership in 1932, he slipped into a suicidal depression. Yet with Miller—as with Kiki, who also left him—he rebounded and formed a lasting friendship.

He had gone to Paris as a painter with a handy sideline in photography. No more successful in Paris than in New York at selling his paintings, he realized that taking photographs could provide a living. He was defensive about his trade. Photography was regarded as a mechanical craft; it was just beginning to assert its rightful place in the artistic panoply at the time of Man Ray’s death. Yet as early as the 1920s, he was acknowledged as an artist, especially by other artists, as much for his photography as for his endeavors in painting and sculpture.

Man Ray had been in Paris for almost two decades when the outbreak of World War II in 1939 forced his return to the United States the following year. Shunning New York, where he felt unappreciated, he instead joined the influx of European refugees in Los Angeles. By this point, he thought of himself more as a European than as an American. The sojourn in Los Angeles was a dislocation, not a homecoming.

Right after he arrived in Los Angeles, he was introduced to a young dancer, Juliet Browner. They were separated by nearly twenty years in age. It didn’t matter. As in his other major relationships, which commenced with the abruptness of a pantomime transformation scene, Man Ray and Juliet moved in together very soon after they met. They lived in an apartment in Hollywood, marrying in 1946.

Man Ray exhibited in Los Angeles, particularly at the gallery of his friend William Copley. However, the torrent of creativity of his Paris years slackened into a backwash. He devoted much time and energy during the wartime years to reproducing paintings that he had left behind in France and thought, wrongly, he would never see again. Although he lived nearly as many years after the onset of the war as he had before, all of his greatest work dates from the first half of his career. For the most part, what came later falls under the categories of recapitulation and variation.

More at home in France than America, Man Ray convinced Juliet, who had never been abroad before they met, to move with him to Paris in 1951. They found a home on the other side of the Luxembourg Gardens from Montparnasse, where they resided until Man Ray’s death in 1976 at the age of eighty-six. He had outlived most of his peers.

In his old age, he was often interviewed by journalists and critics seeking firsthand testimony on the legendary Montparnasse scene. He retold favorite anecdotes, until they grew stale through repetition. But his photography, which he had undertaken pragmatically as a source of income, remained fresh. Along with a few major paintings, the photographs—surpassingly inventive and witty—constitute his influential legacy.


The Radnitsky Clan

THE SHADOWS IN The Rope Dancer resemble pieces of cloth that are cut to be stitched into garments. Such fabrics cluttered the floor when Emmanuel was a little boy.

Melach Radnitsky, his father, was a tailor from Kiev; his mother, Manya, a seamstress raised near Minsk. Their match was made in Europe. Coming to New York in 1886, Melach saved up for Manya’s passage two years later. A rabbi married them the day she arrived, which was also the day the newlyweds met.

Soon afterward they moved to Philadelphia, which had one of the largest and best established Jewish populations in the country. In particular, Melach’s older sister, Jenny, with whom he was close, lived in the city. Melach found employment in a factory and supplemented his wages by custom tailoring at home. His wife pitched in, as did the children once they grew old enough. There were eventually four: Emmanuel, born on August 27, 1890, was followed by Samuel in 1893, Devorah (Dora) in 1895, and Elka (Elsie) in 1897. Shortly before Elsie’s birth, when Emmanuel was seven, the family relocated to New York City, settling in Brooklyn.

This was a typical Jewish-American immigrant story at the turn of the twentieth century. The parents strained to pay the bills by plying the trades they had learned in Europe, and the children dreamed of escape. And not only the children sought to shed their telltale ethnic markings. In their adopted homeland, where they recognized that moving up required fitting in, the parents, too, strove to assimilate. At the urging of Emmanuel and Samuel, the family name was cleansed of its east European and Semitic indicators by contracting Radnitsky to Ray in 1912. Melach Americanized his first name to Max and Manya became Minnie. For Emmanuel, who was called Manny in the family, lopping off a syllable of the nickname to echo the last was elegantly simple.

Max was a mild-mannered, taciturn man. Minnie, opinionated and outspoken, ruled the household, imposing strict discipline on the children. Their marriage was a practical partnership founded on hard work. Although the family wasn’t religiously observant, it wasn’t so radically nonconformist as to flout Jewish tradition: the eldest son was ushered into manhood with a bar mitzvah ceremony. Living frugally, the Radnitskys-Rays moved frequently but always within the Williamsburg neighborhood, advancing from a three-room apartment to a double flat that had an extra room, appropriated in time by Manny as his studio.

Manny sketched and colored constantly as a child. His aesthetic judgment was respected in the family, especially by his mother, who consulted him when buying wallpaper, furniture, even one time a hat. He was as resourceful as he was tasteful. One time, after a lampshade collapsed, he constructed a new one out of brass, secretly using (and damaging) his mother’s sewing machine to perforate it to emit a moody light. Everyone applauded his artistry. Years later he would return to the idea of a metal lampshade but leave it in its fallen-apart state.

He was fourteen when he enrolled at Boys High School, in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn. Bed-Stuy, following the inauguration of the Williamsburg Bridge in 1907, rapidly evolved into a Jewish and Italian neighborhood. One of its showpieces was Boys High, which opened two years after Man Ray’s birth. Housed in a magnificent Romanesque Revival building in the style of H. H. Richardson and Louis Sullivan, it was clad in thin red brick, stone blocks, and terra-cotta ornamentation. Over the years, Boys High would graduate numerous other illustrious Brooklyn-raised Jewish-Americans, including novelist Norman Mailer, composer Aaron Copland, science-fiction writer Isaac Asimov, screenwriter I. A. L. Diamond, architect Morris Lapidus, and psychologist Abraham Maslow.

Already focused on what most interested him, Man Ray contributed illustrations to the yearbook, constructed imaginative pieces of furniture in the woodworking shop, and passionately mastered mechanical drawing. He retained until his death six drawings he made in 1908, using a draftsman’s triangle, of the shadows cast by objects of different shapes. His draftsman’s skills encouraged his parents to envision him in a comfortable professional career as an architect, especially once he won a scholarship to the New York University architecture school. They responded with angry dismay when he informed them that he was declining the scholarship. He was finished with academic studies. He would take whatever various jobs were necessary to support himself. He refrained from telling them his underlying motive: to pursue his calling as an artist.

Manny’s fascination with precisely rendered drawings of geometric forms was coupled with another persistent obsession: naked women. Once he had finished high school and found employment in an advertising firm, he enrolled in night classes of life drawing. The chief attraction of these programs was the opportunity to see—finally!—a woman in the altogether. The first institute offered only plaster casts and laborious repetition; he soon got bored and quit. At the next one he tried, there was a nude woman model, but she was huge and unattractive. It would take a little time before he located the art center that suited his impatient disposition and hormonal agitation.

When the advertising firm shut down abruptly, Manny found a better job, at about double the pay, doing lettering and layouts at a technical publishing house—until that firm scaled back and laid him off. But with his talent as a draftsman, he was eminently employable. He quickly secured yet another position, this time with a map and atlas publisher. He would stay there until he could find a way to support himself through his art alone.

Before that happened, he discovered just the right life-drawing class. The Francisco Ferrer Center, named for a martyred Spanish anarchist, operated out of a Harlem brownstone at 63 East 107th Street, in what was then a Jewish neighborhood, and offered classes in a broad range of disciplines—including a nighttime art program, for which nude models posed in an upstairs room. In keeping with the anarchist philosophy, artists chipped in as they pleased for the model fees. On his first visit, Manny was thrilled to see “a magnificent, voluptuous blond with an ivory skin.” She had a face “like a cat’s with elongated green eyes,” and he felt he “would be content to watch her and not do any work.”1 His arousal was heightened by an awareness that along with first-rate, politically minded instructors (Robert Henri and George Bellows, for example, in the painting classes), the Ferrer Center was known for the espousal of free love.

He was still living in the family house in Brooklyn. He set up an easel in the bedroom that he decorated with his creations: a couple of portraits, and an abstract tapestry of squares in blacks, grays, and earth tones that he had a seamstress stitch from fabric samples he found and assembled at home. For reasons artistic and erotic, he was frustrated by his inability to continue his education in life drawing on Sundays, his day off. Enlisting three other tyro artists to share the costs, he approached the feline model he fancied and arranged for her to pose for two hours in his bedroom. (Conveniently, she too lived in Brooklyn.) He told his family that he would be closing off the room to sketch a model with a few friends, but neglected to mention what she would or would not be wearing. After the model had gone, his mother asked why he had locked the doors to the room, and he impulsively confessed, to her horror. There would be no more nude modeling sessions in the Ray household—although one time he tried to persuade his sister Dora, who would have been fifteen or sixteen, to drop her dressing gown so he could include her breasts in the portrait he was making. (He was unsuccessful.)

Man Ray would soon be moving out of his parents’ home, and after a few years he was situated abroad at a distance so great that communication could occur only by mail. Even within those limitations, he wrote regularly just to his favorite sister, Elsie, not to the rest of the family. Sam, who as a boy was Man Ray’s protégé, had harbored hopes of becoming a poet back when his older brother was mastering the techniques of painting. Once he attained adulthood, Sam found himself supporting a wife and children with his wages as an assistant to a real estate executive. He suffered financial and emotional breakdowns during the Depression and died in 1935 of a heart condition at the age of forty-two. Dora—who, sharing her older brother’s witty flair for naming, called herself Do Ray—relocated with her husband to Philadelphia until, also battered by the Depression, they followed the lead of Sam and his family and moved back in with Max and Minnie in the Brooklyn double flat.

Like a butterfly who has spread its wings, Man Ray preferred not to acknowledge his caterpillar days. Geographical separation wasn’t his reason for distancing himself from his family. It was the other way around. The desire to erase his background motivated, in part, his expatriation. The miles provided a serviceable excuse. Before relocating to France, when he was living in New Jersey, he had neglected to cross the Hudson River to attend Sam’s wedding. That would have required merely a ferry, not a transatlantic steamer. Later, he chose to remain in his Los Angeles home rather than come east for his mother’s funeral in 1945, or, once he’d returned to Paris, his father’s in 1956. Even Elsie’s unexpected death of a stroke at the age of sixty the following year failed to bring him back. On a business trip to New York in 1959, he deigned to spend Thanksgiving with Do and her daughter Florence and their families. Florence courageously asked why he had kept himself so apart from his kin.

“My mother was a very nice woman—but she wanted me to be like other people, and I couldn’t,” Man Ray said. “She knew how much I needed to be an artist. That disappointed her. My father was a sweet man, although ineffectual, and I loved my sisters and brother—but I had my own life to live, and no one was able to accept the consequences of that decision.” So who was he really? Florence asked. He shrugged. “I am an enigma,” he said. He told her that any clues to his emotional life lay in his paintings and drawings.2

Florence got much further than the journalists who interviewed Man Ray. He deftly sidestepped all press inquiries about his background. When he was eighty, for example, he told a journalist for the New York Times Magazine, who had inquired about the origin of his unusual name, “When I was born, my father came to the hospital, and the doctor said, ‘It’s a man,’ so he called me Man. It’s a useful name to sign lithographs with.”3 His friend Roland Penrose repeated the same canard a few years later when he wrote a biography of Man Ray.4 “I abhor all biographical facts, consider them useless and distracting from one’s accomplishments,” Man Ray told an academic researcher in 1962.5 In a diary he kept as a commonplace book in the 1950s, Man Ray wrote, “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?”6

The effect he intended was to appear as elusive as Proteus, impossible to identify or pin down. Shedding his origins—and, particularly, his Jewish ethnic background as revealed by his birth name—featured centrally in this mission. The insistent restlessness of his output, most markedly in the first half of his long life, testified to his aversion to being categorized. But what in an artistic career reads as unpredictability becomes, when transferred to personal life, unknowability. Hiding behind a screen of jokey humor, Man Ray created a persona to stand in for his person. Once he moved to Paris, he might, like other Jewish artists such as Amedeo Modigliani and Chaim Soutine, have incorporated his ethnicity into his identity. He elected not to. Man Ray remained closeted, even if few were fooled. Just as the concealing of homosexuality constitutes a strand of the gay tradition, so the hiding of one’s forebears is a timeworn strategy adopted by upwardly striving Jews. In both cases, there is a price paid in human authenticity.

Still, despite obfuscations and disavowals, and perhaps created unconsciously, the signs that Man Ray was the son of a tailor recur repeatedly in his paintings, especially his youthful ones. The figures in Dance (1915), like those in the Rope Dancer (1916), are as flat as cutout tailor’s patterns. In Black Widow (1916), Francis Naumann has remarked, the patterns are not only flat but serrated, as if scissored with pinking shears, and the underarms are marked with what could be tailor’s chalk.7 The main figure in Promenade (1915) and in La Volière (1919) is a dressmaker’s dummy.

Two decades later, as he worked in France during the ominous buildup to World War II, these childhood memories continued to infiltrate Man Ray’s imagination. One of his major paintings from that time is Le Beau Temps (1939). Describing the vividly colored protagonists in that picture, he said, “When I was a child I often dreamed of strange people that were geometric forms walking in the street, or pushing a cart. I was fascinated by color and in my dreams these personages were very colorful.”8 He did not mention that one of the two figures in Le Beau Temps is a tailor’s female mannequin.


Alfred Stieglitz and the Avant-Garde

IF YOU DREW A MAP of avant-garde American art in the early twentieth century, 291 Fifth Avenue in midtown Manhattan would be a beacon illuminating the surrounding darkness. At this location, the photographers Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Steichen in 1905 opened the Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession. Three years earlier, Stieglitz had proclaimed the formation of a photographers’ group he called the Photo-Secession, alluding to the progressive art movements in Munich, Vienna, and Berlin that had recently broken away from hidebound establishment art associations. Although the gallery began as a showcase for advanced photographers who, like Stieglitz and Steichen, believed that the pictorial capabilities of the lens rivaled those of the brush or the chisel, the Little Galleries in a little more than a year widened the doors of admission to welcome progressive art of all sorts. It may be emblematic that the gallery, which became universally known by the shorthand of “291,” moved in 1908 to the neighboring brownstone, 293 Fifth Avenue, to escape the landlord’s rent increase. The name remained unchanged. 291 blithely overstepped strict definitions.

The founders of 291 had one foot in America and one in Europe. Born in 1864 in Hoboken, New Jersey, and raised in New York, Stieglitz was the eldest child of a prosperous German-Jewish businessman. He developed his passion for photography as a student abroad in Germany, where he might have stayed longer had his father not called him home. Back in New York, he became a leader in the movement—it was somewhere between a religion and a cult—to advance the place of photography as an artistic medium, preaching that instead of being a tool of documentation, a camera in the hands of an artist was capable of producing an image of consummate beauty. As early as the 1890s, Stieglitz was making photographs that remain classics. Just as important, he was proselytizing: through the Camera Club of New York (which became, after a merger, the New York Camera Club) and a quarterly, Camera Notes (which in turn was succeeded by Camera Work), he argued the case for photographs that could equal in power the other arts without needing to imitate them.

Fifteen years Stieglitz’s junior, Steichen was born in Luxembourg and immigrated with his parents to the Midwest when he was two. An aspiring painter, he responded to the potential of the camera with enthusiasm, but when it came to instruction, a teenager in Milwaukee was on his own. Photography magazines led Steichen to Clarence White, a master of technique who lived at that time in Ohio, where he was producing exquisite (if rather bloodless and sentimental) images. Through White, Steichen met Stieglitz while stopping in New York on the way to Paris. With characteristic generosity, Stieglitz encouraged the young man and bought three of his prints for the lofty price of $5 apiece (about $135 each, in current dollars). When after two years Steichen returned to this country, he settled in New York, establishing a commercial portrait photography studio at 291 Fifth Avenue. His decision in 1905 to vacate that top-floor space in anticipation of a return to France made it available for him and Stieglitz (by now, the two men were close) to inaugurate their gallery. Because Stieglitz doubted that they could find enough worthy photographs to fill a regular program, the partners agreed to complement and contextualize the photographs with modern art. From Paris, where he was now living, Steichen could scout the latest trends.

Advanced European art is what drew Man Ray to 291. Although he may have gone even earlier, he certainly attended the 1910 show of Rodin drawings and watercolors.1 This was the gallery’s second tribute to Rodin. Steichen, who worshipped the French sculptor, had imported a prior exhibition of Rodin drawings in January 1908, as one of the first non-photography exhibitions at 291.2 Nearing the end of his long life, the French artist, when working with ink and watercolor rather than plaster or bronze, adopted a more experimental approach to the representation of the human figure. His “unanatomical sketches of nudes,” Man Ray later wrote, were “action pieces which pleased me immensely and justified my abandon of academic principles.”3 The exhibition of Cézanne watercolors in March 1911 jolted Man Ray even harder. (So much so that, in hindsight, he gave it precedence, mistakenly recalling it in his autobiography as the first show he visited at 291.) It took him a while to realize that, despite the expanses of untouched white paper, these pictures were finished. “The white seemed to be part of the painting, it had been done in such an artful way,” he observed.4

The groundbreaking one-man shows of Matisse, Picasso, Constantin Brancusi, and Henri Rousseau—the first for Matisse in the United States and the first for Picasso, Brancusi, and Rousseau anywhere—opened his eyes further. A reverse chauvinist, or maybe just competitive with his compatriots, Man Ray thought less highly of the homegrown artists that 291 exhibited, including Marsden Hartley and Arthur Dove, whose paintings he regarded as “brash and humoristic”—an odd complaint from someone whose own work could more accurately be characterized that way. He complained that they “seemed very American and lacked the mystery” of the French imports.5 Whether or not he liked what was on display, he responded strongly. “The gray walls of the little gallery are always pregnant,” he wrote in 1914. “A new development greets me at each visit, I am never disappointed. Sometimes I am pleased, sometimes surprised, sometimes hurt.”6

At a time when there was no other place to see advanced foreign art in New York, Stieglitz performed a grand public service as the hands-on director of 291. An oversize magnetic personality, he struck up supportive friendships with artists he considered to be promising. Along with Dove, Hartley, John Marin, and others, whose careers were kept afloat by Stieglitz’s art purchases and business introductions, Man Ray benefited crucially from the older man’s encouragement. Visiting the gallery during his lunch break, he would talk—which meant mainly listen—to Stieglitz, who was never shy about expressing opinions. He was fascinating, Man Ray thought, although he could be “a bit long-winded.” Stieglitz asked to see his work, but Man Ray hadn’t yet made anything he considered worthy of display.

The Armory Show, which opened in February 1913 at the decommissioned barracks on Lexington Avenue, caused such a public sensation that, seemingly overnight, avant-garde art in New York went from being a recondite subject, fit for discussion in bohemian cafés and cosmopolitan drawing rooms, into the topic of the day, extolled or derided (most often the latter) in the popular press. Even though Stieglitz had little to do with the organization of the exhibition, he stoutly endorsed this large-scale exposure of the new art he had been championing. The exhibition, which displayed the radical works of Picasso, Matisse, Picabia, and Duchamp but also the already assimilated paintings of Delacroix, Ingres, and the Impressionists, adhered to the principle that Stieglitz followed—placing art in context. The laudable notion was that you could not understand contemporary painting without a grounding in the art that had come just before it.

A few years later, Man Ray, describing how the Armory Show overwhelmed him, earnestly told a journalist, “I did nothing for six months. It took me that time to digest what I had seen.”7 It appears that the first painting he completed, once the confusion stoked by the show had dissipated, was his Portrait of Alfred Stieglitz (1913). A tentative work, it shows he was still absorbing the rich meal. In the portrait, he clearly represented his subject’s brush moustache and eyeglasses pushed up on the forehead, added a camera bellows and the number 291, and then cautiously applied a bit of the Analytical Cubism practiced by Picasso and Braque and the vibrant colors of Matisse. Around this time, as was his custom with frequent visitors to the gallery, Stieglitz returned the favor and made a portrait of Man Ray. It was the young man’s first practical encounter with the art of photography. Stieglitz set up his view camera on a tripod and placed Man Ray against a neutral-colored wall. He warned that it would be a rather long exposure time, but not to worry, because blinking wouldn’t show. Having uncapped the lens, Stieglitz, holding a muslin-lined hoop, danced about the tentatively smiling youth, diffusing the ambient light that sifted through the muslin-screened skylight. The exposure took about ten seconds.

In addition to subsidizing his gallery, Stieglitz utilized his modest wealth to purchase art. As one of his innumerable supportive acquisitions, he bought three copies, out of an edition of twenty, of a handmade poetry collection, A Book of Divers Writing, that Man Ray illustrated, designed, and produced in 1915. Stieglitz was an appreciative and canny critic. On the opening night of a group exhibition, he bestowed praise on Black Widow, which had been hung in a corner, and thereby dispelled Man Ray’s peevishness at the poor placement. He told him on another occasion that Rope Dancer was very significant, and that the colors vibrated so powerfully that it was almost blinding.

Stieglitz was also masterful at finding rich patrons for struggling artists. In the aftermath of the Armory Show, several galleries specializing in contemporary art opened in New York, creating a sudden demand for product. Unfortunately, shows by themselves did not guarantee sales. Before his departure for Paris, Man Ray had three one-man exhibitions in New York. Not one work sold during the run of these shows. After the deflating conclusion to his third exhibition, he visited Stieglitz, who, as usual, offered useful advice. The previous day, Ferdinand Howald, a wealthy coal-mining owner-operator from Columbus, Ohio, had stopped at 291, seeking art for his collection. Stieglitz urged Man Ray to contact him. The artist and the collector met a few days later, and at the end of their lunch, Howald handed him a check for five hundred dollars. Thanks to Stieglitz, he now had a patron.

You could say that Stieglitz not only gave Man Ray a big fish, he also taught him how to catch fish. As an unplanned consequence of his gallery exhibitions, the young artist picked up a camera. For his first show, he needed photographs of his paintings to include in a catalogue and to distribute to the press. Unhappy with the few photos that others had made of his work, he decided that he was better suited to translate his brightly colored paintings into black-and-white photo-reproductions. So in 1916 he obtained a camera and a set of filters, photographed his paintings, and dropped off the film to be developed and printed. He was delighted with the results.

The experience he gained in photographing his own art would provide him with a way to earn a living once he moved to Paris: what he did for himself he would be paid to do for others. From an artistic vantage point, he took up photography as a way to document his creations, and that established a precedent. Because the work was finished, there was never any possibility that the camera would be employed as a tool in its making or that the photographs would be incorporated into the piece. His photography was simply “a means of recording the result.”8

Such a record, however, needn’t be as dry as a bookkeeper’s ledger. Stieglitz demonstrated the possibilities in the coda to one of the best-known scandals in avant-garde art: the furor over Duchamp’s Fountain. Under the pseudonym R. Mutt, Duchamp submitted a porcelain urinal to a non-juried exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists in New York in 1917 (where, as it happened, Man Ray’s The Rope Dancer Accompanies Herself with Her Shadows was prominently displayed). The organizers found themselves in a quandary. According to the rules, a dues-paying member of the society was entitled to display a work of art without the approval of judges. The society’s directors wormed out of their social embarrassment by placing Fountain behind a partition, blocking it from view. It is uncertain whether Stieglitz knew at the time that Duchamp was the creator, but he sided with the radicals who were outraged by this cowardice. Positioning Fountain on its plinth in front of Marsden Hartley’s boldly patterned painting The Warriors, Stieglitz photographed the urinal so that a dark shadow with one bright eyespot outlines a ghostly spectral shape within the receptacle. Running alongside the headline “Buddha of the Bathroom,” the photograph was published in spring 1917 in The Blind Man, a short-lived Dada periodical that was cofounded in New York by Duchamp. Although Duchamp would later sign other urinals “R. Mutt,” the Stieglitz photograph is the only record of the original Fountain, which disappeared. Man Ray never acknowledged the precedent, but the Stieglitz depiction of Fountain showed the younger man that a photograph could both document a conceptual art object and, with the benefit of adroit lighting, be a work of art itself. Man Ray took the hint and ran with it.



EVEN IF they weren’t politically minded, the artistic young people at the pro-anarchist Ferrer Center shared a distrust of the conventional. For Man Ray, it was an ideal place to make friends. One sympathetic character, Adolf Wolff, actually was an anarchist, but his dedication to modern sculpture (he also painted and wrote poetry) is what drew Man Ray to him. One evening, when no paid models were available, Wolff asked his pretty seven-year-old daughter to pose in the nude, which she did with good cheer and no apparent embarrassment. Near the end of the session, with considerably less mirth, a tired-looking blonde woman in her mid-twenties entered the room, helped the girl dress, and led her away.

It was the spring of 1913, and Man Ray would soon turn twenty-three. He desperately yearned to escape from his parents’ home in Brooklyn. When Wolff invited his new friend to work in a studio on Thirty-Fifth Street that he had rented because he couldn’t sculpt clay in his shared apartment, Man Ray readily accepted. But he felt a bit confused. Wasn’t that Wolff’s wife who had come to the Ferrer Center? They were divorced, Wolff told him, adding that she was very intelligent and Man Ray should meet her. The wheels in Man Ray’s head began spinning. At this point, they were real estate wheels. He offered to share the studio rent if he could sleep there. Wolff accepted at once.

But the studio was clogged with Wolff’s art supplies, and one night Man Ray surprised his friend in an intimate pose on the couch with a female visitor. This was not an ideal living situation. Samuel Halpert, another Ferrer Center painter, who had studied in Paris with Matisse, suggested that Man Ray accompany him on a Sunday outing to an artists’ colony across the Hudson River in Ridgefield, New Jersey. Arriving by ferry and then riding a trolley to the crest of the Palisades, they were greeted by woods and meadows. A walk of under half an hour brought them to a cluster of wooden shacks within a fruit orchard, erected as summer rentals by an elderly Polish blacksmith. Halpert and Man Ray inquired and learned that only one was still available, the largest. With four rooms and a kitchen, it was intended for a family, but Halpert said he knew a poet who might want to go in with them. Halpert wouldn’t live there himself, using it only to paint on weekends during the summer. For twelve dollars a month, they took it. And they were joined a couple of weeks later by the poet Alfred Kreymborg, who too would stay only on weekends.

Commuting into Manhattan to his office, Man Ray during the week lived there alone. The novelty of rural life delighted him, and the solitude nourished his painting. A few weeks into his residency, a small group of Ferrer Center students paid a Sunday afternoon visit. Among them was Wolff, joined by his ex-wife, Adon Lacroix, a poet. Man Ray quickly invited the pretty young woman to take a walk, and once they were alone, she explained why she looked so careworn. It wasn’t merely the challenges of raising a child as a divorced mother. (Indeed, Wolff shared the parenting responsibilities for their daughter, Esther.) A native of Belgium, where she and Wolff had met, Lacroix was exhausted by the hectic thrum of New York life. A more particular problem was her living arrangement. In the apartment she shared with a couple, she warded off the unwelcome advances of the man and coped with the bitter jealousy of the woman. Impulsively, Man Ray said she should move to his place in New Jersey. He explained that most of the time, he was there on his own. She hesitantly took his hand and inquired when he was thinking she might come. Heart in mouth, he replied, Today! That night, Man Ray, who had the biggest bed, persuaded Halpert to share it with him so that Lacroix would have her own room. The two men seemed a little resentful when they departed early the next morning. However, Lacroix and Man Ray, who took a later ferry, were blissful. Soon she would become his lover, unburdening Man Ray at long last of his oppressive virginity.

When he was asked by André Breton and Paul Éluard, in 1933, as part of their periodic surveys of fellow artists, to identify “the most important encounter in your life,” Man Ray replied that it was when “I met Adon Lacroix, who became my wife.”1 Doubtless the importance of his sexual initiation played a part in his answer. But Lacroix introduced him to more than physical love. He had heard of the charms of Paris from fellow painters, such as Halpert, but they were tourists and Adon was an insider. She was devoted to modern French literature. Second only to her daughter, Esther, the key addition she made to the New Jersey household was a crate of paperback books. From it, she would select volumes and read aloud, with pauses to translate, favorite passages from the avant-garde poetry of Mallarmé, Rimbaud, and Apollinaire. Man Ray later recounted that she introduced him at this time, too, to the writings of Isidore Ducasse, the self-styled Comte de Lautréamont; but this darling of the Surrealists, who died young in 1870, was virtually unknown even in France, awaiting a rediscovery that would begin four years later, in 1917, with the chance find by the writer Philippe Soupault of Lautréamont’s Les Chants de Maldoror in a used bookstore in Paris. Lacroix was astute but not clairvoyant.

The arrival of a woman brought to a boil some already simmering male rivalry and misogyny in the New Jersey close quarters. Fleeing this unpleasantness, Man Ray and Lacroix moved on their own into a recently vacated smaller bungalow. (Esther stayed with them part-time.) Once the chilly weather set in, the summer residents vanished. While Man Ray commuted three days a week to his New York office, leaving early in the morning and returning at night, Lacroix lived there round the clock. They heated their bungalow with a wood-burning stove, fueled with trees he chopped down on an absent neighbor’s property; he melted ice for water. New Jersey winters were cold. Frosty, too, was the local attitude toward an unmarried couple that was living in sin. This was not bohemian Greenwich Village. Bowing to the local mores, Man Ray and Lacroix resolved to wed. Having obtained a license in the village, they invited some friends to join them on the following Sunday afternoon and serve as witnesses. When the day arrived, the group went in search of someone to officiate. First they stopped a rabbi who was returning from a funeral and said it was not a convenient time. He offered to perform the ceremony later in the week, but the witnesses were just there that Sunday. The troupe stopped at the offices of the justice of the peace, only to learn that it was his day off. They went next to the home of a Protestant minister, who agreed to join them in matrimony—but in a religious ceremony, not a civil one. Man Ray and Lacroix gratefully agreed. On May 3, 1914, they were married.

Man Ray worked hard through the spring and summer of 1914, his major project being a six-foot-long oil painting inspired by the battle scenes of Uccello, which he had seen in black-and-white photographic reproduction. Incorporating fish glue and plaster powder into his pigments to simulate the matte surface of a fresco, Man Ray combined the flattened perspective of the Renaissance master with the two-dimensional fragmentation of Cubism. Instead of the glorious pageantry of Uccello’s three-panel Battle of San Romano, Man Ray’s painting portrays the interchangeable automatons enlisted for modern combat. In August, as he was finishing, war broke out in Europe. Lacroix said his painting was prophetic. He added a gravestone with the inscription AD MCMXIV—Roman numerals for A.D. 1914. That became the painting’s title. Beneath the tablet lies a fallen soldier.

As her family was in Belgium, unable to communicate following the surprise German invasion, Lacroix—who was already nervous by disposition—became increasingly anxious. One way her unease expressed itself was in sexual jealousy. Among the small community of artists and writers congregated in Ridgefield that summer and fall, Lacroix suspected her husband of paying too much attention to another man’s wife. And when he refused to take masculine umbrage at her reports of how she had rebuffed overtures from some of the men, she soured further. She told him that she didn’t abide by modern ideas of sexual freedom, and that free love amounted to infidelity. Those words would later reverberate bitterly for him during sleepless nights.

But for now, despite these flare-ups, their marriage flourished. Aside from the long-desired physical relationship, Man Ray relished their creative partnership. That fall, he designed and illustrated a small artist’s book of her poems, many with a pacifist bent, others more romantic and lyrical. Titled A Book of Divers Writings, it appeared in January 1915 in an edition of twenty. (This is the volume that Stieglitz purchased.) They printed and bound it themselves. It was a labor of their love.

Ridgefield was the perfect place for Man Ray to depict nature—until he renounced that practice. His epiphany came during a camping trip that he and Lacroix made in the autumn of 1914 with two other couples in Harriman State Park, a recently established wild preserve to the north. After they returned to Ridgefield, Man Ray declared that he would no longer paint scenes he saw. He thought that staring at the subject as he depicted it “might be a hindrance to really creative work.” Instead, he would invent “imaginary landscapes.”2 Emblematic of the shift is a fascinating small picture, painted on a seven-inch-by-six-inch board, with the title Man Ray 1914. On first glance, it appears to be a green-and-brown Cubist landscape, with vertical repetitions that evoke the striated Palisades near Ridgefield. Closer scrutiny reveals that those pillars and hollows are actually letters and numbers. The entire painting is a representation of his name and the year. “In a picture, is it not above all the signature that counts?” he later quipped.3

At the end of 1915, Man Ray and Lacroix fled the punishing winter chill of their New Jersey cabin and rented a fifth-floor walk-up in New York. The apartment, opposite Grand Central Terminal on Lexington Avenue, had previously been the studio of the Ashcan School artist William Glackens. During the day, the drilling of the under-construction Lexington Avenue subway tore through the air, but Man Ray said he liked the din: it was the soundscape of modernity. (Coincidentally, the French-born composer Edgard Varèse, who would incorporate such noise into his musique concrète, moved to New York at precisely this time.) Within the year, however, the constant rumble and the arduous climb led them to find a new place, this one close to Madison Square on East Twenty-Sixth Street.

Like many artists, Man Ray entered a capsule of contentment when he withdrew into his art. He was blooming productively. But his wife? Was she burgeoning or wilting? In his first romantic relationship, Man Ray would establish 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.

Her husband’s difficulty in selling paintings troubled Lacroix. She worried about money. One time they shopped in a department store and, to his horror, when they got home he saw that she had concealed a new winter coat beneath her old one. Although that was foolhardy, the need to save was real. They moved out of their flat and took a small apartment on Eighth Street off Sixth Avenue, in still-affordable Greenwich Village. The dwelling was so tiny that there was no space for painting; but the obliging landlady offered Man Ray a room in the attic at a cheap price. Excited about his new work, which employed the techniques of commercial art, he would stay late at the map office, where the tools he needed were available. When he eventually acquired the necessary implements, he installed them in his attic studio, leaving Lacroix as alone as she had been when he lingered at the office.

One evening, in a basement Italian restaurant in the neighborhood, Lacroix and Man Ray struck up a conversation with two young Hispanic men. The younger of the two, who introduced himself as Luis Delmonte, said he had just come from his uncle’s farm in Cuba and was working in New York as an office clerk. At the end of dinner, they all shook hands and declared that they would get together again sometime. The next day, Man Ray left early for work. When he returned, he found that Lacroix had dressed to go out, which was puzzling, for they had no plans. She revealed to him that as they were leaving the restaurant the night before, Delmonte had slipped her a note asking her to dinner. Man Ray was bewildered—it was Lacroix who had always touted monogamy—but he did not feel he could object.

He left their apartment and tried to paint in his attic. Unable to concentrate, he returned home and found it vacant. He went to a nearby chess club and was invited to compete with a Russian émigré who was a chess master. After beating Man Ray on the twelfth move, the Russian replayed the match, demonstrating other ways in which he could have bested his hapless opponent. Each variation bore its own name: comical mate, reckless mate, and, finally, tragic mate. That last phrase resonated in Man Ray’s mind as he went home at 3 a.m. to an apartment that was still empty.

The next morning at ten, Lacroix unlocked the door. She was as impeccably attired as when she had left. After a long silence, she told him that Luis was just a boy but also a man, and he understood women. She loved them both, and she needed time and freedom to resolve her future. He couldn’t believe it. What about their happy years together? Lacroix, who reacted furiously if he even looked at another woman—how did she expect him to respond?

Bursting into tears, she embraced him and said he had been neglecting her. He remained at home for much of the day, which ended with a romantic dinner at an uptown restaurant and an affectionate night in bed. He thought the crisis had passed. However, the next day, when he returned from the office, Lacroix was once again all made up. She told him that Luis had threatened to kill himself if she wouldn’t see him.

Man Ray went out that night and returned again to a dark apartment, where he slept a few hours before traveling to his office. It was Saturday morning and no one was there. At his desk, he wrote a letter of resignation, and left his key on it. Next he went to ask his landlady if she had any other apartments for rent, on the pretext that the attic was too small for the new projects he was planning. She didn’t, but she said she could clean out a basement that she was using for storage. He paid for the month in advance and requested that the room be ready in a couple of days.

At his apartment, he encountered Lacroix, who was there with Esther, now fourteen, and Luis. He took Esther to lunch, and when they returned, he spoke with his wife alone. He informed her that since she had been unwilling to choose between him and Luis, he would be moving out. Also, he had quit his job. He would lead an independent life. Her distraught objections failed to move him.

Some days later, Man Ray was woken by insistent knocking on the door of his basement lodging. It was Lacroix. She had come to complain that he should not tell Esther so much about their separation. Soon she was in tears, pleading with him to be reasonable. He became aroused by her touch, and forced himself on her “brutally,” he later recalled.4 When the sex was over, she smiled at him and said she was very short of money—Luis wasn’t earning much. He gave her some cash. On another morning, she woke him again, pounding on the door when he wouldn’t open, complaining that she hadn’t seen him in a week and she knew he had a woman with him. Suddenly stricken with stomach cramps, he told her he would come up to her apartment within a few minutes. He burst in without knocking and found her seated on a couch. In a fury, he pulled off his belt and lashed her with it; when she fell to the floor, he continued to beat her on the back before leaving. She made no reference to the violence the next time she encountered him. But they saw each other less and less.

The breakup deeply depressed him. He made a painting, Suicide, in 1917, as the marriage was disintegrating, that was based on a Russian play about a man whose affections are divided between his wife and a cabaret singer, and whose sensibility is split between rational and emotional selves. In his despair, Man Ray imagined setting up the painting on an easel and placing behind it a rifle aimed at himself, with a string tied to the trigger. He would pull the string as he gazed at his painting. He didn’t do it, he later said, because he knew it would please some people. Also, if he killed himself with a firearm contraption attached to his artwork, he would be supplying more ammunition to those who contended that his mechanizing of painting cheapened it.

Another dream, of moving to Paris, was more cheerful. He imagined that in Paris he would be among like-minded artists who would understand and appreciate his work. To get there, though, he needed money. The five hundred dollars that he received from Howland, the collector he met through Stieglitz, supplied his stake. Early in 1921, he told Lacroix that he was going abroad. She thought of herself as his irreplaceable muse. “You will never do anything without me,” she said.

Man Ray saw himself as dependent on no one. “We’ll see,” he replied.5


Charles Daniel

LACROIX’S DISSATISFACTION with her life had been exacerbated by her husband’s difficulty in selling his art. Man Ray’s own discontent was related to hers but distinct from it. He felt that even those who supported him failed to understand him.

Through Kreymborg, who apparently bore him no grudge, Man Ray had been introduced in New York, probably in early 1915, to the affluent saloonkeeper Charles Daniel, who aspired to quit serving beer and start selling art. At this initial meeting, Daniel bought a painting for twenty dollars. He would soon resolve to take his love of contemporary art a step further by launching a gallery. He opened the Daniel Gallery at Forty-Seventh Street on the most fashionable stretch of Fifth Avenue, a mile north of 291, and presented Man Ray’s first one-man show there in November 1915. Despite all of the artist’s efforts, including the photographs he made of his work to help publicize the show, out of thirty paintings none found a buyer. The show closed, the artist brooded, and the future looked dark; until, like Jove descending with a thunderbolt, Arthur Jerome Eddy, a prominent Chicago collector, paid a visit to the gallery and saw the paintings, which had already been taken down. He liked them so much that he offered to buy six. Even at the discounted price Eddy negotiated, the artist netted the colossal sum of two thousand dollars, with the dealer magnanimously declining his commission to make up for the discount. This sale is what had enabled Man Ray and Lacroix to relocate from New Jersey to New York. But in the expensive metropolis, even that substantial windfall blew away in no time.

He was rapidly absorbing the unfamiliar nourishment of European avant-garde art as served up by the exhibitions of the Armory and 291. The collages of Picasso and Braque, which were shown in 291 at the end of 1914, impressed him as much as their Cubist paintings did. Another way of understanding the flat, colorful forms that resemble tailor’s patterns and recur in his pictures in 1915 is to see them as transpositions of scissored paper into paintings. He also experimented with the collage technique directly. As early as 1914, he pasted a piece of gold paper to his painting Chinese Theatre. His most extensive exploration of the genre came in 1916, when he began a series of ten collages that he called The Revolving Doors.

Man Ray would never surpass the restless creativity of these years. No sooner did he land on a style than he flew off to discover a new one on the horizon. His second show at the Daniel Gallery, in December 1916, puzzled both the critics and Daniel. The major painting in the exhibition was The Rope Dancer Accompanies Herself with Her Shadows, with its flat planes of color that were derived from paper cutouts. But the most talked-about and perplexing piece was Self-Portrait, which didn’t conform to any conventional notion of a work of art. It was a wooden panel that Man Ray had decorated mysteriously, placing two bells at the top, like close-set ghostly eyes, and a push button at the bottom. Between them was a print of his hand—which could be read as an admonitory sign to keep away. Flanking the buzzer at the bottom of the panel he drew two f-holes, the arabesque openings on a violin. Visitors to the exhibition did not keep away; they pressed the button, expecting the bells to ring. Instead, there was silence. “They were furious, they thought I was a bad electrician,” Man Ray recalled.1 In another mischievous creation, he hung a plank by its corner; when a spectator would helpfully try to straighten it, the board swung back to its off-kilter position. “I was called a humorist, but it was far from my intention to be funny,” Man Ray remarked. “I simply wished the spectator to take an active part in the creation.”2

He was at least half a century ahead of his time. He was prescient, too, when in November 1915 he wrote a short essay that argued that “the essence of painting is preserved in the flat plane.” A few months later, he elaborated on that theory: “The creative force and the expressiveness of painting reside materially in the color and texture of pigment, in the possibilities of form invention and organization, and in the flat plane on which these elements are brought to play. The artist is concerned solely with linking these absolute qualities . . . without the go-between of a ‘subject.’ ”3 Clement Greenberg would popularize a similar theoretical framework during the rise of Abstract Expressionism after World War II.

Daniel was irate that this promising painter was sabotaging his career by producing work that no collector would consider buying. Lacroix, as already mentioned, grumbled for the same reason. After seeing the most recent paintings, Eddy, his first patron, took him to dinner and voiced his dismay at the lack of landscapes. Man Ray remained unswayed. After he and Lacroix moved to their less expensive digs in Greenwich Village, he continued his search for more mechanical and precise methods of making art. In the offices at the map company, he was using a pressurized spray tank and stencils to apply flat areas of color. He thought: Why not adapt the airbrush technique to his art?

Toward the end of his life, Man Ray said in an interview: “At that time I’d already done away with brushes and was painting almost exclusively with knives, but I was still not satisfied; I wanted to find something new, something where I would no longer need an easel, paint, and all the other paraphernalia of the traditional painter. When I discovered airbrush it was a revelation—it was wonderful to be able to paint a picture without touching the canvas; this was a pure cerebral activity. It was also like painting in 3-D; to obtain the desired effects you had to move the airbrush nearer or farther from the canvas.”4 Going close to the surface when he wanted to spray a thin line and moving back to modulate the shades of a larger section, he felt that he had escaped the depressing strictures of his routine.5 “Another thing I liked about it was the spontaneous character of the composition,” he said. “The effect was obtained instantly and you couldn’t correct it afterwards; it was like shooting with a gun, you either hit the mark or you don’t! . . . I was more interested in the idea I wanted to communicate than in the aesthetics of the picture, and here was a way to express my ideas more rapidly than by a painting. I was always trying to get away from painting in the traditional manner.”6 In 1919, the zenith of his airbrush use, when he mastered and then, characteristically, lost interest in the technique, Man Ray would enlist as stencils anything that came to hand in his studio: camera parts, sculptures, draftsman’s instruments, pieces of cardboard;7 and by moving the stencils slightly, he would reapply coats of paint to create transparent glazes or opaque forms.8 “The process is very quick but it requires a lot of preparation,” he explained. “I was like an athlete who would train before performing. If my hand shook or lacked confidence, the work was ruined.” He “tried above all to create three-dimensional paintings on two-dimensional surfaces.”9

To our eyes, the airbrush paintings—which Man Ray dubbed “aerographs”—are ravishing. For most of Man Ray’s contemporaries, however, they were mystifying. These cold, mechanical renderings bore no marks of the hand that made them, which was what the artist intended. He wanted his art to be the product of his mind, not his hand. Furthermore, he preferred depicting man-made objects to natural ones. In this, he was probably influenced by Picabia, the sole European artist who attended the Armory show and, by so doing, garnered much newspaper publicity. “The machine has become more than a mere adjunct of life,” Picabia told the New York Tribune in October 1915. “It is really a part of human life—perhaps its soul.”10 By reproducing mechanical forms through the means of a mechanical device, Man Ray went Picabia one step further.

Although Man Ray had yet to take up photography as a serious endeavor, at the time that he made the aerographs he was experimenting with cliché verre, in which an image is inscribed on a sheet of coated glass that is then exposed to photosensitive paper. Explaining his mindset in a Museum of Modern Art questionnaire in 1954, after the museum acquired his 1919 aerograph Admiration of the Orchestrelle for the Cinematograph, Man Ray wrote: “It was my object to express an idea almost photographically—before I took up photography—and remove all traces of manual dexterity. . . . It was a relief to carry out an idea like blowing one’s breath on a window pane. While the preparation and care involved in creating an idea by this means were more laborious than painting directly on canvas, the results fully justified the effort which became invisible. The idea remained clear and direct.”11 This was not a retrospective reassessment. He told a newspaper reporter in 1919 that what mattered was the idea; its execution could be achieved by anyone who possessed minimal skill.

Man Ray’s third and last exhibition at the Daniel Gallery opened in November 1919 and featured work of the previous six years, including recent aerographs. One of its centerpieces was the sequence he finished that year of ten collages, The Revolving Doors; the name derived from their presentation, attached by hinges to a spindle that could be rotated. Like his previous exhibitions, the 1919 Daniel Gallery show was a failure commercially and critically. It’s not that Man Ray was overlooked. Already he was a personage who appeared regularly in the newspapers. But he was not understood, either by the collectors who failed to buy the work or by the critics who mocked it. Howald, the white-haired Ohio businessman who came to Man Ray through Stieglitz, was a highly atypical patron. And even though he staked Man Ray to go to Paris, it turned out that there were limits to his adventurous tastes.

When Howald subsequently visited Paris in fall 1922, after Man Ray had moved there, he would express disappointment at the art that Man Ray was producing. Maybe he should have been better prepared for what he saw, because in their written correspondence, the American artist was outspoken about his dissolving ties to America. A few months before this reunion, he had grumbled to Howald: “Daniel in New York seems to have deserted me. Not a word nor a cent from him since I am here. I felt before I left that he had not the imagination nor the enterprise to really back me.”12 Almost two months later, at the end of May 1922, Man Ray in a letter to Howald compared his former home to his new one. “New York is sweet, but cold,” he wrote, “Paris is bitter, but warm.—there is real life here, real feeling. I seem to breath [sic], and communicate with people more easily in spite of the lack of vocabulary.”13

Sensitive to Howald’s disapproval of his artistic direction when they had their meeting in Paris, Man Ray tried to make amends. He offered to produce a photographic portrait of Howald, memorializing him as he had done the luminaries of Paris, a practice that by now had elevated Man Ray too to the inner circles of the French artistic and social elite. Declining, Howald said he thought a painter should stick to painting. The misfire illustrated how well Man Ray was appreciated in his adopted city and miscomprehended in the land of his birth.

Portrait of Man Ray by Alfred Stieglitz, c. 1917

Woman, 1920. Man Ray also, on other occasions, titled this Man.

Drawing of Adon Lacroix, 1914

Self-Portrait (object), 1916

Catherine Barometer, 1920

Rrose Sélavy (Marcel Duchamp), 1921

Woman Smoking a Cigarette, 1920

The Rope Dancer Accompanies Herself with Her Shadows, 1916

Dust Breeding, 1920

The Enigma of Isidore Ducasse, 1920

Deathbed Portrait of Marcel Proust, 1922

Kiki de Montparnasse, 1925

Le Retour à la raison, 1923


Marcel Duchamp

THE INITIAL ENCOUNTER had occurred when Man Ray was living in New Jersey. Walter Arensberg, the heir to a comfortable Pittsburgh steel industry fortune and an avid collector of advanced contemporary art, brought Marcel Duchamp to Ridgefield on a Sunday afternoon in the summer of 1915 and introduced the two men. Of course, Man Ray knew Duchamp by reputation. His Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 had caused a sensation at the Armory Show a couple of years earlier. Duchamp hadn’t come to New York for that exhibition, but even so, the painting attracted greater attention (mostly unfavorable) than any of the large canvases of his friend Picabia, who did attend. Man Ray cannily recognized that it was the title, more than the image, that provoked much of the commentary. “So that gave me a hint, and I’ve always attached titles to my objects,” he later observed. “They do not explain the work but add what you might call a literary element to it that sets the mind going. It doesn’t do it to everybody, but the few people that I expect to respond to it, do.”1

Although Man Ray learned a great deal from Duchamp, the flow went both ways. Their mutually supportive tie formed one of the great friendships in art history. At their first meeting, even though neither spoke the other’s language they intuitively bonded—tellingly, over a game. Man Ray brought out a couple of old tennis rackets, and in front of the house, without a net, they swatted a ball back and forth. To make conversation, Man Ray called out the point: “Fifteen,” “thirty,” “forty,” “love.” And after each, Duchamp would reply with the same word: “Yes.”

Duchamp was twenty-eight, three years older than Man Ray, and, at five foot ten, about eight inches taller. He was handsome, with a long nose and a thin mouth, and unlike the tousled American he was impeccably turned out. While Man Ray crackled with nervous energy, Duchamp emanated an air of serene detachment. Most people liked him, although there were some—Stieglitz was initially in this group—who scorned him as a charlatan. Duchamp didn’t mind. He took nothing personally.

He had met Arensberg through Walter Pach, a wealthy young American he knew from Paris, where Pach lived for five or six years before returning to New York and organizing the Armory Show. When Duchamp arrived in New York in June 1915, Pach couldn’t put him up, as Mrs. Pach had just given birth to their first child. Instead, Pach found him accommodations at the Arensbergs’.

Walter Arensberg became Duchamp’s lifelong friend and most avid collector. Crestfallen that he had missed the chance to buy Nude Descending at the Armory Show, Arensberg pursued it doggedly for years before finally taking possession of it. He acquired many less famous pieces over the years, as well as Duchamp’s masterpiece, the Large Glass, also known as The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even, which (opaquely, notwithstanding the transparency of the support) codified the sexual dynamic between men and women in machinery images, outlined in lead wire and filled in with paint on two large glass panels. A true obsessive, Arensberg in later life would forsake contemporary art and devote most of his energies to hunting for hidden messages in the writings of Shakespeare and Dante.

“Why do you live so far?” Duchamp asked Kreymborg, one of Man Ray’s Ridgefield housemates, with his typical acuity. “Is there something you do out here that can’t be done nearer town?”2 A few months later, with their bank account plumped up by the sale to Eddy, Man Ray and Lacroix indeed moved back to town, where the friendship between the American Jew from Brooklyn and the French Catholic from Normandy flourished. Duchamp was living in a ground-floor apartment and working in a studio that was separated by a hallway from the upper floor of the Arensbergs’ duplex apartment, on West Sixty-Seventh Street near Central Park. By the second half of 1916, Duchamp’s English had improved to a level that allowed him to communicate freely with Man Ray.

Along with their penchant for games, both men relished wordplay. A few months before meeting Duchamp, Man Ray had published a folded four-page single-sheet paper he called the Ridgefield Gazook, with a cover illustration of copulating grasshoppers under the title “The Cosmic Urge,” and a literary section labeled IL’LITTER-ATURE. Beyond a shared fondness for chess and punning, their kinship extended to their artistic outlook. In the 1914 painting Chocolate Grinder, No. 2, which Arensberg acquired, Duchamp used oil and thread to depict a machine with the precise, impersonal style that Man Ray favored in his aerographs. Duchamp declared that mechanical drawing was a way of avoiding the trap of personal aesthetic allegiances. “It upholds no taste, since it is outside all pictorial convention,” he said.3 Like Man Ray, Duchamp rendered erotic subject matter with an air of cool reserve. Both believed that the idea is paramount, the execution secondary. Duchamp piquantly melded the cerebral with the sexual when he said he wanted to “grasp things with the mind the way the penis is grasped by the vagina.”4

That was just the sort of comment Man Ray might have uttered. It is very rare to find someone who gets all your jokes and amuses you with his, whose artistic explorations mesh so closely with yours, who furthers your ambitions without envy, and who accepts your help without insecurity. This was the friendship that Man Ray and Duchamp enjoyed for a half century. The dissimilarities in their social backgrounds and physical appearances melted away in the heat generated by the electric sparks of conversation. Their connection was a true testament to conceptualism—the primacy of mind over matter.

During Man Ray’s marital disintegration, Duchamp bolstered him with calm support. On the day Man Ray moved out of the apartment with Lacroix, he met up with Duchamp at the chess club, where he learned that the French artist had been introduced to a woman, Katherine Dreier, who wanted to start a modern art museum with artists as subscribing members. She had asked Duchamp to be honorary president. He in turn proposed Man Ray as vice president. In the coming weeks, Man Ray joined Duchamp for a planning session with Dreier, whom he described as “a large blond woman with an air of authority.”5 It was Man Ray who coined the name for the new institution, saying that he had noticed in a French magazine the redolent phrase Société Anonyme. Laughing, Duchamp told him that this was the French term for a corporation, but he agreed that it would serve their needs perfectly.

Man Ray offered to make photographs to promote the group. After she had satisfied her doubts about his prowess with a camera, Dreier assigned him to produce postcards of exhibited works, and also to photograph major pieces in her own collection. When he remarked that they might add inducements for artists to join, she testily responded that anyone invited should feel privileged. After leaving her apartment, Man Ray confided to Duchamp that in his opinion, had he been there on his own, Dreier would have booted him out. That year he made an assemblage almost four feet high, composed of a wooden plank to which he mounted a metal washboard. On top of the washboard he attached a long glass tube within a spiral of wire. Behind the tube, where the calibrated gauge of a meteorological instrument would go, he placed a pattern of color strips. At the bottom of the plank, he inscribed the words “Catherine Barometer” (the title of the piece) and, in a circle, “Shake Well Before Using.” This barometer would not predict wetter or drier weather. Instead, if agitated per instruction, it would deliver volatile readings on the artistic climate that its color register evoked.6

After they traveled downtown from the Dreier apartment to the chess club, which was mostly empty on a Sunday, Man Ray suggested to Duchamp that this might be a good time for him to make the photograph he had promised of the Large Glass. Like Chocolate Grinder, No. 2, the Large Glass employed wire to outline sexually suggestive mechanical objects, but—as its nickname indicates—the support was glass, not canvas. Part of Duchamp’s pigmentation strategy involved collecting dust on the glass (which rested on sawhorses) and then varnishing the clumps to fix them to the surface. He posted a sign: “Dust Breeding. To Be Respected.” Although parts of the glass were kept immaculate, the studio that Duchamp had taken after leaving the Arensbergs’, in the Lincoln Arcade building, located nearby on Broadway between West Sixty-Fifth and Sixty-Sixth Streets, was filthy. “The place looked as though it had never been swept,” recalled Georgia O’Keeffe, who visited with Stieglitz. “The dust everywhere was so thick that it was hard to believe.”7 Stringing up a single light bulb in the dim room, Man Ray masked the lens opening with a black paper that he perforated with a pinhole. Then he opened the shutter. The friends went out for lunch and returned in about an hour and a half. Man Ray closed the shutter. When he developed the film, he saw to his delight that the resulting image was compelling and mysterious. Once he cropped it, no one could ever have guessed its material source. In addition to the dust, wads of cotton used for cleaning the glass and strands of curved wire complicate the field, which is brightly lit on the left and shadowed elsewhere. To our eyes, the photograph most resembles views of an arid planet. For the artists, it more likely conjured up the aerial reconnaissance photographs made in the recently concluded war. Aviation epitomized modernity. The photograph was published in October 1922 in André Breton’s Surrealist magazine, Littérature, under the title “View taken from an aeroplane, 1921.”

These early years were the most fruitfully collaborative of their long friendship. Considering the enormous impact that Duchamp exerted on twentieth-century art, it is no wonder that he profoundly influenced his friend. The notorious Fountain isn’t the first of the found objects that Duchamp dubbed “readymades.” That distinction usually is given to the bicycle wheel he attached to a stool in 1913. But Bicycle Wheel, unlike its successors, required Duchamp to join two pieces and is properly termed an “assisted readymade.” As Man Ray later observed in an interview, the assisted readymade was the approach he himself adopted. “Duchamp found it revolutionary just to put a phrase or his name on an object found at the hardware store,” he explained. “No, for me there needs to be not one thing but two things. Two things which, in themselves, have nothing in common, and that I put together to create, by contrast, a sort of plastic poetry.”8 Like Duchamp, he disdained the usual materials of sculpture—marble, bronze—in favor of the everyday items that exist outside the normal realm of art.

And then, he added another degree of complication: his constructions were usually intended as subjects of photographs. “Most important for me was that I kept the objects for a very short time and destroyed them afterwards,” he said. “But I always conserved them in photographs or paintings. That for me was the real sculpture. One wasn’t obliged to go into a gallery or museum to see them, we had them hand delivered.”9

His first readymade, from 1918, was an eggbeater titled Man. Or rather, it was the photograph of an eggbeater—and, just to confuse things further, on one print, dated 1920, he inscribed the name Woman.10 Unlike Duchamp, who professed to choose his readymades for their “visual indifference,” Man Ray (like Stieglitz in his photograph of Fountain) deployed lighting to create beauty from mundane objects. In his depiction of the eggbeater, a raking light bleaches the background into nothingness and casts shadows of exquisitely modulated intensity. He later explained that “the shadow is as important as the real thing.”11 Why did he call it Man? The gear might be viewed as a head, the whisks as legs; or it could be a rider on a bicycle; or, just perhaps, the whisk can be seen as the sort of doodle of male genitalia found on a men’s room wall. Yet, as the contrary titles indicate, his words are intended to dislocate, not elucidate. The companion piece, Woman, was later titled Integration of Shadows, which is indeed more informative, for this photograph of a glass plate joined with two metal light reflectors and clamped by six evenly arrayed clothespins that hold wavy suspension wires contains shadows that are as solid-seeming as the objects that cast them. Woman calls to mind “primitive” sculpture, as did, more blatantly, a pair of wooden pieces that Man Ray made the same year—By Itself I and By Itself II. The wooden sculptures looked back to his infatuation with Cubism. The photographs of everyday things celebrated his enthusiasm for his new friend Duchamp.

Dreier, being an ardent admirer of Duchamp, predictably loved a construction that Man Ray made in 1919 by hanging an unglued discarded lampshade from a metal rod. (In another telling, it was the brown-paper wrapping of a lampshade.) Lampshade has been credited as the first mobile sculpture. Dreier exhibited it at the inaugural Société Anonyme exhibition in 1920, and bought it for her own collection; when it eventually wore out, she commissioned Man Ray to reproduce it in white-painted tin. (A less credible story maintains that a janitor mistakenly discarded the object shortly before the exhibition opening, requiring the resourceful artist to reproduce it in metal overnight.) Man Ray also photographed Lampshade, where its spiral form could be immune from the insults of wear and tear.

In keeping with that theme of endless process, Man Ray in 1920 made an assisted readymade, Obstruction, by suspending from the ceiling a wooden hanger to which he attached two hangers, to each of which he attached two more hangers, and so on, multiplying as if through mitosis until the lowest level reached the floor. Obstruction constitutes another claim for Man Ray having made the earliest mobile sculpture. In his usual fashion, though, he photographed and then disassembled it, so its original incarnation exists only as a static image. In the same year, he photographed clothes hanging on a line and titled it Moving Sculpture. He later transformed the image into a painting, Flying Dutchman, playing on the resemblance of the drying clothes to windblown sails.

Both Duchamp and Man Ray were fascinated by optics, both loved to tinker. Early in 1920, Duchamp obtained a movie camera and resolved to make a film focused on a machine he constructed from five glass plates, each painted with part of a bull’s-eye of concentric circles. He attached the plates to a motorized spindle, with the idea that when it rotated, the forms at various depths would merge into a circular pattern. Shot by two cameras placed at different distances, one using green film and one red, the reels could be run together to produce a three-dimensional effect for viewers wearing spectacles with green and red lenses. He brought Man Ray to his studio for the initial demonstration, standing close to the machine while Man Ray operated the camera. After a brief filming, interrupted by the alarming acceleration of the spinning glass, the two men switched positions so Duchamp could watch from the appropriate distance. When they started it up again, the contraption “whirred like a plane propeller,” Man Ray recalled, until the belt broke free and the glass went flying. The accident cracked, among other things, Duchamp’s imperturbable aplomb. He rushed to see if his pal had been injured; but Man Ray, unhurt, was distressed only that a device that had taken so much time to make was reduced to shards.12

In 1920, the promise of movement and transformation captivated the two men. For Duchamp, the challenge crystallized into a question of self-transformation: how might he take on a new identity? He thought of assuming a Jewish name (perhaps as an homage to his friend). “I didn’t find a Jewish name that I especially liked, or tempted me,” he recalled.13 At that point he realized it would be “much simpler” to change gender than to switch religion. (He wasn’t alone in feeling this urge. In his aphoristic foreword to Man Ray’s 1937 booklet La Photographie n’est pas l’art Breton wrote, “I wish I could change my sex as I change my shirt.”) For his new persona, Duchamp arrived at the name “Rrose Sélavy,” which in French resembles a sentence that translates as “Eros, that’s life.” He used the name as the signature on his sculpture Fresh Widow, but he wanted his alter ego to take form. Once again, Man Ray used photography to memorialize an ephemeral creation. He had been making portraits of Duchamp at least since 1916, but those were efforts to convey the man’s character. In these collaborative photographs of Rrose Sélavy, Duchamp projects the mien of a haughty Frenchwoman of the lower middle class aspiring to respectability. He and Man Ray reduced one portrait to the size of the label on a bottle of Rigaud perfume and altered the flacon to read “Belle Haleine,” which means “beautiful breath” and puns on “Belle Hélène,” an Offenbach opera that lent its name to a celebrated pear dessert. Instead of the typical “Eau de Violette,” or “violet water,” Duchamp transposed two letters to make the word “voilette,” or “veil.” Indeed, the object danced behind more veils than Salomé, packaging in a perfume bottle the fluidity of both language and gender.

For Man Ray, a new identity would require a change of location. The beacon of the City of Light grew even brighter as the future with his French-speaking wife dimmed. Through Duchamp and Picabia, he had become acquainted (without physically meeting) the leading Dada intellectuals and artists of Paris. In April 1921 he published with Duchamp one issue of New York Dada, with his photograph of the doctored perfume bottle on its cover. But as he wrote to Tzara, “Dada cannot live in New York. All New York is dada and will not tolerate a rival—will not notice dada. . . . So dada in New York must remain a secret.”14 Man Ray too remained something of a secret in his hometown. Paris, he felt, was a place he would find kindred souls. There was nothing to keep him in New York, where his work failed to sell and the public couldn’t follow his thinking. Empowered by the unexpected proceeds from the Howald sale, he planned a lengthy visit. Duchamp, who had returned to Paris following a sojourn in Buenos Aires, encouraged him. On July 14, 1921, Bastille Day, Man Ray sailed for France. He carried with him a letter from Duchamp, which read: “I will try to be at the train in Paris when you arrive . . . if you do not see me at the station, take a taxi to 22 rue La Condamine and ask for me, downstairs. I will be in or leave the key (6th floor, top floor, right-hand door when you get off the elevator). . . . I have arranged a room for you in a little hotel where Tzara lives. He may be gone when you arrive. I suppose you will land about the 22nd. Marcel.”15


Tristan Tzara and Francis Picabia

DUCHAMP WAS WAITING for Man Ray in Paris at the Gare St. Lazare on July 22 to accompany him to the Hôtel Boulainvilliers in the 16th arrondissement, a bourgeois neighborhood away from the artistic centers. Tzara had stayed at the hotel because it was near the apartment of Picabia’s mistress, Germaine Everling, who put him up on her living-room couch for almost a year before he moved into public lodgings. But, as Duchamp predicted, Tzara had recently left the city and Man Ray took his room.

That evening before dinner, Duchamp brought him to the Café Certà, a watering hole near the Opéra that was frequented by the Dadaists of Paris. Despite the language barrier, Man Ray felt welcome in this group. His reputation preceded him. Picabia had published Man Ray’s photograph of Lampshade in his Dada magazine, 391, a year earlier; and that spring, he had included Man Ray’s photographs Man and Woman in the “Salon Dada: Exposition Internationale” that was mounted in the lobby of the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées. Man Ray’s own magazine, New York Dada, which had come out that April, made its way to Paris, perhaps brought by Duchamp, and it included a letter from Tzara alongside a Man Ray photograph, Coat Stand (1920), that superimposed a woman’s nude torso on a coatrack shaped like a woman. His astonishing Woman Smoking a Cigarette (1920), which inverted a woman’s head so that her hair occupied the bottom half of the frame like a wheat field, and her smoldering cigarette stood erect from her lips at the top, demonstrated his Dada chops.

Moreover, he was an American and a New Yorker, and for forward-looking French artists, that country, and particularly that city, represented modernity. “If only America would realize that the art of Europe is finished—dead, and that America is the country of the art of the future,” Duchamp told a reporter for the New York Tribune in September 1915.1 In addition to personifying the New World, Man Ray radiated belief in himself. “Man Ray brought us a lot of strength,” the poet Philippe Soupault, a founder of Littérature, later reflected. “For us, he was a man extremely sure of himself, who knew very well where he was going, what he wanted.”2 And for Man Ray, in turn, the acceptance acted as both stimulant and balm. He intended to stay six months.3 He remained for almost nineteen years. “I was a novelty for the French,” he explained. “They received me very gratefully. They didn’t question my sincerity.”4 Whereas in New York when he showed his paintings he had been regarded as “a drug addict, a madman,” in Paris he was respected, at least by the Dadaists.5 The Paris Dadaists also shared his sense of humor. After dinner that first night, the group walked through Montmartre. Every ten steps, Soupault, the most outrageous of the band, would bang on a door and ask the concierge, “Is Soupault there?” The reply, of course, was always, “No.”6

In early December, Man Ray moved into new quarters at the Hôtel des Écoles in Montparnasse, the district that had replaced Montmartre as the artists’ quarter. He had arrived. At the same time, he enjoyed another proof that he was where he belonged: his first Paris show. Soupault, who with his wife, Mick, ran a bookstore, the Librairie Six, inaugurated a gallery space there on December 3, 1921, with a one-man exhibition under the billing of “the American painter Man Ray.” Tzara organized the brochure, which required a brief biography of the artist. Man Ray sent in the following: “Born in Philadelphia United States 1890, but I always stay in New York, which for me is the United States. I made my first exhibition in New York in 1912. After, I showed in Los Angeles and San Francisco, California, Buffalo, Cincinnati, Philadelphia, Detroit, Worcester, and other cities in America. I am married, but now I don’t have a wife and children. I like white wine the best.”

Improving on that semi-informative mixture of truth and fiction, Tzara rewrote it as a Dada dance that completely erased the past: “Monsieur Ray was born one no longer knows where. After having been successively a coal merchant, several times a millionaire and chairman of the chewing gum trust, he decided to respond to the invitation of the dadaists and show his latest canvases in Paris.”7 Man Ray liked this absurdist summary of his life so much that he quoted it approvingly when he wrote his autobiography.8

At the opening at Librairie Six, colored balloons bobbing against the ceiling purposefully interfered with the viewing of the pictures. Duchamp probably helped design the exhibition; in coming years, he and Man Ray would create other installations that made it hard for spectators to see the art—most dramatically, at the International Exposition of Surrealism in Paris in 1938, where Duchamp blocked a ceiling coal grate with twelve hundred coal sacks filled with newspaper, and Man Ray, whose plan to admit light through the soffits misfired, distributed flashlights that visitors could use in the dark as they revolved the panels on which the work was displayed.

As the Librairie Six vernissage progressed, the high-spirited young guests popped the balloons with lit cigarettes. “Without alcohol they nevertheless seemed intoxicated,” reported a young American who attended.9 Picabia, who had broken with the Dadaists, arrived alone, bundled up in sweaters and scarves in his luxurious open-top Delage roadster, and made sure that Man Ray’s was the first hand he shook. But the American artist was looking a bit bored when a dapper older gentleman with a white beard, dressed in black and sporting a black umbrella and a black bowler hat, gestured that they should go around the corner to a bar. Although neither spoke the other’s language, Erik Satie—for that was the mysterious stranger—talked as if he were being understood. A sui generis composer, with an absurdist streak that endeared him to the Dadaists, Satie wrote wistfully beautiful piano works, such as “Three Pieces in the Form of a Pear,” that markedly influenced younger French composers, notably Debussy and Ravel. Once they had enjoyed a drink, Man Ray indicated that he wanted to visit a hardware store. There he bought (along with some glue) a flat iron and a handful of tacks. Adhering a line of the latter to the flat end of the former, Man Ray christened the appliance, modified into nonfunctionality, Cadeau—“Gift”—and brought it back to the Librairie Six to add to his exhibition. An assisted readymade with bite, Cadeau soon disappeared, but a Man Ray photograph preserved it as an iconic Dada creation. As Arturo Schwarz, a later explicator and patron of both Duchamp and Man Ray, observed, “A sadistic streak runs through many of Man Ray’s objects.”10

The art on (obstructed) view at the Librairie Six was mostly made in America. In his scant five months in Paris, Man Ray hadn’t had the opportunity to produce much new work. He also lacked his tools, notably the compressed-air machine he had been using in New York to create his aerographs. Although the exhibition checklist is lost, it would have comprised some of the pieces that Man Ray brought with him, including Priapus Paperweight, a phallic object that was composed of a stainless steel tube flanked at the bottom by two steel balls and capped by a third; and Export Commodity, an olive jar filled with ball bearings. He had made both the previous year, along with Catherine Barometer. (He submitted Catherine Barometer early in 1922 as one of three entries to the Salon des Indépendants.) His collage Trans atlantique was probably made in Paris. Against a checkerboard background, it juxtaposed a Paris street map with a photograph, New York, taken in that city of the contents of an emptied ashtray. The most talked-about component of the Librairie Six exhibition was the group of aerographs, the work that New York critics had scorned. The more advanced Parisian art world, with its enthusiasm for mechanical art, loved them. Admiration, however, didn’t translate into cash. Nothing sold. And Dada itself was running out of steam in Paris. Some historians regard the Librairie Six opening as the final Dada event.11

Picabia, an artist of independent means, saved him from insolvency. Man Ray had been invited for lunch with Picabia and Everling in September 1921, at Everling’s apartment, where he added his own name—“Man Ray, Directeur du mauvais movies”—to a canvas, titled L’Oeil Cacodylate that was signed with similar jokes by numerous other artists who came to visit Picabia during an illness.12 When Man Ray offered to photograph it, Picabia expanded on that idea. He retained the American to photograph a multitude of his paintings, a commission that inspired other artists in Paris to do the same. Picabia also connected him to the dealer Léonce Rosenberg, a leading advocate of Cubism. As so often with professional introductions, that went nowhere. But Picabia’s introduction to Jean Cocteau—the French writer who, as Man Ray said, knew everyone (but who, as a dandy and homosexual, was despised by the Dadaists)—would open up the possibilities of photographic portraiture.

And Picabia’s wife, Gabrielle Buffet-Picabia, whom Man Ray had met in New York in 1920 when she was there to promote French fashion, initiated his profitable relationship with the couturier Paul Poiret. Within two months of arriving in Paris, Man Ray called on Poiret in his luxurious compound on the rue du Faubourg St. Honoré. Having once employed Steichen, Poiret was a sophisticated judge of camera practitioners. Immediately recognizing the talent in his applicant’s portfolio, he was undaunted when he learned that Man Ray had no fashion experience. He hired him to take unconventional shots of gowns and mannequins (as models were then called), enabling the American to find a lucrative niche as a fashion photographer in Paris.

As Man Ray told the story, it was in the course of printing pictures from a fashion shoot for Poiret that he stumbled on the process he dubbed “rayographs.” In his hotel room at night, he would develop his glass plates (this was before he used film) and then make his prints, drawing the curtains and relying on light from a red ceiling lamp. Because he was using a large-format view camera, he could make contact prints without an enlarger, by simply laying the developed plate on the photosensitive paper and turning on the light for a few seconds, then placing the paper in a chemical bath. After a short time, the image would float into being. By chance, a sheet of paper that had not been exposed to a negative wound up in the tray. He waited impatiently before he realized his error. Annoyed that he had wasted the paper, he absentmindedly placed a few objects on it—a glass funnel, a measuring flask, a thermometer—and turned on the light. As he watched, the uncovered parts of the paper turned black and, against that background, distorted silhouettes of the implements took shape in grays and whites.

What was this? His fashion work could wait. He took other sheets of printing paper and placed whatever objects came to hand: his room key, a candle, some twine. He didn’t even need to wet the paper. All he had to do was arrange the items and turn on the light for a few seconds.

These rayographs would become over the next year an obsessive field of activity for him. “I’m trying to make my photography automatic—to use my camera as I would a typewriter. . . . In working for the truth one is apt to get too much of it or get it a bit exaggerated!” he wrote Katherine Dreier in February 1921.13 With rayographs, he believed he had attained his goal. “In my new work I feel I have reached the climax of the things I have been searching the last ten years,” he wrote in April 1922 to Howald, his ever-more-disenchanted midwestern Maecenas. “I have never worked as I did this winter—you may regret to hear it, but I have finally freed myself from the sticky medium of paint, and am working directly with light itself. I have found a way of recording it.”14

Man Ray didn’t discover the process of making images directly on light-sensitive paper without the use of a camera. The tradition of “photograms,” as these cameraless photographs are called, goes back to the earliest days of photography, when it was typically used to make scientific records of botanical specimens. Man Ray wasn’t even the only modernist artist experimenting with photograms. His initial experiments followed the similar work of Christian Schad, which had commenced in Switzerland in 1918 and briefly preceded that of László Moholy-Nagy, which began in Berlin a few months after Man Ray in 1922.

According to Man Ray’s autobiography, Tzara, who had dubbed Schad’s images “Schadographs”—playing on an association between the artist’s name and the photographic phenomenon of shadows—happened to stop by Man Ray’s room on the afternoon following the discovery. Man Ray showed him the products of his first day of experiments, and the Dadaist exclaimed enthusiastically, with the highest possible compliment, that they were “pure Dada creations.”15 He also came up with a name. Fortuitously, just as “Schad” suggested shadows, the American artist bore a surname that evoked the brightness of light.

If this story seems almost too perfect, that may be because it is. Man Ray’s narrative fails to note that Tzara, who was living upstairs from Man Ray in the Hôtel des Écoles, possessed a portfolio of Schadographs for which he was seeking a publisher. Probably he showed them to his neighbor. Like most artists, Man Ray denied being influenced by predecessors, especially recent ones. He also had a penchant for creation tales that hinge on accidents. But the likelihood that he knew of Schad’s photograms before making his own does nothing to diminish his achievement. Unlike Schad (or Moholy-Nagy or any of the earliest practitioners of cameraless photography, such as William Henry Fox Talbot or Anna Atkins), Man Ray worked in the darkroom, producing images that would emerge only after the objects had been removed and the developing chemicals applied, rather than on photosensitive paper in sunlight. Furthermore, the artistry he brought to the process is uniquely his own.

While Schad made his photograms from two-dimensional cutouts, arranged in nonfigurative patterns as pure abstractions, Man Ray’s rayographs resembled collages, with many of the forms retaining their identifying characteristics as feathers, magnifying glasses, combs, Christmas tree ornaments, and so on. It was the combination of the recognizable with the strange that lifted the rayographs out of pure abstraction and made them masterpieces of Dada and harbingers of Surrealism. The illogical juxtapositions within each rayograph recalled the famous dictum of Lautréamont (né Isidore Ducasse) in Les Chants de Maldoror, the prophetic Dadaist ur-text that was written a half century in advance of Dada: “Lovely as the fortuitous encounter on a dissecting table of a sewing machine and an umbrella.” Before Man Ray left New York, he had created a mysterious object, The Enigma of Isidore Ducasse (1920): a dark gray blanket that encloses bulging contents (an unseen Singer sewing machine) and is tied up with twine.16 He photographed it and then took it apart. With the rayographs, he was reenacting Lautréamont’s chance meetings—but now, as if with an X-ray, you could peer inside the bulky bundle.

More than any other body of his work, the hundreds of rayographs reveal how Man Ray’s sensibility combined a visionary’s flights of inspiration with an engineer’s ingenious and methodical explorations of a problem. He moved his objects toward and away from the paper while the light was on, achieving tonal grays and varying depths of field through this spatial manipulation (much as he had done with the stencils for his aerographs). To produce multilayered compositions, he would mask parts of the photosensitive paper, place an object where he wanted it to register, and then turn on the light for a few seconds. Restoring the protection of darkness, he’d shift the masks and repeat the process with