The following essays were written by Francis M. Naumann and Gail Stavitsky for the illustrated catalogue Conversion to Modernism -- The Early Work of Man Ray, ISBN 0-8135-3147-0, which accompanied a February 16 - August 3, 2003 exhibition at The Montclair Art Museum. The essays are reprinted with permission of the Montclair Art Museum and without illustrations. If you have questions or comments regarding the essays, or wish to purchase a copy of the catalogue, please contact the Montclair Art Museum directly through either this phone number or web address:


"Conversion to Modernism"

by Francis M. Naumann


Chapter One

Youth and First Artistic Impulses (1907-1911)


"My mother told me that I made my first man on paper when I was three."[1]

This sentence stands alone as a separate paragraph and begins Man Ray's nearly four-hundred-page autobiography, a lighthearted, delightful excursion through a career that spanned nearly a half century and, at least in its author's mind, went on to establish a reasonably complete and accurate record of his important contributions to the Dada and Surrealist movements.

The book was written in the early 1960s, by which time Man Ray had passed his seventieth birthday and was internationally renowned for his accomplishments as a highly skilled and talented photographer. In writing his autobiography, above all else, Man Ray wanted to set the record straight, to tell the world that he was not only a photographer but, first and foremost, an artist, someone who painted and drew instinctively throughout his entire life. Even though he could not recall the event firsthand, the first sentence of his autobiography makes clear the importance he attached to putting his first "man" on paper. As author, the "man" he places on paper is, of course, Man Ray himself, who, as he tries to convince readers, simply could not prevent himself from becoming the artist he was.

Man Ray goes on to explain that his first experience as a painter had nothing to do with brushes and canvas. At the age of five, in the absence of parental supervision, he coerced several friends to place their hands into wet house paint and smear the pigment all over their faces. When their mothers came home, they jumped out from behind the front door of the house and scared them. Their mothers were not amused, and they reacted by promptly scrubbing the children's faces with hot water and laundry soap. As unpleasant as this experience may have been, it was the reprimand of the father that was never forgotten: "He gave us a methodical, cold-blooded whipping. "[2]

Of course, in any autobiographical account, it is natural for a writer to recall specific events from childhood that, in retrospect, are felt to be significant in explaining events in the life that follows. Man Ray wants readers to know that his first memory of touching paint, an activity he had engaged in to attain pleasure, only resulted in severe punishment for his indulgence. Even when he recalls his first serious attempt to make a naturalistic image, he tells his readers that it was greeted with criticism from his family and peers. With a box of crayons given to him by a cousin for his seventh birthday, the young artist freely added colors to a drawing he had made of the battleship Maine, the famous American cruiser that was sunk in Havana harbor in 1898. The drawing was based on a black-and-white reproduction of the sunken vessel that appeared in a local newspaper. When the picture was completed, his family and friends quickly praised its accuracy and detail, but they objected to the young artist's arbitrary application of color, selected at random from the full spectral range available in his box of colors. Whereas the boy may have lacked the facility to properly defend himself at the age of seven, some sixty-five years later the mature artist was ready to explain: "I felt that since the original pictures were in black," he reasoned, "I was perfectly free to use my imagination."[3]

In retrospect, much could be made of the precociousness of these events, particularly in light of the long and unconventional artistic career that would follow. Man Ray's lifelong dedication to painting and penchant for bright colors could be gleaned from these accounts; more important, we are provided with an early indication of the artist's innate sense of defiance, directed against both parental authority and artistic convention. Throughout his life, Man Ray would instinctively question the traditional notions of art, continuously seeking alternatives to accepted practice and rarely allowing the criticism of others to interfere with the final realization of his creative efforts. At a very early age, he adopted a guiding principle that was to serve him well in years to come: "I shall from now on," he declared, "do the things I am not supposed to do."[4] When confronted with a particular problem - aesthetic or intellectual - Man Ray never provided his viewer with the most convenient or most logical solution. Instead, we are more often provided with only alternatives, solutions "stripped bare," so to speak, and selected arbitrarily, like the colors in his drawing of the battleship. And finally, although Man Ray's account of this incident appears to be little more than a casual recollection drawn from his youth, he must have intended his tacit dismissal of criticism at such an early age to serve as a representative sampling of his unerring nonchalance, an attitude that forms the basis of his artistic wit and would, in later years, underlie the production of his most innovative and successful Dada objects.

Toward the end of his life, Man Ray attempted to provide his audience with a rather simplistic explanation of his working method: "Mystery," he wrote, "this was the key word close to my heart and mind-and everyone loved a mystery; but did he not also want the solution? Whereas I always began with the solution."[5] Of course, this explanation relies in good measure on the oft-quoted aphorism of his lifelong friend and Dada coconspirator Marcel Duchamp, who provided a similar solution to those who insisted upon explanations: "There is no solution," he remarked, "because there is no problem."[6]

Michael [Emmanuel] Radnitzky was born to Russian-Jewish parents in Philadelphia on August 20, 1890. On his birth certificate the artist's first name is given as "Michael," but his name was actually "Emmanuel," and close friends and relatives called him "Manny."[7] He was the firstborn in a family of four, sharing a relatively strict upbringing with a brother and two sisters. His father worked in their home as a tailor, while his mother usually occupied herself with more domestic chores around the house. Dorothy, his younger sister, recalls that their home was always cluttered with remnants from their father's profession: cloth samples and scraps of material, which their mother often stitched together to make carriage blankets and quilts. The children also became involved in the making of these items, and at a very early age they - boys included - were taught to piece together material, sew, and embroider.[8] As we shall see, this domestic experience appears to have had a particularly lasting effect on young Emmanuel, for he would later employ similar techniques in the making of his mature paintings and collages.

In 1897 the Radnitzky family moved to Brooklyn, New York, where the boy was forced to pursue his artistic inclinations in secrecy, for his parents did not think that the pursuit of an artistic life was a worthwhile endeavor. In high school, however, Emmanuel's talents were quickly put to use in the design of illustrations and headings for the local student paper (figs. 1, 2, 3). Featuring himself the class artist, he expanded his repertoire to include outdoor subjects, preparing, on one occasion, an ink drawing that recalled the events of a vacation he took with his cousin Rose at a New Jersey resort during the summer of 1907 (fig. 4). "We row and bathe," he wrote to his brother, Sam, "and I sketch."[9]

During his junior year in high school, Emmanuel was able to take courses in art and mechanical drawing, acquiring at an early age the skills that would serve him well in the future. He especially excelled in the mechanical drawing class, where, he remembers, he admired the teacher for his ability to combine "everything that was practical with a wonderful sense of the graphic."[10] These very qualities are apparent in his numerous perspective studies from these years (figs. 5, 6). The diagram of a so-called perpetual motion machine (fig. 7) is one of several mechanical drawings by the young artist to have survived from this course. Not only does this work display a certain degree of technical aptitude, but the drawing also documents an early interest in recording the mechanics of a given operation - in this case, the belt-driven transfer of motion from vertical to horizontal displacement. Later, Man Ray would apply this same keen sense of precision to determine the arrangement and mechanical execution of shapes in his numerous collages, drawings, and paintings of the mid- to late teens.

One of many assignments in this high school course appears to have been to design an alphabet, as well as a series of fanciful letters for an illustrated book (figs. 8, 9), an experience the artist would also feel free to draw upon in later years (particularly in his Alphabet for Adults, a book he designed and published while living in Hollywood some thirty years later).[11] Apparently, students in this high school course were expected to gain a greater understanding of the proportions inherent in Greek and Gothic art by preparing detailed diagrams of architecture, as well as selected examples of sculptural form (figs. 10, 11). He also made a colorful tempera-and-ink drawing of a castle perched at the edge of a mountain cliff that was supposed to serve as a design for a stained glass window (fig. 12). Nearly every one of these drawings would-in one way or another serve the artist's needs in years to come; not only do they preserve a documentary record of his first serious artistic inclinations, but the disciplined line and precise mechanical execution they readily exhibit are qualities that would remain integral to Man Ray's artistic sensitivities throughout his life.

The series of early works that perhaps best harbors the essential characteristics of the artist's more mature artistic development is contained in a group of drawings based on a study of mechanical forms and their projected shadows. The drawing entitled Triangles (fig. 13), for example, composed of six mechanically produced images of draftsman's triangles, each of which is rendered as if in suspension and casting shadows against either curved or angular wall surfaces, bears an uncanny resemblance to the basic imagery and procedural method utilized in Man Ray's series The Revolving Doors (fig. 162), particularly the panel entitled Shadows (fig. 164). Indeed, the general theme of shadows can be seen to run throughout Man Ray's mature work, exhibiting itself so often and with such consistency that, from this point onward, objects and their projected images can be seen to attain the relevance of a consciously inspired leitmotif.

Upon his graduation from high school in 1908, it was announced that Emmanuel had been awarded a scholarship in architecture at Columbia University. But because he had already decided to become a painter, he declined. "His parents were bitter and heartbroken," reported one of his relatives. "For an immigrant family's child to attain such a high standard and then throw it away was a dreadful thing. And so, they denied themselves almost everything and saved from their meager finances to buy Manuel paints and brushes and canvases."[12] Thus properly equipped, immediately upon the close of school, the determined young artist devoted his summer to the pursuit of his newly chosen profession. Few works from this period have survived: a consciously stylized illustration of a tree and distant castle evoking a medieval setting (fig. 14); the drawing of a classical building under construction, probably the Brooklyn Museum (fig. 15); and the portrait of a friend from high school (fig. 16). The portrait records the intense gaze of a young boy, his pensive features recorded in muted brown tonalities, as if in emulation of contemporary American Realist painters,who themselves sought inspiration in the dark pictures of the Dutch and Flemish masters of the seventeenth century.

In this highly experimental period - which continued for several years after his graduation from high school - it appears that the prodigious young painter took his new career quite seriously. On sunny afternoons, he would even try his hand at landscape painting, setting up his easel in Prospect Park, located near his home in Brooklyn. Or, when he sought more rural surroundings, he took the elevated train to the outskirts of the city, which was then still open countryside with a few scattered farmhouses, grazing fields, and livestock. Among the landscapes that survive from this period, few exhibit more than the untrained hand of an inexperienced young painter, trying diligently to emulate the broad and quickly applied brushstrokes of the Impressionists. Others show that he sought inspiration from specific paintings that he may have been familiar with from trips to the New York museums or from prints and reproductions he had seen in art books. Man Ray himself admitted years later that the paintings he produced in this period - all signed with his initials, ER, usually fused in the form of a monogram - failed to communicate what he was trying to express.[13] Undaunted, however, he continued to paint at home in his bedroom, which by this time he had transformed into an artist's studio.

In a photograph from this period, we find the artist hard at work in his Brooklyn studio (fig. 17), where he occupied himself primarily with the painting of portraits and still lifes. At one time or another, practically every member of the family posed for him. Most of his portraits took less than a half hour to complete, and he became so proficient at capturing the sitter's likeness that he genuinely entertained aspirations of becoming a fashionable New York portrait painter (see, for example, his Woman with Hat, which is a portrait of Madeleine, a friend of his sister Elsie, fig. 18).[14] One of his favorite subjects was his sister Dorothy, whom he had painted a few years earlier while still in high school (fig. 19). Man Ray recalls that she "was quite a beauty with raven black hair, white skin, and big black eyes."[15] Originally he offered to paint her in a slightly more revealing pose, but she only acknowledged her brother's compliments and politely declined his offer. Nevertheless, we know that on at least one occasion the artist, with an intensity and curiosity matched only by his irrepressible ingenuity, employed a professional model to pose naked in his bedroom, the expenses for her services and experience to be shared by a few friends. When his parents discovered what was going on, however, the entire enterprise was quickly abandoned. [16]

In the years after high school, Man Ray worked at a variety of jobs while pursuing his desire to become a painter. After an attempt to work at a newspaper stand lasted only a week, he secured his first art-related employment as an engraver's apprentice. This job did not last long either, but within a few weeks he was able to secure a lettering and layout position for an advertising firm in Manhattan. With this experience and his commercial skills behind him, the artist was later equipped to support himself throughout his early twenties, working at a variety of art-related jobs, ranging from mechanical drafting for a publishing house to handling the artistic production of a map and atlas publisher. This professional experience would find application in the various techniques utilized by the artist in his more experimental work from these years, although throughout his life the mature artist would consistently caution observers against the pitfalls of admiring a particular work of art solely on the basis of its technical excellence. [17]

It was not only for the purpose of improving the technical quality of his paintings and drawings that Man Ray enrolled in life drawing classes at the National Academy of Design and, later, the Art Students League in New York. "I wanted to see a nude woman," he later confessed, and it was for this reason as much as any other that he attended the drawing classes in these academic institutions.[18] Aside from the obvious opportunity to satisfy certain sexual curiosities, it is safe to assume that Man Ray had probably also hoped that the instruction he received in these courses might lead to a more rapid attainment of his goal of becoming a professional painter. The young student, however, was very quickly disillusioned. The time-consuming and laborious method of drawing stipulated by the academic approach strained his patience and only served to stifle his creative impulses. For the brief period when he attended these classes, Man Ray appears to have been exposed to the full gamut of working methods required by the academy: sketching models in various costumes, making drawings of antique plaster casts, and executing detailed studies of human anatomy, prepared not only from models but also from dissected cadavers and skeletons.

The artist's first exposure to the rigors of academia occurred in the fall of 1910, during the time of his application for admission to classes at the National Academy of Design. One of the Academy's most important entrance requirements was that every candidate complete a drawing from the antique, on the premises, directly before the watchful eyes of his or her prospective teacher; the drawing then had to be evaluated by a group of instructors selected from the Academy's staff. Over the course of several evenings, Man Ray carefully prepared a detailed drawing from a plaster cast of the Greek god Apollo (fig. 20). Working more quickly, he then sketched the figure of a standing nude male model (fig. 21). Both drawings exhibit an obvious technical proficiency and, one could say, even reveal an exceptional talent for a beginning student. Foreshortening and anatomical proportions are accurately rendered, while select details are more carefully studied in the surrounding areas of the page.

But the rigid dictates of such a slow and methodical working method have resulted in the creation of relatively cold, lifeless figures, an impression that forms a sharp contrast to the small, quickly sketched figure of a man with arching back and upraised arms that can be seen in the right margin of the nude figure study. Apparently, the young artist was not accustomed to such a laborious method, so, in an effort to relieve his impatience, he made a quick sketch of the model stretching after an exceptionally long pose. Even Man Ray's instructor remarked that this little sketch was more interesting and showed more life than his academic studies, and he advised his new student to drop out of the course and work independently on things he found more interesting. [19]

Man Ray followed his instructor's advice, only to enroll in yet another academic institution. In October of 1911, he signed up for a six-month course in life drawing at the Art Students League. The instructor was George B. Bridgman, one of the best-known teachers of human anatomy in his time. [20] In the very first class, Man Ray recalled, the model was "a huge naked woman" who posed openly on a platform in the center of the classroom. While most of the students carefully studied the model's proportions and worked for days on their individual drawings, Man Ray remembered having sketched the general pose of the nude very quickly, with heavy black lines, working and reworking his image until the drawing "was a complete mess of black charcoal out of which emerged a strange primitive-looking figure."[21] The drawing produced in this first class may very well have been the charcoal sketch of a half-length nude reproduced here (fig. 22), which, indeed, is so heavily overworked that the figure barely emerges from the muddle of dark lines defining her form. In spite of such relatively awkward handling, this very sketch appears to have served as the subject of a more sophisticated rendering of the half-length nude in paint, with the figure positioned, rather curiously, behind a plaster statuette of the Venus de Milo (see painting propped above a drawing on the upper right in fig. 17).

"Between 1908 and 1912," Man Ray later remarked, he studied at "most of the art schools in New York. "[22] It soon became clear, however, that the restrictive atmosphere fostered by these academic institutions provided little freedom for such an imaginative young painter. By this time Man Ray was clearly looking for a change, a new direction that would represent not only a break from the artistic conventions of the past but something even deeper, something that would allow him to reinvent himself and chart a course for the future.

In 1912 two events occurred in Man Ray's life that contributed significantly to facilitating this change. In accordance with a suggestion provided by his younger brother, Sam, in the spring of 1912 the Radnitsky family changed its name to Ray, leaving Emmanuel with the name Manny Ray, or, as he ingeniously shortened it, Man Ray.[23] It was under this new name that, in the fall of 1912, he enrolled in classes at the Ferrer Center, a new educational institution in Manhattan. It was here that he would encounter many young artists who, like himself, not only believed that breaking the rules of convention served as a guiding philosophy of life but were convinced that a pursuit of the new and innovative in art could - in and of itself - serve as a perfectly legitimate approach on which to base all future artistic expression.



In the notes, because it is so frequently cited, Man Ray's autobiography, Self Portrait (Boston: Atlantic-Little, Brown; London: André Deutsch, 1963) is abbreviated SP. A second edition was published posthumously (Boston: Little, Brown, 1982); it includes a foreword by Merry A. Foresta and many more illustrations than the original edition. Unless otherwise noted, all citations are to the first edition.

1. SP, p.2.

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid. The Maine was destroyed by an explosion on February 15, 1898, an incident that helped precipitate the Spanish-American war. Since Man Ray's birthday was in August, the box of crayons was probably given for another occasion.

4. "This Is Not for America," interview with Arturo Schwarz, Arts 51, no. 9 (May 1977), p. 117 (first published in Schwarz, New York Dada: Duchamp, Man Ray, Picabia [Munich: Prestel, 1973], pp. 79-100).

5. SP, p.6.

6. First quoted by Harriet and Sidney Janis, "Marcel Duchamp: Anti-Artist," View, ser. , no. i (March 1945), p. 24.

7. Man Ray's parents may have considered "Michael" a more common and hence more acceptable name for a legal document. The artist's original last name has been identified variously, most often given as Radenski (see, for example, Catherine Turril, "Man Ray," in William Jones Homer, ed., Avant-Garde Painting and Sculpture in America, 1910-25 [Wilmington: Delaware Art Museum, 1975], p. 116). Arturo Schwarz was the first to publish Man Ray's original birth date and name (see Schwarz, "Nota Biografica," in Man Ray, Carte Varie e Variabili [Milan: Gruppo Editoriale Fabbri, 1983], p. 32). To the reasons provided by Schwarz for concluding that Michael Radnitzky is Man Ray, it can be added that Man Ray's mother was indeed named Minnie, and his father, Max, was also a "Vest Maker," precisely the information provided on Man Ray's birth certificate (a transcription of which is preserved in the Department of Records, City Archives, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania).

Throughout his life, Man Ray preferred not to make his original last name known. This has caused at least one critic to accuse the artist of anti-Semitism (see George Mellyt, "Man Ray's Camera Obscura," Interview, October 1988), which I have argued was not the case (see Naumann, "Man Ray: An American Artist in Pursuit of Liberty," in Man Ray and America, Haggerty Museum of Art, Marquette University, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, October 21-December 31, 1989, pp. 11-15, an essay that was revised and expanded in Naumann, "Man Ray in America," in Man Ray in America: The New York, Ridgefield, and Hollywood Years, Francis M. Naumann Fine Art, New York, October 27, 2001-January 55, 2002).

8. Information provided the author in an interview with Man Ray's sister Dorothy Ray Goodbread, October 9, 1983, Rydal, Pennsylvania.

9. Man Ray to Sam Ray, undated but, based on internal evidence, written ca. summer 1907 (Papers of Helen Ray Faden, South Pasadena, Florida). Rose is Man Ray's cousin Rose Levinson (later Rose Bloom).

10. SP, p. 9; the artist attended Boys' High School in Brooklyn, New York (information provided by Dorothy Ray Goodbread, relayed to the author by Naomi Savage, November 1986).

11. Man Ray, Alphabet for Adults (Beverly Hills: Copley Galleries, 1948).

12. Florence Blumenthal (Man Ray's niece), "End of a Story," unpublished and undated typescript, p. (Papers of Joan Hofheimer, Bethesda, Maryland). In his autobiography, Man Ray did not provide the name of the institution that offered him a scholarship in architecture; he did so in his conversations with David Savage (relayed to the author on November 20, 1986).

13. SP p. 10. Even though Man Ray's name change would not take place until the spring of 1912 (see note 23 below), in order to avoid confusion, from this point onward in the present text I have taken the liberty of referring to the artist as Man Ray.

14. The remark about portrait painting was made in conversation with Arturo Schwarz (see Schwarz, Man Ray: The Rigour of Imagination [New York: Rizzoli, 1977], p. 25).

15. SP, p.27.

16. Ibid., pp. 24-27. If we adhere strictly to the chronological sequence of events as they are presented in Man Ray's autobiography, then this incident took place sometime in 1912, after Man Ray had already begun attending classes at the Ferrer Center (for he explains that the model was employed there during the week). Since the precise order of events is often presented out of sequence in this section of the autobiography, this incident could very well have occurred a few years earlier, even while the artist was still attending classes in high school, that is, as early as 1908.

17. Man Ray often expressed his opinion on this subject. See especially his comments in "It Has Never Been My Object to Record My Dreams" (New York: Julien Levy Gallery, 1945), n.p. (reprinted in Arturo Schwarz, ed., Man Ray: 60 Years of Liberty [Paris: Eric Losfeld, 1971], p. 24) and his article "Is Photography Necessary?" Modern Photography 21, no.11 (November 1957), p. 8.

18. "This Is Not for America," p. 119. These academic institutions are described but left unnamed in Man Ray's autobiography (SP, pp. 12-16); they are identified by Carl Irvin Belz in his unpublished dissertation, "The Role of Man Ray in the Dada and Surrealist Movements" (Princeton University, 1963), pp. 3-4. Belz gained this information through interviews conducted with the artist. In a questionnaire circulated by the Museum of Modern Art, the artist states the names of these institutions and gives the dates of his attendance as follows: "National Academy: 1907; Art Students League: 1910" (Artists' Files, Department of Painting and Sculpture); although this document is undated, it was probably completed by the artist in 1954, the year in which the museum acquired The Rope Dancer Accompanies Herself with Her Shadows (fig. 159). For more specific information on the times of his attendance at these schools, see notes 19 and 20 below.

19. SP, p. 13. Man Ray (still under the name Emmanuel Radnitzky) applied for admission to the National Academy of Design on October 28, 1910. At that time, the school was still located on 109th Street and Amsterdam Avenue. It is not known precisely whose class the artist attended; at that time, instructors at the Academy were Charles Hinton, Francis Coates Jones, A. L. Kroll, George Maynard, Charles Yardley Turner, and Douglas Volk (information provided by Abigail Gerdts, Academy archivist).

20. Bridgman went on to publish many handbooks on drawing and drawing technique, most notably The Human Machine: The Anatomical Structure + Mechanism of the Human Body (Pelham, N.Y.: Bridgman Publishers, 1939). Bridgman taught a number of different day courses, but his night class - which Man Ray says he attended - was entitled "Evening Life." From December 1911 through January 1912, Man Ray also studied with Edward Dufner, who during the day taught "Antique Drawing" and in the evenings offered "Illustration and Composition" (it is not known exactly what class Man Ray attended; information provided by Lawrence Campbell, editor of League publications). On the Art Students League in these years, see Marchal E. Landgren, Years of Art: The Story of the Art Students League of New York (New York: Robert M. McBride, 1940).

21. SP, p. 13.

22. Quoted from comments provided in a questionnaire circulated by the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (Museum Archives), completed by the artist on March 23, 1956.

23. Removing the ny (or "New York") from "Manny," as a friend of mine, Will Koenig, recently observed. According to Carl Belz, Man Ray adopted this new name in 1910 ("Role of Man Ray," p. 4). The change must have occurred somewhat later, however, for a number of paintings that are clearly dated 1911 continue to bear the monogram signature ER (several landscapes formerly in the collection of Man Ray's sister Dorothy Ray Goodbread, now in the San Lee and Jules Brassner Collection, Tokyo Fuji, Art Museum, Japan, are inscribed in this fashion). On April 8, 1912, Sam Ray wrote in his diary: "These days the letterman calls 'ray,' no matter who the mail is for. Too hard to say the old name; argument in my favor" (Samuel Ray, "The Diary of a Bad Boy," Papers of Helen Ray Faden, Pasadena, Florida).


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