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 Two

The Ferrer Center: Formulating the Aesthetics of Anarchism (1912)


The Ferrer Center, or Modern School, as it was also called, was located at 63 East 107th Street in Harlem. A liberal school of child and adult education, the Ferrer Center was organized and run by a number of free-spirited individuals who came from highly diverse cultural and professional backgrounds, men and women whose pedagogical talents were allied by a common commitment to the ideological tenets of anarchism. Just as the members of this organization sought to abolish the oppression of political authority, as teachers at the Ferrer Center they attempted to create an atmosphere of complete freedom for the students, providing an alternative to the structured and often inhibiting approach imposed in a more traditionally disciplined classroom.[1]

Shortly after it was established in 1911, the Ferrer Center became known as the gathering place for a number of New York's most celebrated cultural and political radicals - Leonard Abbott, Alexander Berkman, Will Durant, Emma Goldman, Margaret Sanger, Upton Sinclair, Lincoln Steffens, and a host of others - each of whom either lectured or offered courses at the school. The art classes were an especially important part of the curriculum, for here, rather than follow the slow and methodical approach stipulated through academic training, students were strongly encouraged to explore the impetus provided by their own fertile imaginations. This open and unrestricted atmosphere was promoted by Man Ray's teachers Robert Henri and George Bellows and enthusiastically shared by his fellow students Ben Benn, Samuel Halpert, Abraham Walkowitz, Max Weber, Adolf Wolff, and William Zorach, all of whom would become better known for their artistic accomplishments in the years to come.

Upon his first visit to the life drawing class at the Ferrer Center, Man Ray recalled, he was particularly impressed by the sketching technique taught to the students, for they were instructed to rapidly execute their drawings and color sketches from the posing model within twenty minutes, an approach that differed sharply from the slower, more studied method he had been familiar with from the academic institutions he had attended. Robert Henri, for example, his most memorable teacher at the Center, instructed him to assert his individuality, even at the risk of being misunderstood. Years later, Man Ray recalled that Henri's ideas were even more stimulating than his artistic criticism: "He was against what most people were for, and for what most were against. "[2]

While Henri's rebellious and pioneering position in the history of American painting has been well established, until recently his more radical, anarchist sympathies have been either overlooked or suppressed by historians and biographers.[3] His interest in social reform dates from his family's support for the Democratic Party, but his humanitarian concerns were more definitively aroused as a result of the government's poor treatment of the American Indian and by the injustices of the Homestead steel strike in 1892. As the leader of the Eight, he encouraged his fellow painters to seek inspiration in the dynamism of the city, whose ethnic groups and lower-class inhabitants succinctly embodied the vitality of life in its most dignified and uncorrupted state. But even more than his socialist inclinations, it was the dynamic preaching of Emma Goldman that drew Henri to the Ferrer Center in 1911 and converted him to the cause of anarchism, a philosophical doctrine he embraced and supported until his death in 1929.

Henri taught without pay at the Ferrer Center for nearly seven years and also managed to enlist the talents of his friend and former pupil George Bellows, whose anarchist leanings were quickly replaced by patriotic instincts when America entered the war in 1917 (at which time Bellows quit teaching and joined the military). [4] Together, Emma Goldman later noted, Henri and Bellows "helped to create a spirit of freedom in the art class which probably did not exist anywhere else in New York at that time." [5]

This "spirit of freedom" is clearly reflected in the numerous sketches Man Ray produced in the life drawing classes at the Ferrer Center (figs. 23-27). Independent of medium - whether he was working in charcoal, ink wash, or a densely applied watercolor pigment - his results were always consistent: the model is given visual definition by means of a rapid, though confident and fluid, application of line or color. Since the drawings in this course had to be completed within the twenty-minute time limitation set by the instructor, there was little opportunity for the students to render details precisely in the fashion customarily demanded by more academic approaches. Consequently, with few exceptions, Man Ray's figure studies are characterized by a lack of definition in the extremity of their appendages (fingers and toes), though - as in the example of a skillfully rendered, slightly foreshortened figure of a reclining nude (fig. 24) - these details were sometimes worked out in the surrounding space on the drawing page.

Most of the sketches of nudes that survive from this period record the same buxom, young female model - probably fourteen-year-old Ida Kaufman, who at age fifteen married the school's director, Will Durant, and later, as co-author of many books with her husband, became well known under the name Ariel. "Her figure, quite stocky, with firm, fully developed breasts," Man Ray recalled some fifty years later, "resembled one of Renoir's nudes."[6] While his subjects may very well recall the works of an Impressionist, the technique Man Ray adopted for the application of paint was far more dependent upon the bravura brushstroke and intense palette of Fauvism. The artist frequently accentuated his figure studies with open washes of bright, near-luminous pigment, where flesh tones can range from pale rose to fiery orange (fig. 27). In some cases, it almost appears as if Man Ray has consciously reacted against the adverse criticism he received as a child for his arbitrary application of color, for most of these figure studies, when painted, are highlighted with an assortment of bright, sometimes unmixed hues, seemingly selected from his palette in a random fashion and applied in quick, expressionistic gestures of pure color.

Occasionally, Man Ray would direct his attention away from the model to subjects in his immediate environment. These works - usually rendered with brush and ink and probably intended as illustrations - provide a sampling of the activities that took place in life drawing classes at the Ferrer Center. One drawing documents the great variety of individuals who took advantage of classes there: a middle-aged woman, an elderly man, and a young boy are shown diligently at work on their drawings (fig. 28). Another sketch shows a woman drawing at a makeshift easel, her sketch pad propped up against the back of a stool (fig. 29). Finally, a more ambitious drawing depicts two older men reviewing drawings as their students attentively look on (fig. 30). The mustachioed gentlemen in the foreground was probably meant to represent Robert Henri, while the bearded man to his right may have been based on the features of Adolf Wolff, a sculptor and friend of Man Ray's who was distinguished by his sharply trimmed beard and gruff appearance.[7] The scene probably records one of Henri's "quiet" critiques. "Passing around from drawing to drawing," Man Ray recalled years later, "he made gentle, encouraging remarks, but never touched the drawings nor criticized adversely. [8]

The year 1912 marked a period of intense activity for Man Ray at the Ferrer Center. By the winter he was ready to participate in the first group exhibition organized by the artists associated with the Modern School, held at the Ferrer Center from December 28, 1912, through January 13, 1913. It is difficult to establish with precision the works by Man Ray that were shown in this exhibition, although a painting entitled A Study in Nudes (fig. 31) - signed and dated 1912 - was reproduced in a review of the show that appeared in The Modern School, a magazine published by the Ferrer Association.[9] Despite the poor quality of this black-and-white illustration, it can be seen that the harsh delineation usually associated with more academic modeling has been entirely replaced by a softer, more color-oriented approach to the definition of form.

The seven female figures in this painting (as well as a small baby clutching the thigh of the kneeling figure on the right) are reminiscent of the postures and compositional arrangement given to several paintings in the bather series of Cezanne, an artist whose works were just then becoming associated with the most advanced developments of modern painting on both sides of the Atlantic. [10] That the works Man Ray showed in this exhibition did not conform to a unified stylistic approach, however, is confirmed by the comments published by his friend and fellow exhibitor Adolf Wolff: "Man Ray is a youthful alchemist forever in quest of the painter's philosopher's stone," he wrote. "May he never find it, as that would bring an end to his experimentations which are the very condition of living art expression." [11]

Man Ray's stylistic oscillations in this period were aptly matched by the diversity of subjects incorporated in his work, evidenced in part by the range and variety of titles given to the paintings and drawings he showed in the next group exhibition at the Ferrer Center - held only four months after the first, from April 23 to May 7, 1913. This second showing appears to have been a more ambitious undertaking, for over sixty-five works were exhibited and virtually every art student associated with the school participated, including the children, whose works were exhibited alongside those of the adults. The show was even accompanied by a small catalogue (fig. 32), containing a brief introduction by Max Weber and a simple list of the works' titles. [12]

It is difficult to securely identify with known works any of the paintings, drawings, or watercolors shown by Man Ray in this exhibition. Their titles, however, indicate that the subjects were not always derived from tangible elements in the artist's immediate environment and faithfully recorded in a traditional, representational method. Indeed, certain titles suggest that at this time Man Ray was becoming increasingly aware of the potential inherent in a less figuratively dependent approach. Along with works simply entitled Nude, Portrait, Bridge, New York, and The Copper Pot, for example, he showed works with such diverse titles as Amour, Fantasy, Decoration, and Tschaikowsky (the latter of which was most likely an abstract or "abstracted" composition meant to represent the music of the composer, rather than a portrait likeness of the composer himself).[13]

Even before his introduction to the Ferrer Center, Man Ray recalled, he had engaged in many long conversations with an unnamed friend, an aspiring young musician, who argued that music was superior to painting because it was "more mathematical, more logical and abstract." Man Ray remembered complying with this notion, but he claimed that at the time he did not know quite how this principle could be applied to his work, though he acknowledged that it was the germinating factor that later led to his involvement with abstraction. "I agreed," he remarked, "but intended later to paint abstractedly [sic] "[14]

At the Ferrer Center, Man Ray could hardly have avoided continuing conversations along these lines, for the interrelationship of music and art was a favored topic of his friend Manuel Komroff, who was both an artist and a musician. Komroff not only participated in most of the exhibitions held at the Center but also, on Monday evenings, held piano recitals at the school, playing "selections from the great masters."[15] Komroff was the only artist to be represented by more works than Man Ray in the 1913 exhibition at the Ferrer Center, and most of the titles he gave to his paintings and watercolors invoked an analogy to music: Etude in F Minor, Study in C Sharp Minor, Study in the Key of C, etc. In fact, at the time when the exhibition was being held at the center, Komroff published in the school's magazine an article entitled "Art Transfusion," by which term he meant that sculpture, painting, and literature were becoming more and more like music while, at the same time, modern music was increasingly sharing qualities with the visual arts. "As each art is striving to include all the others," he observed, "they are all becoming one." He further postulated that "Nature and art have very little in common," concluding that "true art... is as far removed from earth as space itself "[16]

The potential inherent in abstraction was further expounded upon in Max Weber's introductory essay in the catalogue. One of the older, more established artists who began frequenting the Center in 1912, he was to have a pronounced influence on Man Ray's earliest experiments with modern art. By the time of this exhibition at the Ferrer Center, Weber's familiarity and understanding of the Cubist and Futurist movements in Europe was considerably more advanced than his contemporaries', and he had already begun to experiment with the principles of abstraction in his own work. In his introduction to the catalogue, Weber indicated that he and his fellow painters were on the threshold of a new artistic reality. "Surely there will be new numbers, new weights, new colors, new forms, new odors, new sounds, new echoes, new rhythm of energy, new and bigger range of our sense capacities," he wrote. "We shall paint with the mind eye, the thought eye .... We shall not be bound to visible objects .... We shall put together that which in a material sense is quite impossible." [17] Weber later recalled that he also urged his fellow students "to take time off from the life-class" and, like Henri, suggested that if they wished to capture the energy and heroism of modern times, they should "go out among the people who toil in the mills and shops, go to scenes of bridge construction, foundries, excavation." [18]

On at least one occasion, Man Ray appears to have taken Weber's advice literally. In a lost painting from 1912 entitled Bridgebuilders (fig. 33), the artist has faithfully recorded a group of workmen in the process of hoisting a large cylindrical mass during the construction of a bridge. An equally representational approach was adopted for a small watercolor entitled In Dock (fig. 34), which shows workmen on a suspended scaffold painting the smokestack of a steamship. If we can judge solely by the titles given by Man Ray to works shown in this exhibition at the Ferrer Center, the artist seems to have relied upon themes drawn from city life in a number of other paintings and drawings from this period. Although the work that was entitled New York, for example, cannot be securely identified with an extant painting by the artist, asemblance of its spirit and perhaps even its style might be garnered from a small pen-and-ink drawing from 1912 entitled Skyline (fig. 3), which, as its title suggests, depicts the many bridges and skyscrapers of Manhattan.

Skyline is not a straightforward, naturalistic cityscape but rather a quickly executed sketch that captures the dynamism of a thriving metropolitan center with its overcrowded streets and elaborate transportation network. A series of rectangular piers fans out at the base of the image, and the city's many bridges are shown as if uprooted from their moorings and embedded within its architecture, serving to join the low-lying houses near the piers in the foreground with the towering skyscrapers at the upper center of the image.

The Ferrer Center exhibition received sparse critical acclaim, although Arthur Hoeber, art critic for the New York Globe, mentioned it in his weekly column. In a letter to the newspaper, Man Ray reproached Hoeber for having published an insufficiently prepared review of the show. Among his objections, he accuses the critic of never having actually seen the exhibition, further asserting that Hoeber's entire review was based only on his reading of the catalogue introduction, which Man Ray felt was not intended to express the full variety and diversity of ideas that were represented in the exhibition. "Mr. Hoeber's notice proves," he amusingly concluded, "that even a critic can become creative if only he neglect natural representation." [19]

In the stimulating environment of the Ferrer Center, Man Ray was exposed to the most progressive and revolutionary ideologies of his day; even more than the artistic instruction of his teachers, these ideas would serve to nurture the rebellious attitude already assumed by this young painter. But the artist who would have the greatest effect on the formation of his political ideologies, as well as a profound impact on his personal life, was the Belgian-born anarchist Adolf Wolff, self-proclaimed "poet, sculptor and revolutionist" and, as he himself emphasized, "mostly revolutionist. "[20]

Man Ray met Wolff (or "Loupov," as he is thinly disguised in Man Ray's autobiography) at the Ferrer Center. Like Man Ray, after only a few months of exposure to the workings of the school, Wolff became one of its most active participants. In the evenings he gave a course in French for adults, while on Thursday afternoons he taught art to the children. Learning that Man Ray was unhappy living at home, Wolff offered his young friend a place in which to work, in a small studio he rented on Thirty-fifth Street in Manhattan. Man Ray accepted his friend's invitation, but he did not find the space very conducive to work, for Wolff left the floor wet and dirty, and the studio was filled with his sculptures, drawings, and oil paintings. Moreover, one morning Man Ray entered the small studio only to discover the older artist and a young woman lying together on the studio couch. Wolff laughingly explained that the woman was a model and that they were only trying out a new pose for a sculpture. Man Ray accepted the explanation but realized that he would soon need to find a new place in which to work.

During the mid- to late teens Wolff participated in a number of anarchist demonstrations, several of which resulted in his arrest and imprisonment. This dedication to anarchism was succinctly incorporated in his poems and sculpture of this period. Like his personality, Wolff's poetry was characterized by a crude, unrefined power that reflected his militant temperament, while his sculpture clearly paralleled the most advanced sculptural expressions of the day. The more figuratively dependent works of ca. 1913-1914 are characterized by a basic reduction and simplification of form (fig. 36), doubtlessly inspired by Cubist painting and sculpture, examples of which Wolff would have known from the Armory Show or from exhibitions of progressive European and American art in the New York galleries (Man Ray's response to these exhibitions is discussed in the following chapter). We know that Wolff attended these exhibitions during the 1913-1914 gallery season, for at that time he served for a brief period as an art reviewer for the socialist magazine The International. To this monthly publication he contributed a series of articles entitled "Insurgent Art Notes," presenting his somewhat unorthodox and prosaic reviews of current exhibitions, from the small inaugural show at the Ferrer Center to important, larger exhibitions of modern art at the better-known galleries in Manhattan.

In the same period when Wolff was writing for The International, Man Ray provided the cover illustration for at least three numbers of this socialist review (fig. 37), a design that is repeated with different colored backgrounds on the March, April, and May 1914 issues. Within the circular frames defined by the outstretched and supporting arms of three symmetrical, architectonic figures (somewhat reminiscent of Wolff's Cubist-inspired sculpture), Man Ray has supplied two ink drawings, one of an ocean steamer about to pass through the opening doors of a lift lock, and the second of pyramids and a sphinx in the shadow of a sun-drenched palm. These two seemingly unrelated views may in fact have been a subject of some political importance in 1914, for it was in that year that the Panama Canal, the most important manmade waterway in the Western Hemisphere since the Suez Canal in 1869, was informally opened; together, these two canals created a single round-the-world sea passage, regarded strategically as an especially important transportation route during the war.[21]

In addition to these covers for The International, Man Ray's only other known contribution to leftist politics came in the form of two political cartoons he designed for covers of Mother Earth, the radical periodical edited by Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman, whose offices were just a few blocks away from the Ferrer School. [22] The first of these covers (fig. 38) shows a giant two-headed dragon tugging at opposite ends of a figure labeled HUMANITY, while the separate heads of the monstrous beast are identified by the labels CAPITALISM and GOVERNMENT. The illustration makes it clear that Man Ray considered the individual powerless against the larger ideological forces that ultimately control man's destiny. It should be noted that this drawing appeared on the cover of the August 1914 issue of the magazine, precisely the month when it became clear that the European war would reach worldwide proportions. This issue also carried, on its title page, a poem by Adolf Wolff entitled simply "War," where, in a strongly anarchist tone, law and order are denounced as the very causes of death and destruction.

The next issue of Mother Earth carried Man Ray's drawing of two prisoners in striped garb (fig. 39), positioned in such a fashion that their uniforms complete the stripes of an American flag. The staff of the flag is comprised of a crucifix, while the stars are composed of mortar blasts in a violent battle scene. More than the obvious reference to the plight of political prisoners evoked by this image, it is the visual pun incorporated in its design that lends the drawing such strength.

Throughout his life, Man Ray would frequently acknowledge the importance of the anarchist ideals he had been exposed to while taking classes at the Ferrer Center. But by the time he had been asked to contribute illustrations to The International and Mother Earth, he had already been introduced to the most advanced artistic manifestations of his day, providing him with the means by which to express - both verbally and visually - his commitment to the aesthetics of modernism.



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 pp. 19-20. On the Ferrer School, see Paul Avrich, The Modern School Movement: Anarchism and Education in the United States (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980), and Ann Uhry Abrams, "The Ferrer Center: New York's Unique Meeting of Anarchism and the Arts," New York History 59, no. 3 (July 1978), pp. 306-325. A major portion of the present chapter was previously published as Francis M. Naumann, "Man Ray and the Ferrer Center: Art and Anarchy in the Pre-Dada Period," Dada/Surrealism 14 (Iowa City, 1985), pp.10-30; reprinted in Rudolf E. Kuenzli, ed., New York Dada (New York: Willis Locker & Owens, 1986), pp. 10-30.

2. SP, p.23.

3. Noteworthy exceptions are William Innes Homer, Robert Henri and His Circle (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1969), pp. 179-182, and Avrich, Modern School, pp. 45-153.

4. On Bellows's association with anarchists and anarchism, see Charles H. Morgan, George Bellows, Painter of America (New York: Reynal, 1965), pp. 153-154, and Avrich, Modern School, p. 149. In 1917 Bellows so sympathized with the American war effort that he volunteered for service in the Tank Corps and devoted his artistic efforts to illustrating the atrocities of the European conflict (see George Bellows and the War Series of 1918 [New York: Hirschl & Adler Galleries, March 19-April 16, 1983]).

5. Emma Goldman, Living My Life (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1931), pp. 528-529 (quoted in Avrich, Modern School, p. 149).

6. SP, p. 23. Man Ray thought of illustrating his autobiography with one of these drawings but told Ariel Durant that he had decided against it, for fear that it might offend her or her husband (see Will and Ariel Durant, A Dual Autobiography [New York: Simon & Schuster, 1977], pp. 83, 390).

7. The basis for establishing the identities of these figures is primarily circumstantial, although their indistinctly rendered features bear a vague resemblance to photographs of these artists from this period; see the photograph of Henri instructing art students in a night class at the New York School of Art, 1907 (reproduced in Homer, Robert Henri, fig. 19), where, coincidentally, Henri strikes a pose remarkably similar to the position given in the Man Ray drawing; a photographic portrait of Wolff appears in an article by André Tridon, "Adolf Wolff: A Sculptor of To-Morrow," International 8, no. 3 (March 1914), p. 86. Wolff's politics and art will have a profound effect on the ideas and work of ManRay in this period, a topic that will be discussed at greater length below.

8. SP, pp.22-23.

9. See Adolf Wolff, "The Art Exhibit," Modern School 4 (Spring 1913), p. 11.

10 On the early appreciation of Cezanne in America, see John Rewald, Cezanne and America: Dealers, Collectors, Artists, and Critics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989).

11.. Adolf Wolff, "Art Notes," International 8, no. 1 (January 1914), p. 21.

12. Exhibition of Paintings and Water Colors at the Modern School, 63 East 107th Street, New York, April 23-May 7, 1913, n.p. (a copy of this rare catalogue is preserved in the Papers of Forbes Watson, Archives of American Art, microfilm roll no. D57, frames 474-476).

13. The Copper Pot may refer to the large brass bowl filled with dried foliage, a motif that became a trademark of Alfred Stieglitz's 291 Gallery, which Man Ray had begun to frequent at this time (see next chapter and William Innes Homer, Alfred Stieglitz and the American Avant-Garde [Boston: New York Graphic Society, 1977], p. 46; for an illustration of this vessel, see p. 198, fig. 93).

14. SP, p.14.

15. Avrich, Modern School, p. 90.

16. Manuel Komroff, "Art Transfusion," Modern School 4 (Spring 1913), pp. 12-15.

17. Max Weber, untitled introduction to the Modern School catalogue (see n. 12, above).

18. Quoted in Lloyd Goodrich, Max Weber (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1949), p. 46 (also cited in Avrich, Modern School, p. 155).

19. Man Ray's letter was dated May 3 [1913] and appeared in the New York Globe and Commercial Advertiser on May 9, 1913, p. 10. He was responding to Hoeber's article "Art and Artists," the New York Globe and Commercial Advertiser, May 2, 1913, p. 10.

20. See Francis M. Naumann and Paul Avrich, "Adolf Wolff, 'Poet, Sculptor and Revolutionist, but Mostly Revolutionist,'" Art Bulletin 67, no. 3 (September 1985), pp. 486-500.

21. Although it was not until August of 1914 that the Panama Canal was informally opened, the United States had been engaged in its excavation since 1906.

22. Mother Earth (1914), nos. 6 (August), 7 (September); while Man Ray only designed these two covers for the magazine, the masthead he designed for the title was retained throughout the duration of its publication.


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