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Conversion to Modernism: The Early Work of Man Ray


An exhibition featuring approximately 85 paintings and works on paper dating from 1907 through 1919 made by Man Ray (1890-1976) will be on view at the Terra Museum of American Art January 24 through April 4, 2004 in Conversion to Modernism: The Early Work of Man Ray. Man Ray has long been considered one of the most versatile and innovative artists of the twentieth century and this exhibition will explore the significance of his early works. (right: Man Ray, Flowers with a Red Background, 1913, oil on canvas, 24 x 20 inches. Private Collection. Courtesy of Hollis Taggart Galleries, New York. Photo courtesy of Hollis Taggart Galleries. Copyright © 2003 Man Ray Trust/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris)

Crucial for a thorough understanding of Man Ray's artistic development, his early works also play a significant role in our interpretation of the visual arts in America during one of the most important phases of modernism's evolution. Man Ray is seldom remembered as a New Jersey artist, though the years he spent in the Ridgefield, New Jersey environs, amid a lively artist colony, played a seminal role in his becoming a leading modernist with an increasingly conceptual approach to art making. The artist is more known for his intimate association with the French Surrealist group in Paris during the 1920s and 1930s, particularly for his highly inventive and unconventional photographic images.

"Man Ray enjoyed a career that spanned more than fifty years, two continents, and works in many media, and during his early, formative years, he produced a fascinating body of paintings and works on paper that command our attention today." stated Elizabeth Kennedy, Curator, Terra Museum of American Art. "His close friendships with artists of all disciplines necessitated a progressive dialog within the modernism movement."

Conversion to Modernism: The Early Work of Man Ray includes expressive figure studies and Cézannesque landscapes made from observation, as well as Cubist still lifes, and a pivotal series of "imaginary landscapes" based on his recollections of a New Jersey camping trip in 1913. The exhibition will also feature recently discovered photographs taken by Man Ray in Ridgefield, and other rare documentary materials, including copies of the various magazines Man Ray designed and hand printed during his New Jersey years.

The first section of works, dating from 1907 to 1912, will showcase the Philadelphia-born Man Ray's development from his high school years in Brooklyn, to his studies at the Art Students League and the American Academy in New York. His life studies class at the progressive Ferrer Center coincided with his earliest exposure to modern art. The young artist's early mechanical and architectural drawings will be featured, along with his expressive figure studies. As a calligrapher and layout artist for a large publishing company in Manhattan, Man Ray often rushed over on his lunch break to Alfred Stieglitz's groundbreaking Gallery 291 where he was particularly impressed by the 1911 exhibition of Cézanne's watercolors. Man Ray's full conversion to modernism would not occur, however, until his subsequent years spent in New Jersey.

The largest section of the exhibition comprises a significant, yet little-known group of works created during the years 1913 to 1915 when Man Ray lived in a small artist's colony in Grantwood, New Jersey, across the river from Manhattan and a few miles outside of Ridgefield. Man Ray moved to this community in the spring of 1913, shortly after he had seen the grand display of modern art at the Armory Show. In an effort to keep expenses at a minimum, he shared the rent on a small shack with the American painter Samuel Halpert whom he had met in art classes at the Ferrer Center. It was from Halpert that Man Ray drew his first serious inspiration as a painter, and he emulated the artist's utilization of contoured form and brightened palette. Yet, no matter what style the young Man Ray chose to appropriate, the works of this period share one important characteristic: with few exceptions, they were all based on a relatively straightforward figurative adaptation of their subject.

Over time, Man Ray removed himself from direct observation of his subjects -- reducing figures to flat-patterned disarticulated forms -- and his imagery became increasingly abstracted and artificial. The exhibition concludes with a sampling of Man Ray's works from 1916 through 1919 that demonstrates how the ideas and techniques developed in Brooklyn, New York and Ridgefield laid the foundation for his artistic career. (right: Man Ray, Totem, 1914, oil on canvas, 36 x 24 inches, Collection of the Tokyo Fuji Museum of Art, Tokyo, Japan. Copyright © 2003 Man Ray Trust/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris)

Conversion to Modernism: The Early Work of Man Ray, the exhibition's related programs, and catalogue have been made possible, in part, by a grant from the New Jersey Council for the Humanities, a state partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities; The Karma Foundation; Mr. and Mrs. Frank Martucci; Adrian Shelby in memory of Elizabeth Van Wie Penick Schmitz; Marianne and Roy C. Smith; Hollis Taggart Galleries, and anonymous donors. Additional specific support for the catalogue has been provided by Judith Targan, the New Jersey Historical Commission, and the Society for the Preservation of American Modernists. All Museum programs are made possible by the New Jersey State Council on the Arts/Department of State, a partner agency of the National Endowment for the Arts; Judy and Josh Weston, and Museum members. A substantive, fully illustrated catalogue with essays by co-curators Francis M. Naumann, Ph.D. and Gail Stavitsky Ph.D., Chief Curator of the Montclair Art Museum will accompany the exhibition.

Conversion to Modernism: The Early Work of Man Ray is part of MODERN MATTERS, a series of exhibitions and programs spanning summer 2003 through fall 2004 at the Terra Museum of American Art. MODERN MATTERS presents fresh perspectives on early modernism in American art.

The Terra Museum of American Art is dedicated to the understanding and appreciation of the cultural contributions of American artists. Its collection includes notable works by Mary Cassatt, Winslow Homer, Edward Hopper, Georgia O'Keeffe, Maurice Prendergast, John Singer Sargent, James McNeill Whistler, and many others. Each year the Terra Museum of American Art hosts a variety of exhibitions that explore the history, culture, and heritage of American art.

Editor's note: RLM readers may also enjoy reading these articles and essays published earlier:


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