Art Genève 2020
One of the best kept secrets about Man Ray is that he was a printmaker for nearly his entire professional career as an artist. His first artistic incursion into the medium (prior to that he had briefly held a job etching his drawings onto silver umbrella handles) was the 1914 hand-printed booklet of poems with wood block images that he made for Adon Lacroix, his first wife.
Man Ray began taking photographs during the same period, initially to document his paintings and sculptures. However, he soon began to experiment and use photographic techniques to make cliché verre prints, or what he referred to as glass etchings. Man Ray drew directly on the black surface of an exposed glass negative, incising it with a pointed instrument, and developed the image using photochemistry. While it was Man Ray’s photography that would go on to bring him fame and a modus vivendi, he produced graphic work through his life, making prints and illustrated books concurrent with his broad-ranging work in other media.
Printmaking satisfied a need in Man Ray that could not be fulfilled by any other means: it offered him the freedom to disseminate his ideas to a much larger and broader audience, one that he could not reach with only his paintings, drawings and sculptures. Man Ray’s reiteration of themes and ideas was intentional, and printmaking was the perfect tool for creating multiple impressions on paper.
In the graphic media, Man Ray continued to revisit and revive ideas expressed in earlier work. Discussing his prints in an interview, he said:
“There are no dates in my career. I have several mediums at my fingertips. Photography was just as incidental as painting was, or writing, or making sculptures, or just talking.”
Spanning two continents and various generations of artists, Man Ray’s work in prints parallels the history of 20th-century printmaking. He worked within the grand print tradition in Europe at old family-run ateliers in Paris, producing illustrated books in collaboration with many of his surrealist colleagues, including Louis Aragón, André Breton, Marcel Duchamp, Paul Éluard and Tristan Tzara. In Paris, Man Ray also made pochoir prints, a stencil technique used in ateliers and a clear predecessor to the screenprint boom forty years later.
While still living in France, Man Ray illustrated and exhibited books. In 1938, for example, his Revolving Doors portfolio was shown at the Brooklyn Museum in a curiously unknown, yet landmark exhibition on the abstract in prints.
In 1940, Man Ray brought his knowledge and expertise of printmaking with him to the United States, where he was forced to return due to the German Occupation of Paris. Clinton Adams, co-founder of the Tamarind Lithography Workshop in 1960, remembers working with Man Ray in 1948 at Lynton Kistler’s print workshop in Los Angeles. Adams credits him with introducing a new lithographic technique, the rainbow roll, which blends ink colors to create a rainbow-like effect. The method became standard practice in the burgeoning fine art print world in the 1960s. In the 1970s, Man Ray used a similar multihued effect in his portfolio of eleven prints, Anatoms, created this time with the use of various colored resins in aquatint.
In 1966, Man Ray was among the first artists to work with printer Kenneth Tyler at the newly founded Gemini G.E.L. workshop in Los Angeles. Man Ray has never been properly credited for his experimentation with materials there: printing in the newly revived screen-print technique, and using cast acrylic sheeting instead of paper as a support. His early exploration into materials and processes has been undervalued in the print world (credit for that has gone largely to the ?emerging Pop artists who worked at Gemini in the late 60s). At age 76, Man Ray was a legend, but many were incapable of considering him a groundbreaker in the world of art.
Man Ray’s prints in this exhibition are prescient, showing foresight about the direction in which printmaking was moving. By the 1960s, fine art prints were no longer the domain of artists who went to Europe to work in ateliers. In the States, print shops had spread from coast to coast and were emphasizing experimentation and the collaborative aspect of artists and printers in creating elegantly produced artistic editions. Pop artists, like Andy Warhol, expanded printmaking in other directions. It became more about dissemination, using standard photomechanical methods that had earlier been disdained by the print cognoscenti.
Much of the critical discourse about Man Ray’s graphic production has centered around process, and its validity in the fine art print market. The distinctions between “manual” and “mechanical” did not interest Man Ray. Ironically, after having contributed to the revival of the medium, Man Ray’s prints were later judged by new standards of excellence and professionalism and notions of originality established by dealers and the dynamic new print shops that had sprung up across the United States. By then, Man Ray was back in Europe and making large numbers of individual prints and portfolios in Italy and France. Reaction to his work in America, Man Ray enjoyed a much more heartfelt response in Europe; he felt that the critics there better understood him.
During the last ten years of his life, Man Ray made a conscious choice not to work on new ideas, but instead to re-establish and confirm the importance of his own earlier work. Radical and revolutionary for his time, favoring concept over laborious execution, his use of the printmaking media as a means of conveying ideas anticipated the art world’s transition away from an emphasis on technique.
Throughout his career, Man Ray employed whatever medium best suited his needs. In 1970, when he recalled what motivated his involvement with printmaking, he said:
“I made prints of what I could not photograph, just as I always photographed what I did not wish to draw. This method allowed me to maintain a free spirit.”