The 86-year-old Man Ray had outlived most of his closest contemporaries when he died in Paris in 1976. Tristan Tzara, the impresario of Dada, conked off on Christmas Day 1963. André Breton, the petty tyrant of surrealism, succumbed to a heart attack in 1966. Marcel Duchamp, Ray’s confidant and sometime collaborator, died in 1968, followed by Picasso in 1973. Salvador Dalí was still alive but had already ripened into florid mediocrity, capped by a pharmaceutical twilight in Spain. As one of the last threads connecting the twentieth century’s major art movements, Ray was owed a dutiful eulogy. But an obituary in The New York Times struck an ambivalent tone. It described him more than once as an “impish” man with a paunch, who had earned a “certain admiration” for his talents. “While paying tribute to his versatility and inventiveness, [critics] felt that he was fundamentally indebted to such other painters as Marcel Duchamp, Franz Marc, Giorgio de Chirico, Braque, Leger and Picasso,” the obituary read.
In his brisk new biography, Man Ray: The Artist and His Shadows, part of the Jewish Lives series from Yale University Press, Arthur Lubow writes that Ray’s “signature was an avoidance of a signature style.” Instead, Ray had technical epiphanies, sometimes stumbled upon by accident, that he exploited with increasing restlessness and often recycled throughout his career. He considered himself a painter above all, but the paintings were footnotes to the airbrush works (aerographs), rayographs, photographs, and sculptural objects that made his reputation. Much of his work shares an absurdist wit. Export Commodity (1920), an olive jar full of steel ball bearings, or the iconic Cadeau (1921), a flatiron on which Ray affixed a row of nails, have a mischievous incongruity. “I was called a humorist, but it was far from my intention to be funny,” Ray once said.
It also wasn’t his intention to play sidekick to other luminaries, but in Lubow’s biography, which takes an ensemble approach, Ray is regularly upstaged by a vivid coterie, including, most exuberantly, Alice Prin, the combustible muse better known as Kiki de Montparnasse. In this company, Ray often comes off as dull and bourgeois—a man who, Lubow notes, wore custom-tailored suits, flicked a Dunhill lighter, and drove a luxury car. By the epilogue, when Lubow cites Ray’s ballooning auction prices as evidence of the artist’s importance, you begin to apprehend the pinched radius of Ray’s genius. To quote Hilton Kramer of the Times, Ray was “a minor figure” in thrall to the heavyweights of cubism, Dada, and surrealism. His achievement is almost entirely bookended by the interwar years in Paris, after which he endured a long fade into self-repetition and triteness.