Man Ray (1890-1976) is renowned by the great majority today as a photographer. But in fact he was one of the most productive and versatile artists of the twentieth century. While he has long been celebrated as an icon in the USA, in Europe scanty attention has been paid to his complete oeuvre until now.
The exhibition in the Bank Austria Kunstforum Wien
aims to reverse this situation by spotlighting the universal artist Man Ray. Around 200 works from international lenders, including the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum in New York, the Centre Pompidou in Paris, the Tate London, the Collection Marion Meyer in Paris and the Fondazione Marconi in Milan, show Man Ray's pioneering intermedial and therefore extraordinarily contemporary approach. Painting, photography, drawing, assemblage, aerography, film, book and object art - there is practically no medium in which Man Ray didn't work: accordingly, this gives rise to a multifaceted, poetic and often humorous panorama, enabling us to get to know the "complete Man Ray" for the first time.
Man Ray was born in 1890 as Emmanuel Radnitzky in Philadelphia and died in 1976 in Paris at the age of 86; in his delight in experiment and sheer unending wealth of ideas he shaped how and what is seen as "art" today. Even during his schooldays Man Ray was fascinated by technical drawing. The exhibition starts out with Man Ray's early work, hardly known in Europe, which includes abstract-technical studies as well as the paintings he produced during his stay in the artists' colony in Ridgefield (1913-1915) and are strongly influenced by Fauvism and Cubism. The search for his own visual vocabulary continued on his return to New York, where he turned his attention to photography and the artistic potential of everyday objects. His collaboration and lifelong friendship with Marcel Duchamp produced congenial works that question concepts like "original" and "documentation" and blurred sexual boundaries, for instance by posing in front of the camera in female clothing.
In their work together Man Ray and Duchamp were already anticipating in the 1910s the dawn of concept and body art.
In 1921 Man Ray came to Paris - the Dadaists and Surrealists were delighted to welcome him amongst them. Without aligning himself to a group, however, he worked closely together with Tristan Tzara and André Breton. Gradually Man Ray advanced to become one of the most successful photographers in the city. Besides his artistic work he also accepted commercial commissions and photographed innovative fashion series for magazines such as "Harper's Bazaar" and "Vogue". His experiments in the dark room led to the "discovery" of rayography - Man Ray's form of the photogram, a cameraless photographic technique - and to the development of solarisation, together with the artist Lee Miller, who was his partner from 1929 to 1932.
The main room of the Bank Austria Kunstforum Wien is devoted to intermedia - a practice taken for granted today in contemporary art. Man Ray evidently hovered effortlessly between object, photography, painting and drawing - always endeavouring to lend the most fitting artistic expression to his current idea. He transformed objects like household utensils or musical instruments into mysterious objects, which he transposed into photography and paintings (and vice versa). Man Ray's films are shown in a cinema designed especially for the exhibition; produced in the 1920s, they had a formative influence on the aesthetic of the avant-garde film.
In the late 1930s Man Ray returned to painting and addressed the threat to Europe from the Nazis in paintings that are today nothing less than prophetic; the show gathers together the most striking examples - including "La Fortune", the billiard table that seemingly decides the future of Europe.
In conclusion, the exhibition deals in depth with the still enduring reception of Man Ray, thus spotlighting the modernity of his visual imagery and compositions. Like hardly any other artist, Man Ray has shaped our (everyday) culture in music videos, fashion, cosmetics, films, graphic novels, furnishings and advertising campaigns.
Hence the exhibition stresses Man Ray's role as pioneer of intermedia, an artist who never felt he belonged to a style or artists' group, who time after time re-invented himself in the embodiment of his ideas in extremely diverse media, and thus even today evades any kind of categorisation.