Abstraction by Ray

Sanjana Malhotra
Jul 10, 2013 12:06AM

Man Ray’s versatile nature make him stands out, even among the many bold artists featured in the “Inventing Abstraction, 1910-1925” show at the Museum of Modern Art. It is this versatility that enables him to apply the techniques employed in one medium to another, in order to create works that transcend categorization. In his work titled “Aerograph” (1919), Man Ray points to the demise of traditional modes of artistic production while simultaneously transforming the realm of painting for the future.

This work defies tradition in many ways, but also refers to it. The first thing that strikes the viewer is its unconventional oval shape. The shape influences the placement of the elements in the work and also the manner in which they are perceived. The vertical central element is seen as the dominant figure, as it is highlighted by the dearth of pigment, and deliberate shadows around it. This in turn leads the viewer to focus on the phallic nature of this shape and lends an air of eroticism to the work, even though the MoMA’s placard informs us that it is a representation of a wooden sculpture made by Man Ray himself.  The central element seems to be iridescent, both because it is highlighted and because the surrounding lines start from it and extend outwards, towards the edges of the board. All the elements in the work are associated with this central element as they overlap. There is symmetry and balance in the work the representation of the sculpture forms the central axis of the work and all other elements are clustered towards the center of the oval; only a few reach out towards the periphery.

Unlike in the works by the Russian Avant-Garde artist, such as Malevich, there is a separation between figure and ground in Man Ray’s “Aerograph” despite its hazy, shadowy quality. But this shadowy quality in turn actually links Man Ray’s work to the Russian artists because it comments on the commodity culture by emphasizing the transience of products, all that is left behind a vague trace. Leaving aside the central element, “Aerograph” appears to be mainly non-representational, and refers to the cubist style as it features fragmented, faceted elements as well as a monochrome palette, but it moves away from cubism due the presence of curved lines. The work also refers to the Renaissance through its use of chiaroscuro, but moves away from the tradition as the representation is non- representational, 2-dimensional and light seems to emanate from ambiguous sources.

Man Ray’s experience as a commercial artist and as a photographer enables him to further defy tradition through this work. His use of the airbrush challenges the traditional use of the paintbrush and separates him from the artwork. It not only leads to actual distance between the tool of production and the surface of the artwork but also separates the artist from the world of art, as the airbrush is a mechanical tool associated with industry.

While the work is mostly consonant with Dada ideology, as it defies tradition in many ways, it can also be associated with surrealism. It is especially similar to surrealist photography because it appears to have undergone solarization, the photographic process employed by many surrealist photographers, that leads to emphatic variations in tone, but also features an element that can be interpreted as sexual, thus tapping into the realm of the unconscious and refers to Freud’s theories which played a pivotal role in the surrealist movement.

On the other hand, the work may not be considered to be surrealist as it is not a spontaneous creation. In fact the work required a high degree of awareness, both in its conceptualization and in its execution. Since the airbrush is used, it means that the shapes must be predetermined because templates have to be used to create them. The play of light and shadow seen in the work and the way in which certain elements fade into the background is only achieved through careful use of the airbrush, because the distance from which the airbrush is used influences the intensity of the color. As a result, Man Ray’s “Aerograph” resists association with a single movement.

Through the combination of the medium and subject matter, Man Ray’s “Aerograph” (1919) succeeds in referring to the past by incorporating cubist elements and also hinting at the end of traditional painting, just as works by Malevich and Rodchenko did, and then goes on to gesture to the future of art by breaking norms through the use of a non-traditional tool. In doing so, Man Ray dissolves the barriers of what is considered to be “high art” and sets the stage for further experimentation.

Sanjana Malhotra