Sunday, March 23, 2008

Man Ray 1914

I’ve talked before about some of the ways twentieth century artists turned away from landscape. It is telling, for example, that Marcel Duchamp chose a clichéd landscape image to transform into a readymade artwork, Pharmacy (1914), through the addition of a couple of dabs of paint and a signature. Walking round the superb ‘Duchamp, Man Ray, Picabia’ exhibition at Tate Modern yesterday I read on the wall that Duchamp’s Glider, part of his Bachelor machine, is ‘activated by a waterfall (which Duchamp did not represent as he wanted to avoid the trap of becoming a landscape painter).’ The case of Man Ray is also interesting. The Tate curators say ‘Even before he met Duchamp or Picabia he was playing with the conventional elements of art works: Man Ray 1914 is both a landscape and the artist’s signature.’ This small painting looks at first glance like a cubist landscape, influenced by, say, Cézanne or Braque, but once you read the artist’s name it becomes hard to see it as anything other than a reduction of the modern artwork to its one essential component, the signature. There is a clear affinity with Duchamp's Pharmacy, which was made in the same year.

An interesting article by Edward Leffingwell sets Man Ray 1914 in context. Man Ray had been producing landscapes in New Jersey in 1913: ‘two landscapes from that first winter are distinguished by a tentative, exploratory use of unprimed canvas serving to represent bare fields... With the change of seasons, Man Ray began to produce vibrant landscapes in watercolor and oil that again bring to mind the precedent of Cezanne... The oils Ridgefield Landscape and the more abstracted Ridgefield (both 1913) incorporate receding bands of rolling hills extending to the ridge beyond. The first is largely pastoral, with a repoussoir motif of trees and two farm houses in the foreground and a freight train in the middle distance; the other establishes elongated factory sheds in the foreground and repeats that form in the bands of hills and fields beyond.’ Man Ray subsequently ‘produced a series of watercolors and oils of the Ramapo Hills, in which abstracted arrangements of trees and hills become increasingly Cubistic and also increasingly expressive. In the decorative Elderflowers (1914), relatively large at 30 inches square, he produces an allover field, abstracting the white, saucerlike clusters of blossoms on a dense, crosshatched thicket of leaves. Reduced and compressed to the status of an icon, Man Ray 1914 consists entirely of the date and artist's name, piled up like palisades across the surface of the diminutive oil.’

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