Man Ray’s LA
through February 17
Gagosian Gallery, Beverly Hills
By Shana Nys Dambrot
Upstairs at Gagosian Gallery’s Beverly Hills location is a charming and eccentric collection of black and white photographs made by American artistic polymath Man Ray between 1940-1951, during his Los Angeles sojourn. A time in which he also explored painting and other fine art pursuits while he sought refuge from the war in Europe and the personal pressures of an in-demand commercial and fashion photography career that had flourished in Paris. Comprised largely of portraits of the bohemian Hollywood set which were his social circle and occasional “headshot” clients and punctuated by urban landscapes, including many quirky pieces of architecture that continue to capture our modern shutterbugs’ attentions, as well as occasional candid shots and set-piece self-portraits, the collection provides a loose chronicle of this aspect of his activities here. It hints at what were perhaps his attempts to both move past and also transfer his iconic techniques and commercial skill sets to the more languidly paced lifestyle which LA perennially promises. This he accomplishes with varying degrees of complexity and impact, while at the same time, it seems possible to glean from the images that — like so many artists and writers who sought the mirage of the LA oasis at the time — he never felt fully settled in his temporary home.
An American by birth but a Parisian by choice, this dual perspective must certainly have been operative on what to expect from his time in LA, and inevitably this would have conflicted with the reality. But in the meantime, certain of these works also articulate the energetic charge that can come from conflict and disorientation, and the overwhelming sunniness of the landscape, ecology, and social dispositions of the friends he made here. A 1943 portrait of his friend and local host, Juliet au Chapeau de Soleil is a masterful, almost architectural construction of translucent planes and dappled sunlight, an elegant and complicated composition that synthesizes his abstract and formal interests in portraiture. Likewise, the striking 1944 portrait Teresa Wright, Film Star juxtaposes the elegant cut of the woman’s fashion-forward sartoria with the angles and volumes of pre-Columbian art — a favorite motif of Ray’s throughout his career.
A moving, contemplative and profoundly emotional portrait of the artist Noguchi from 1941 is one of the most apparently personal, empathetic and narrative works included, as is Ray’s unsettling, surreal and almost confrontationally strange Self-Portrait with Half Beard from 1943, which in its rough humor hearkens back to the avant-garde whimsy of his previous life among the Parisian avant-garde. A charming candid shot of Ray and Duchamp hanging out on a curbside on what appears to be a Paris-themed movie backlot, and a few wittily constructed self-portraits in his studio including an Escher-inspired fish-eye view and a garden party attended by Igor Stravinsky, give a glimpse into the quality of daily life in LA for the artist.
Perhaps the most fascinating image is the 1994 portrait Marjorie in which a young woman poses in the open door of a beach house, her tall form leaning against the glass pane, dividing the image firmly in half, in fact in quadrants as the flat ocean horizon crisscrosses the architectural frame. Her head against the glass, her hips tilted slightly forward, Man Ray captures the battery of light both on her face and front and bouncing around behind her, so that she seems enveloped by its angles. The overall effect is one of forced unity between human, architecture, and nature — perhaps itself a commentary on how life and aesthetics in LA are organized and experienced. Man Ray left Los Angeles in 1951, returning to Paris, where he lived until his death in 1976. Although more interesting for the biographical insights than perhaps on the individual strength of each image, in this collection and in the larger body of work in other media, especially surrealist painting, which he pursued during this time, we see the unfolding of an experience that surely never left him.
456 N Camden Drive, Beverly Hills, CA