Man Ray secured his place in art history as a photographer, but he always viewed himself primarily as a painter. So he would no doubt be pleased by the retrospective, “Enigma & Desire: Man Ray Paintings,” which, spanning the course of his 60-year career, excludes photographs and objects to focus solely on paintings.
Like most art students, Man Ray began by depicting what was in front of him. A still life of pitchers and brushes from 1914, made when he was just 24, is representative of the realistic style that he abandoned that year, in the belief (as he writes in his autobiography) that depicting what he saw “might be a hindrance to really creative work.” By the end of the year, he had progressed to a colorful variant of Cubism, exemplified here by “Two Figures (The Lovers)” and “The Rug.” In 1919, using a pressurized spray-paint tank and stencils, he produced “aerographs”— two are in the show — with delicately modulated but mechanically impersonal fields of color.
As a painter, Man Ray never surpassed the exuberant inventiveness of that youthful period in New York and New Jersey. He moved to Paris in 1921, remaining there except for a war-imposed decade of exile in Los Angeles. One of the strongest paintings in this impressive show is “The Wall” (1938), in which jagged fleeing figures read alternately as shadows or fissures, an ominous portent of his own flight and the impending catastrophe.