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"DADA of Us All": Man Ray in Hollywood

While we have become accustomed to the noir image of 1940s Los Angeles in the literature of such writers as Raymond Chandler, it is clear that there was another side to the story. Recalling his days in Hollywood, Man Ray said:

It was like some place in the South of France with its palm-bordered streets and low stucco dwellings. Somewhat more prim, less rambling, but at the same time radiant sunshine ... one might retire here, I thought, live and work quietly—why go any farther ... I had a wonderful time, this was the first time in my life when I really felt like I was on vacation.[18]

Man Ray, a founder of New York dada and a central figure in the Paris surrealist group, lived from 1940 to 1951 in Los Angeles, where the artist-dealer William Copley called him "the DADA of us all."[19] Although an American, Man Ray was, in many ways, as much an expatriate on these shores as Ernst and Breton. After escaping occupied France in 1940, he drove across the United States and took up residence on Vine Street, opposite the "All Night" Ranch Market. In 1946 he married the dancer Juliet Browner in a double wedding with Max Ernst and the painter Dorothea Tanning. Walter and Louise Arensberg gave them a reception in their Hollywood home. Ernst painted Double Wedding at Beverly Hills to commemorate the event.[20]


Man Ray was born in Philadelphia in 1890 as Emmanuel Rudnitsky. At the age of twenty-five he met Marcel Duchamp and Francis Picabia in New York, two years after Duchamp's painting Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 caused an uproar at the Armory Show. As friends, he and Duchamp directed the course of New York dada and founded the avant-garde art group Société Anonyme. When Man Ray went to Paris for the first time, in 1921, he was immediately accepted by the group that would later call themselves the surrealists.

Man Ray was extremely prolific in Los Angeles, producing there in ten years more paintings, objects, photographs, and his trademark Rayographs—many of them elaborations of former work—than he had in the prior thirty. Night Sun—Abandoned Playground (1943) is a disquieting narrative, a fusion of his favorite earlier themes with recent events in his California life, alluding to his difficult passage to the United States from occupied Europe. The painting contains typically western images such as a sun setting over the ocean, a white beach, and a cypress tree, but the tree has toppled against a Spanish-style bungalow, apparently the artist's own home. The molecules floating inside the house no doubt refer to Man Ray's neighbor, the Nobel Prize-winning chemist Linus Pauling.[21] Molecular arrangements also appear in other works from this period, such as the collage Optical Longings and Illusions (1943).

Man Ray exhibited his Los Angeles production of surrealist objects, or assemblages in the spirit of readymades, in a 1948 exhibition at the Copley Galleries. These "Objects of My Affection," as the artist called them, were notable examples of the crossover between popular culture and high art in Los Angeles, a form of proto-pop art. His Optical Hopes and Illusions (1944), a mixed-media object composed of a found banjo frame, ball, and mirror, is an ominous toy that makes no sound, referring to Man Ray's thwarted artistic aspirations and the fantasyland of Hollywood.[22]

La Fortune, III (1946), an assemblage composed of a wheel of fortune and a roll of toilet tissue affixed to an upright plank, similarly implied a wiping away of deceit and decay, a scrubbing clean of social veneers. This piece evoked the surrealist "penchant for chance, for the objet trouvé, and for the double entendre."[23]

In his work Man Ray constructed a dada/surrealist metaphor of the ambiguous relationship between the real and the fictive, making reference to the uncertain nature of Hollywood culture and its destinies. He was one of the few artists of the time to respond to Hollywood so directly in his work and perhaps one of the first to address the dark side of the Sunshine Muse.[24]

Man Ray exhibited and lectured extensively on the West Coast (even broadcasting lectures over the radio) beginning in the mid-1940s,[25] but he considered the 1948 exhibition at the Copley Galleries the high point of his sojourn in California. For the opening, the gallery created a Paris café atmosphere. The list of guests gives an idea of the notable artists, musicians, and film people in his circle: Josef yon Sternberg, Edward G. Robinson, Harpo Marx, Fanny Brice, Lorser Feitelson, Helen Lundeberg, Peter Krasnow, George Biddle, Hans Hofmann, Isamu Noguchi, Eugene Berman, Robert,)


Matta, Knud Merrild, Max Ernst, Dorothea Tanning, Igor Stravinsky, Aldous Huxley, Bertolt Brecht, Thomas Mann, Henry Miller, Luis Buñuel, Jean Renoir, and Otto Preminger.[26]

In addition to his objects and assemblages, Man Ray also exhibited a series of paintings, the Shakespearian Equations , derived from his 1930s photographs of the constructions illustrating algebraic equations in the Poincaré Institute in Paris. These spare depictions, which may have opened the way for abstraction in California, are particularly evocative of Lorser Feitelson's Magical Forms series of roughly the same date.

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Journey Into the Sun: California Artists and Surrealism
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