By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
© Man Ray Trust"A Practical Dreamer: The Photographs of Man Ray" -- at least the third major retrospective locally accorded modernism's main Man in this decade -- proffers a body of work that was avant-garde, even controversial, in its day and is still good-looking and interesting, however softened by the patina of time. The Getty's Ray array numbers more than a hundred items, arranged chronologically and grouped according to locales -- New York, Paris, Los Angeles (but not Paris the second time around, thus lopping off the artist's last quarter-century) -- and, remarkably, all belonging to the museum. Indeed, this is the single most awe-inspiring thing about "A Practical Dreamer": not that one person is responsible for so varied a march of pictures, but that one institution owns them all -- and some 200 others besides.
Next time the Getty does a Ray show, however, it would be well advised to assemble a smaller selection, one that documents not the Man's history, but the themes, forms and/or methods that recur consistently in his oeuvre. The most engaging passages in "A Practical Dreamer" are those that trace a certain continuity, by accident or by design. A suite of "Rayographs" commissioned by the Paris electric company CPDE, for instance, shows how deftly Ray could apply the technique he discovered (but did not invent) -- creating multi-image silhouettes by exposing photographic paper with objects resting on it -- to a given theme.
Similarly, a cluster of portrait photographs, also from the Paris years, lets us see how Ray flattered the egos of his sitters, all the while satisfying his own. He regarded such dignitaries as Sinclair Lewis, Joan Miró, Tristan Tzara and the Marquise Casati (an eccentric art patron) as colleagues and as friends. His portrayals of them were spirited collaborations in which both their lives and the props of his studio served as grace notes to their own responses to his camera.
Like the spritz of champagne opened long ago, the éclat of Ray's much-vaunted radicality has mostly (but not entirely) evaporated. What remains impressive in the photographs is Ray's dogged and largely successful avoidance of conventionality. A career-spanning selection of prints, paintings, assemblages and, yes, photos at Robert Berman's Bergamot space actually points more avidly than the Getty exhibition at Ray's bad-boyishness, assuring us that his later years were as puckish as his earlier ones. The selection is a mere shadow of the retrospective Berman and Track 16 mounted three years ago, but it touches all the bases and tidily complements the Getty survey.
If the Man born Emmanuel Radnitsky was the voice of diffident yet elegant Dadaism and Surrealism in various places at various times, the man born Eliezer Lissitzky in the same year (1890) was the voice of passionate yet coherent Constructivism in various other places and at many of the same times. As an American, Ray was able to buck the political tempests of his era; as a Russian, Lissitzky responded fervently to them and, ultimately, became one of their myriad victims. Before his untimely death -- back in the USSR, in midWorld War II -- Lissitzky had studied, worked, proselytized and made connections over much of Europe, in particular in Germany, where he studied architectural engineering in his youth, and where he found his closest non-Russian artistic compeers among the mad rationalists of the Bauhaus and the rational madmen of Dada.
Like Ray, Lissitzky gravitated to where the innovation was and was adept at seizing the means of invention and running with them -- often to visionary ends. He was able, for instance, to evolve the tumult of Russian Futurism into a distinctive style that he applied with particular verve to illustrating books. As such, he was a key figure in the renaissance of Yiddish publishing during the first years of the Soviet Union. Lissitzky even created geometrized stylizations of Hebrew, as well as Cyrillic and Latin, letters. Out of those publishing projects, he devised Constructivist typographies and methods of non-objective storytelling which, to this day, beg to move from storyboard (or chapbook) to animation screen.
"Monuments of the Future: Designs by El Lissitzky" looks at all the aspects of Lissitzky's work with functional objects, from his earliest poetry pamphlets to his attempts to inject a little Constructivist vim into the Stalin-ridden monumental realism. The show has his "Proun" structures and plans for the Room for Constructivist Art; his series of lithographs based on the Futurist opera Victory Over the Sun; drawings for the still-radical "Cloud-iron" concept he proposed for a Moscow office building; and vintage photo documentation of the elaborate and dynamic displays for trade and technical fairs he created in the late 1920s and '30s. It's all here but the painting and sculpture.
Pretty amazing what a tubercular little guy from Smolensk can accomplish in 51 brief years. Amazing, again, that the Getty owns it all. This particular collection reposes in the Getty's Research Institute, entirely separate from the museum, and is normally available to scholars; through the better part of February, it's available for everyone's perusal. It hangs in the Institute's exhibition gallery, installed in a handsome, multilinear manner that pays homage to Lissitzky and his Constructivist comrades by turning the small, L-shaped space (pun unintended) into a bustling but easily negotiated biographical arc.