BooksWeekend

Reader’s Diary: Man Ray’s ‘Writings on Art’

Jennifer Mundy acknowledges in her Preface to Man Ray’s Writings on Art that, compared to his friends Duchamp and Picabia, he has come to be seen as something of a lightweight. And so he may be. But would one really have it otherwise? Although he could become bitter reflecting that even his friends were probably thinking, “Great photographer, lousy painter,” his lightness is his charm, and despite his considerable output, he often succeeded in his ambition to produce “an effortless smile that illumines the world, and […] an impression of tremendous production with an hour’s work a day.” This compendium, a worthy companion to his 1963 Self Portrait, is a gathering of notes, letters, replies to questionnaires, and other mostly informal or ephemeral writings, with just a few “finished” statements or essays. Most substantial is the “Hollywood Album,” a sort of diary of the mind he kept in the 1940s, a collection of epigrams and musings that would have made a great book in itself had he ever bothered to give it a final form. But would he even have wanted to read it, had it been written by someone else? In 1931, in Paris, he’d said, “I only read books sent to me, books by my friends […] I always want to stay a bit gauche, with something of the feel of a child or a beginner.” This volume, heavy rather than light, edited with the spirit of seriousness, might be a bit too much of a good thing — but better too much than too little. One can learn much from it — for instance, “to think that the painting you came to see was perhaps already expecting you,—that this painting which you came to see, which you thought had been painted for you to look at had in reality been painted to do most of the looking.” But here’s a puzzle: Why the long useless glosses after each text, recapping what one has just read? And as for useless annotation, there’s the complaint to be lodged against most such scholarly efforts: What’s the point of informing the reader, when the author mentions Schopenhauer, for instance, that his first name was Arthur and his dates were 1786-1860? If the note has no substantive content, dear editors, please omit it! This book could have been a hundred pages shorter, half a pound lighter, and ten dollars cheaper, retaining all of Man Ray’s words and just the necessary minimum of the editor’s.

Man Ray: Writings on Art, ed. by Jennifer Mundy (2016) is published by The Getty Research Institute and is available from Amazon and other online booksellers.

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