Shakespearean

When Man Ray fled the German occupa-tion of Paris in 1940, he relocated to Hollywood—and created a body of work as weird and titillating as his new surroundings. In the resulting series of 23 paintings, mysterious curving forms that look like abstracted human body parts float in empty, theatrically lit spaces. The artist tagged these pieces with the titles of the Bard’s famous plays, sparking playful, erotic, and disturbing associations.

“Hamlet” (1949) features a luminous white wedge, recalling either the skull of Yorick, exhumed in Act Five of the play, or doomed Ophelia’s breast: One bulging corner of the object has a pinkish, areola-like shadow. “Othello” (1948) confronts viewers with a shadowy visage, all hollowed-out eyes and protruding mouth, like an African mask wrapped in ropes or wires. And in “Antony and Cleopatra” (1948), two objects stand side by side, one composed of strong colors and sharp points like a crown or ceremonial headdress, the other resembling an armored torso sporting a giant drooping phallus.

While the grotesqueries and staginess of Ray’s “Shakespearean Equations” fit his California exile, these paintings actually reflect a subject the artist had already explored years ago as an American expat in France. In 1934, Ray had visited the Institut Henri Poincaré in Paris to photograph its dusty collection of geometric models. Made of wood, wire, and plaster, these objects were meant to help students visualize mathematical concepts. “I went to see them, although I am not particularly interested in mathematics,” he said in a 1961 interview. “I didn’t understand a thing, but the shapes were so unusual, as revolutionary as anything that is being done today in painting or in sculpture.”

On view at the Phillips Collection through May 10, “Human Equations: A Journey from Mathematics to Shakespeare” offers a thorough unpacking of the motifs Ray brought with him to Hollywood from Paris. Fourteen of the “Shakespearean Equations” are displayed alongside the photos on which they’re based, as well as the original mathematical models. With more than 125 pieces, the show chronicles the artist’s development and demonstrates how he operated across multiple mediums, from found objects to photography to paint on canvas.

Perhaps more importantly, the show also indicates the limitations of Surrealism and modern art in the mid-20th century. For Ray, the products of science, literature, and other world cultures existed mainly as interchangeable fodder for visual puns—no context or greater understanding was required.

Although he was trained as a draftsman and worked as a painter, Ray sought automatic, de-skilled methods for image-making early in his career. His main focus was the weird, anthropomorphized aura of unfamiliar objects. “Composition with Key and Triangle” (1919) is an early breakthrough: a painting produced by placing tools on a small sheet of paper and spraying ink at them. When the tools were removed, the result was a page filled with ghostly silhouettes.

As Ray gravitated toward photography in the 1920s, he developed Rayographs—camera-less photos made by objects arranged on photosensitive paper. With light alone, Ray could generate inscrutable contours and playful slippage between figure and ground, positive and negative.

Mind you, Ray’s goal was not abstraction per se. In fact, in the Surrealist camp, non-objective art was a bit of a no-no. As the movement’s founder André Breton once said: “It is impossible for me to envisage a picture as being other than a window… my first concern is then to know what it looks out on.’’

Breton thought Surrealist painting should focus on the imitation of nature—a fairly conservative notion to be tossing around in the 20th century. Surrealism’s revolutionary tendencies were all in the content. In his 1924 manifesto, Breton defined Surrealism as “pure psychic automatism by means of which one intends to express… the actual functionality of thought.” Surrealists didn’t do away with representation, but they did bring dream imagery and reality together.

As a Surrealist, Ray was committed to recording and depicting experiences with bodies and objects. Yet the actual subjects he chose mattered very little to him; they merely served as tools for his creative liberties. Thus, in 1926, when he photographed a mask from the Sepik River region of New Guinea, his main concern was dramatic lighting. In the photo, the mask appears to be emerging from the darkness, a disembodied head defined by strong tonal contrasts and deep shadows. Similarly, in “Black and White” (1926), a mask from the Ivory Coast is clutched by a bare-shouldered white female model; eyes closed, she rests her head on a table next to it. Any critical acknowledgment of either mask’s history or relationship to French colonialism is absent.

Ray took the same approach to photographing the collection at the Institut. In his original “Mathematical Objects” (1934-35), models are depicted in pairs or on top of one another, partly enveloped in or emerging from shadow. As mathematics professor François Apéry explains in the exhibition catalog, mathematically speaking, these paired models typically have nothing to do with one another. In fact, he points out that one form Ray singled out for aesthetic contemplation isn’t a model at all: “…the object on the right has no more (or less) mathematical significance than the stretcher of a canvas does for a painting; it is in fact the supporting base belonging to another model…”

When cropped versions of the photos were published in Cahiers d’Art in May of 1936, Breton himself thought the objects needed an extra Surrealist kick, and proposed giving them poetic titles like “Hypnotic Sleep,” “The Rose Penitents,” and “The Abandoned Novel.” Ray declined, but clearly the idea stayed with him. A decade later and a continent away, he decided to see what else he could squeeze from the series.

The resulting “Shakespearean Equations” include a few extraneous elements not in the original photos—the occasional butterfly or chess piece, for example. In the background of “Julius Caesar” (1948), a blackboard has a few algebraic formulas scrawled across it; one appears to be the square root of the artist’s name. Otherwise, the canvases are relatively faithful to the photos, and executed in an unglamorous, matter-of-fact way. In Hollywood, Ray may have been eager to return to painting, but he resisted the opportunities oil paint offers for delectation. Throughout the series, Ray marries loose, facile-looking black outlines to thin scrubbed areas of washed-out color or shadow.

Despite some clear affinities between the images and the plays, Ray seems to have picked them with the same randomness Breton applied to his own suggestions. Apparently Ray enjoyed asking viewers to try to match titles to paintings themselves. As he said during a lecture in 1954: “Sometimes they got it right; sometimes, of course, they didn’t, and it was just as well.”

Shakespeare was likely not any more important to Ray than Dogon masks, disemboweled lamp shades, or plaster casts of the Venus de’ Medici, all of which appeared in his work over the years. At the Phillips Collection, viewers can follow the threads of Ray’s visual attractions and see how the artist wove them together. The resulting show offers puns, puzzles, and plenty of charm—but one wonders if that’s really enough.

1600 21st St. NW. $10-$12. (202) 387-2151. phillipscollection.org