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The most surprising thing about the Phillips Collection’s “Man Ray, African Art and the Modernist Lens” is learning just how common it was for major photographers of the 1920s and 1930s to dabble in African art. Works not just by Man Ray but by Alfred Stieglitz, Walker Evans, Charles Sheeler, Josef Sudek, Andre Kertesz, and more than a dozen others punctuate the exhibit, raising the question of whether the trend is a dynamic mash-up of cultures, a regrettable phase of cultural imperialism, or just a passing fad. If the sculptures are timelessly beautiful, the photographs are more prosaic, with a few notable exceptions: a dramatically lit image by Evans that elevates what is actually a tiny pendant; some fruitful experiments in positive-negative reversal by Man Ray; a Kertesz image of two sculptures resting on a vividly patterned floor; and a series of four frames in which a single Aztec-style figure appears to progress through childbirth, a trick Man Ray accomplished simply by rotating the figure in each successive frame.
THE EXHIBITION IS ON VIEW TUESDAY TO SATURDAY 10 A.M. TO 5 P.M. AND SUNDAY 11 A.M. TO 6 P.M. TO JAN. 10 AT THE PHILLIPS COLLECTION, 1600 21ST ST. NW. WEEKDAYS FREE; WEEKENDS $10–12. (202) 387-2436.