“Americans in Paris: Man Ray,

Gerald Murphy, Stuart Davis, Alexander Calder”

to August 18

In five small galleries, the first exhibit mounted in honor of the Phillips’ 75th anniversary pinpoints Stuart Davis’ infection by jazz, showcases the most charming of Alexander Calder’s sculpture, forces a reassessment of Man Ray’s early work, and provides a sadly complete retrospective of the brief, splendid career of Gerald Murphy. But “Americans in Paris” is perhaps more notable as an embodiment of a fascination with an admittedly formidable artistic scene than for the artifacts, however attractive, it displays. The show presents one version of an aesthetic drama of the early 1900s that has proved endlessly appealing to American viewers of the century’s later years, its story written partly in the verifiable occurrences of history and partly by the creative faculties of cultural memory.

Unraveling “Americans” is analogous to making visual sense of Obstruction, a 1920 Man Ray construction, which dangles over the entrance to the show, in which coat hangers are hung from each other’s ends in a simple geometric progression: We see the components, we know the rules governing their arrangement, but a dizzying disorder reigns once we progress too far from the origin.

On the top floor of the Goh Annex, Murphy starts the show with a wallop. His Watch is 43 square feet of spring-driven, gear-governed mechanical perfection. The stylized representation of the innards of a Mark Cross pocket watch conjures heedless precision, but its creator’s bold graphic talent ensures that a progressive American optimism takes the day. Although he later trained briefly with Natalia Gontcharova as a stage-set decorator, Murphy was no painter at all when he spotted some Picassos in the window of a Paris gallery and decided that modern art was for him. He makes the best case for the transformative effect of the city; he also seems, by virtually any measure, an anomaly. When his son became ill (Patrick would die in 1937 of tuberculosis, his brother, Baoth, in 1935 of spinal meningitis after a more sudden illness) and his father’s business beckoned, Murphy packed away his brushes never to pick them up again, although he lived another 35 years. He made fewer than 15 pictures of which seven survive; all are on display.

Past Murphy’s largest extant work are rooms filled with the intermingled output of all four artists. Calder’s buoyant figurative wire sculptures of performers and acquaintances (a full-figure Josephine Baker and a head of John Graham are standouts) stand next to rows of photograms, dubbed “Rayographs” after their maker, which are interspersed with the bright, textured paintings of Davis, as well as other Murphy canvases.

Paris in the 1920s was certainly the site of great cultural ferment, but this was not a quartet of great originators: The new art was already well into its second act. It is worth recalling what in modernism had already happened by the time Man Ray disembarked and made himself available as photographer to the stars. Abstraction was entering its second decade; analytical cubism had come and gone, having given way to its more decorative, less radical synthetic cousin; the first dada evenings had occurred in Zurich, of all places, while the Great War provided a convincing argument that modernity made little sense.

After the war was over, of course, modernity made a good deal more sense. Ship travel was easy and cheap, Americans were welcomed in France, and the continent made itself available for the education of legions of eager young Yanks. The dollar was strong in the ’20s and got continually stronger relative to the franc, until the 1929 crash brought to an abrupt end a time that for many was clearly a lark.

The Phillips does its best to convey the high spirits. The already cozy galleries are further shrunk, the spaces broken up with temporary walls, a screening area for a couple of May Ray shorts, and a low platform for a large Calder sculpture; the show is best absorbed when it’s difficult to see it all, when a crowd provides appropriate hubbub for the jazz—Duke and Django and Josephine—playing in one room. Conjuring an image of the Parisian art world, however, as a nonstop jazz-and-gin-fueled wingding (although the music was cranked up, the opening sadly offered only a decidedly unsybaritic cash bar) at which a sequence of Americans were the toasts of the town is certainly an appealing one, but it probably does a disservice to the work on display.

“Americans” focuses itself through the choice of a half-dozen “Defining Moments.” These include instants as thrilling as Man Ray’s film debut at the last dada soiree and as decisive as Signac’s resignation from the Salon des Indépendents over the sheer size of a Murphy entry (what kind of American fantasy is that?). But the curator’s choices also encompass episodes as casual as a studio visit (by Calder to Mondrian’s shop) and as mundane as Davis’ cutting the rug to some jazz at the Bal Négre.

This design creates the impression that these were but slivers from the time line of a decade that, start to finish, was unrelentingly fab. And by mingling the work of artists whose lives may have overlapped occasionally but which were hardly inextricable from one another, the show downplays the importance of the individual, at times solitary, development of the art of each. (If you’ve ever either been an artist or lived with one you’re less likely to be surprised how much the artistic enterprise depends on bracingly unglamorous, unpublic, and unsharable work.)

The Phillips isn’t entirely to blame, however, for folding a 10-year span into a dazzling if disparate collection of objects. After all, it’s a technique of which at least one of the artists represented would approve. In New York– Paris, No. 1, Davis employs a painting trick that has been around at least since the Renaissance by condensing different episodes of his trans-Atlantic adventure into a single-frame narrative; he scores stylish-modernist bonus points for synecdoche, employing the top of the Chrysler Building (or is it a fountain pen that looks like the top of the Chrysler Building, as curator Elizabeth Hutton Turner claims?) for New York, a stockinged leg for Paris’ evening entertainments, a fishing boat and a loading dock for harbor and riverside scenes. Most of his work in “Americans” traffics in uncomplicated, stylized vistas of the urban picturesque, but in this picture Davis intensifies and internalizes his experience by making all of it simultaneous, coincident on a single surface.

A different kind of formal juxtaposition was practiced by Man Ray in his “cameraless photography.” Although his later work often fell prey to the glibness and shallowness that made slogging through “Perpetual Motif,” his 1988 Museum of American Art retrospective, such a chore, the Rayographs display a deft touch in their refined arrangements of objects and poetic explorations of opacity and translucence.

The centerpiece of the exhibit is a monumental Calder, Romulus and Remus. At once childlike and mythic, the giant she-wolf is limned entirely in wire—save for her teats, which are furniture knobs of the same type that serve as penises for the suckling twins. Also not to be missed is a video of a much later film of Calder re-enacting his portable circus. From two black trunks erupts an entire world of make-believe: A sword swallower, a lion tamer, trapeze artists and acrobats, seals and an elephant, cowboys and strongmen, all of wire and wood, rubber and cloth are put through their paces inside the ring.

At least when running off to join the circus was the dominant escape fantasy, it was a possible, if unlikely, option. But what to do now, when not merely guts or wherewithal but time itself stands between us and our hearts’ destination? We’ve all grown accustomed to placating ourselves by telescoping narratives, collapsing time with imaginations that have grown irreversibly cinematic. Even catalog essayist Guy Davenport permits himself some wild-eyed and breathless speculative tourism: “The canny sightseer could have seen James Joyce making his way along the rue de l’Odéon, Marcel Proust in his private taxi on the way to Maxim’s, Ezra Pound and Ernest Hemingway in the Luxembourg Gardens, Djuna Barnes at the Café de la Mairie du VIe Arrondissement, and on any bistro terrace along the boulevard Saint Germain you could (if you had a time traveler’s hindsight) see Estlin Cummings, Ford Madox Ford, Man Ray, Picasso.” The page is accompanied by a typically unpeopled Atget view of a Paris street; preferable even to a group shot from an actual gathering, it provides the reader a blank stage set, ready to be populated with one’s favorite cultural heroes.

Perhaps the most telling detail of Davenport’s swoony rant is the way that immodest “any bistro” triggered his critical faculties, prompting deployment of the corrective parenthetical. Though he only stabs at it in his closing paragraphs, in which he admits in passing that “[places] are also, even if you’re there, imaginary,” the title of Davenport’s entry, “Paris the Imaginary City,” suggests not only its author’s point, that the essence of Paris and the wealth of its culture is best apprehended by imaginative souls, but that Paris as we know it (and as I stand before its representation a full 73 years after the Soiree of the Bearded Heart) is at worst a historical fiction, and at best a very tight edit.

If you’re inclined to believe that all this is merely 1990s sour grapes over being stuck in a less than scintillating era, just think how misleading imagistic histories of the 1980s art world have already congealed in our minds: It’s difficult not to think of Francesco Clemente mucking up an Armani suit in the studio after a night out or Julian Schnabel sifting through crates of smashed crockery or Vanity Fair’s tales of dinners involving the ingestion of precious metals or (and this seems more old-fashioned avant-garde than we’d care to admit) Jean-Michel Basquiat being trotted around town as a barely tamed urban primitive. And if you’re a follower of pop music, just think how distant and how fixed the summer of 1992—the year punk really broke—already seems.

But go back to the library and avail yourself of contemporary resources of any age and you’ll discover the unsightly clutter of history, filled with minor figures, little masters, careers that trailed off or went nowhere, and the virtually incomprehensible proliferation of no-talents. (Matisse actually lived in fear of his name being confused with that of a particularly well-received marine painter!) Substituting a decade’s worth of highlights from a select artistic circle for the identity of an entire city is itself a synecdoche, a mere figure of speech.

Since we’ve gone to such lengths to observe the standard history, couldn’t we at least be doomed to repeat it? Hedonistic, irreverent, self-possessed, and sexually untrammeled (albeit with AIDS taking the role of the New Syph), we are now hep to all the unconventional thinking that made possible what we really ought to be honest in designating the lifestyle revolution of cafe society Paris. Although it is doubtless of assistance to have been born European, the Phillips has gone to the trouble of demonstrating that the historical acme of joie de vivre was available even to Americans.

But gazing around the galleries at my fellow museumgoers, socially flexible, fashionably attired, like me either Starbucks-headed or Borders-bound come closing time in this world capital, I can’t help but feel some small disappointment at our circumstances. Despite the late 20th century’s institutional embrace of the avant-garde—which has been passed along to us via expensive, though widely available, college educations—despite our having been raised to regard modernism’s brave creative rebels not as deranged outsiders but as elite exemplars (not to mention our shameless willingness to play along), we seem to have missed out on the promise of their much vaunted iconoclasm.

D.C.’s own 1990s tilt at a cafe culture was a flop. As an emblem of our malaise, you could do worse than the failure several years ago of Astraea, a 24-hour art-space-cum-coffeehouse-cum-bookstore on Pennsylvania Avenue. You could go there to buy a cappuccino, a Tarkovsky biography, or a $70,000 Beverly Pepper. Its plan was to host late-night films and performances and then to broadcast them via satellite to similar establishments in other cosmopolitan centers, which would in turn teleport their cultural happenings to D.C. Its glass entryway was emblazoned, “These doors will never close.”

It was replaced by a CVS.

Are we ill-favored by time and history? Insufficiently freewheeling to vacation as we ought? Or simply in the wrong place altogether? Why does it elude us still, this heady, sun-dappled vie de bohème?CP