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Legion’s ‘Man Ray/Lee Miller’ Exhibition

originally posted by SF Gate, 07-13-2012

Four years ago, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art presented “The Art of Lee Miller,” the largest retrospective ever devoted to the photographer, which the Victoria and Albert Museum in London organized.

The Legion of Honor revisits some of the same material – we have to wonder why so soon – with the just-opened exhibition “Man Ray/Lee Miller:Partners in Surrealism,” circulated by the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass.

Redundancy will sap some of the surprise of “Man Ray/Lee Miller” for visitors who remember the SFMOMA event. But the present show is handsomely installed and brings before us some seldom-seen examples of Man Ray’s art.

Perhaps the high level of interest in collaboration in contemporary art lends the Legion show currency.

Perhaps decision makers at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco thought another look at the physical and professional self-styling of Miller – model, feminist, artist, wartime photojournalist – would offset the fascination of Cindy Sherman, whose retrospective at SFMOMA coincides with “Man Ray/Lee Miller.”

In any case, “Man Ray/Lee Miller” adds nothing new to our sense of Miller (1907-1977) and omits certain painful but probably telling facts, most grimly her rape in childhood by a family acquaintance.

The exhibition does illuminate and correct certain details associated with the collaboration.

It relates that Man Ray’s famous picture “Tears” (c. 1934) – a woman’s upturned face dotted with glass “tears” – shows not Miller, as frequently assumed, but a model friend of the two.

In general the show demonstrates what knowledge of their intimate collaboration, their falling out as lovers and eventual reconciliation as friends contributes to our understanding of Man Ray’s art.

Misogyny so colored the imagery and rhetoric of Surrealism in its early years as to make the idea of a male/female partnership in it sound like an anachronistic misreading.

But wall text and label details unwind that impression, ascribing Miller’s break with Man Ray (1890-1976), whom she had initially pursued as a mentor, partly to his male conventionality and the background intolerance of the times. For visitors who have never seen either artist’s work, “Man Ray/Lee Miller” offers a useful introduction. It includes fine examples of his photograms, which he called Rayographs. They clinched the artistic reinvention of himself that began when he changed his name from Emmanuel Radnitzky and became, through his friendship with Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968), a formative contributor to New York Dada.

Particularly magnetic are Miller’s and Ray’s portraits of one another, especially because, the lore has it, their rift began with a dispute over the negative of one such portrait – “Neck” (c. 1930) – that he discarded and she salvaged and printed.

Ray’s images of Miller’s eye and lips haunt the whole exhibition as, it argues, their reality haunted him.

Late in the show we encounter a Surrealist icon – an authorized replica of the original – “Object to Be Destroyed” (1932/1959). A device purported to exorcise erotic fixation, it consists of an image of Miller’s eye clipped to the pendulum bar of a metronome, with instructions that call for its smashing by a single hammer blow once it has worked its effect.

Ray’s 1964 color photograph of his 1931 painting “Observatory Time – The Lovers” supplies the signature image of Miller’s lips, hovering with erotic ambiguity above a landscape, like a gargantuan UFO.

The evocation of compulsive desire that the scattered imagery of lips and eyes provides – felt even in the coat hanger mobile “Obstruction” (1930/1975) – offers as effective a channel to Surrealism as any single image on view.

Man Ray/Lee Miller: Partners in Surrealism: Photographs, paintings, sculpture and ephemera. Through Oct. 14. Legion of Honor, Lincoln Park, S.F. (415) 750-3600.www.legionofhonor.org.

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