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A Look at Man Ray in L.A. : Friends and colleagues paint a personal remembrance of the artist

March 19, 1989|KRISTINE McKENNA

"Perpetual Motif," the retrospective of seminal surrealist Man Ray, opens today at the Museum of Contemporary Art. Encompassing every aspect of his long and varied career, a portion of the exhibition is given over to work done during the years of 1940 to 1951, when he lived in Los Angeles.

Born in Philadelphia the son of a Jewish tailor, Man Ray was forced to flee his adopted home of Paris--a city which revered him--during World War II. Like many European artists, he was attracted to Southern California's film industry. However, the 11 years he spent in Los Angeles--whose art audience was minuscule and unsophisticated at the time--were disappointing for him. His work as a painter went largely ignored, and though he socialized with the film industry, he never succeeded in getting any of his film projects off the ground. As Merry Foresta, curator of the MOCA show, points out, "the L.A. art audience felt more comfortable with Man Ray as a historical figure than with his interruptive presence."

Herewith, reminiscences from some of Man Ray's friends and acquaintances during his years in Los Angeles.

JAMES B. BYRNES was curator at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art from 1946 to 1950 and subsequently held directorial positions at several American museums. Retired from the museum field, he presently works as an art consultant and an appraiser of fine art.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday April 2, 1989 Home Edition Calendar Page 115 Calendar Desk 2 inches; 71 words Type of Material: Correction
In Kristine McKenna's March 19 article on the L.A. associates of artist Man Ray, several facts concerning James B. Brynes were misstated or omitted:
Brynes was curator of modern and contemporary art in the art division of the Los Angeles County Museum of History, Science and Art from 1946 through 1953.
In addition, a caption beneath a picture of Brynes on Page 105 should have identified a background painting as being the work of Hirman Williams and a chess set in the foreground as being a 1946 creation of Ray.

During the '40s I gave a course at USC on 20th-Century art, and when it came time for the session on Dadaism I asked Man to do it. I knew he could use the money, so I told him "you take the $15 for the night." He did a marvelous job and brought in many of the objects of his affection, and also held a kind of raffle. He gave out little slips of paper, and at the end of his lecture he asked, "Who has No. 8?" Somebody raised their hand, and he said, "Now, who doesn't have No. 8?" Somebody else raised their hand and he said, "You win." He then brought out a large inner tube, which he deflated and cut into pieces, then handed the pieces out to the students--none of whom were familiar with his work, by the way.

His distinguishing garb was quite noteworthy. He always wore a black shoestring for a tie, and on occasion would affect a paper mustache. He loved costume parties and fantasy, and had quite a bit of theater in him.

He was rather flirtatious and women seemed to find him attractive, despite the fact that he was a small man and somewhat furtive in his demeanor. His charm had a lot to do with the fact that he was rather mysterious in many respects.

He had a very droll, biting sense of humor that could be a bit antagonistic on occasion. One must remember that he was an enthusiast of the Marquis de Sade, so there was a certain harshness about him.

He belonged to a group of people in L.A. who came to know each other primarily because they'd all come here from somewhere else. At that time the local population was described as "the Okies and the Arkies," and L.A. was referred to as "the buckle of the Bible Belt." There was no interest in modern art here at all, so these sophisticated outsiders stuck together. The way of life Man had known in Paris--the cafes and so forth--was absolutely unknown here, and I think he missed it a great deal. He lived across the street from what was then the Hollywood Ranch Market, which was open 24 hours a day, and Man thought that was extraordinary for L.A. I remember him exclaiming, "I can buy a bottle of good wine in the middle of the night for 99 cents that's the equal of anything I can buy in Paris!"

He had a great ego--he said so himself.

The L.A. art community was very small during the years Man lived here and the only thing we had for local artists was an annual competition. I talked with Man about entering, but he refused--he was vehemently opposed to competition of any sort. He wasn't interested in critics, believed everybody was an artist, and thought there should be no jurors or process of selection. He was basically an anarchist.

He was generally kind of a grumpy guy. He believed in himself and it upset him that his work didn't provide him with a comfortable way of life, but he never considered compromising his work in any way for money. I remember one time when he was at a very low point financially and a woman tried to commission him to do a portrait of her. He rather disliked the person who'd asked and he announced that he wanted $250 for the project. She said, "Anybody else would charge $50! I can't believe that price!" He replied, "Believe it."

KEVIN WHITE is Man Ray's nephew. He is a writer.

I was just a kid--maybe 10 or 12--when I used to see him, and I remember him as a very funny man. I'd bring pieces of paper to him and he'd draw funny faces for me. I don't think he was crazy about kids--he never wanted any of his own as far as I know--but he never gave me the impression I was being shunned or patronized.

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