WASHINGTON -- Living in Paris during the 1920s, four American artists -- Man Ray, Gerald Murphy, Stuart Davis and Alexander Calder -- helped to erase the boundaries between the arts and to redefine art itself.
Their work is featured in "Americans In Paris," the exceptional exhibit of 103 paintings, photographs and sculptures celebrating the 75th anniversary of the Phillips Collection.
In a letter dated April 5, 1922, Man Ray (1890-1976) suggests the innovative spirit that informs his work and most of the work in the exhibit: " I have freed myself from the sticky medium of paint and am working directly with light itself. I have found a new way of recording it "
Man Ray left New York for Paris in 1921. By the next year, he was painting and earning a living as a commercial photographer, photographing Picasso, Matisse and Gertrude Stein, among others. Experimenting, he developed cameraless photographs or rayographs -- achieved by placing objects on light-sensitive paper and turning on the light.
Man Ray's work has a surrealistic, poetic quality. This is especially evident in his rayographs, from the well-known: "The Violon d'Ingres," a picture of a turbaned woman's mostly nude back, on which has been placed the image of two violin sound holes; to the lesser-known: "Untitled," a picture of ferns and chrysanthemum-shaped flowers, whose white lines seem etched like frost on a black window.
Gerald Murphy's oil paintings also have a poetic quality. Going to Paris to study gardens in 1921 with his wife, Sara, Murphy (1888-1964) did not know anything about modern art. But seeing a Picasso in a gallery window inspired him. "If that's painting," he told his wife, "it's what I want to do."
And he did; "Boatdeck," his billboard-sized painting, launched his career. From 1922 to 1929, he produced about 14 works, which were so highly acclaimed that Murphy was invited to join Piet Mondrian, Pablo Picasso and Fernand Leger in an exhibition. Then, in 1929, one of his sons contracted tuberculosis. A few years later, both of his sons died. He never painted again.
The Phillips exhibit contains seven of his eight extant paintings, among them "Razor," a Cubist-influenced painting of small objects in large scale, and "Watch," a large, vibrant painting of the workings of a pocket watch.
Murphy's painting "Wasp and Pear," which hung over poet Archibald MacLeish's fireplace, is one of the most memorable works in the exhibit. At first, it seems an arrangement of bright shapes. Then one notices the figures: the wasp, the spiny head, the bent stinger, the wing with its violin shape, the brown thorax resting just above the voluptuous yellow pear, which lies against the white-fleshed cross-section of another pear. These sit on gray geometric shapes that seem to float almost whimsically on a blue sky.
Stuart Davis (1892-1964) takes brightly colored shapes and sets them to music. Taking his cubist-inspired paintings to Paris in 1928, Davis was an immediate hit. Gertrude Stein almost purchased a Davis painting from his Egg-Beaters' series (one of which is in this exhibit) but changed her mind.
Soon Davis found jazz and began "dancing as wild as anything." Sketching lamp posts, signs, shop windows and hotels, he saw himself as "a new kind of jazz painter, a word colorist, an eye writer."
His new paintings were made not of cubes but of colors: vibrant whites, Matisse-like pinks and reds, sky blues and mustard yellows. Color shimmers from "Adit" and "Hotel de France" and their rhythmic renderings of Paris street scenes. In the brightness of "Place Pasdeloup," one feels the music of the ragtime piano players that Davis listened to.
Alexander Calder (1898-1976) was also inspired by music. At first, it was hurdy-gurdy circus music. An engineer by training, Calder went to Paris to take drawing courses. Soon he began making circus figures from paper, wire and pulleys and putting on shows in his living room. These shows led him to "draw" portraits in wire.
The wire portrait of "Romulus and Remus" is one of the largest in this exhibit. It renders a larger-than-life-size wolf and two boys, one figure just having drunk and the other ready to drink wolf milk. This portrait takes up almost half the space in one of these galleries.
Calder's wire sculpture of jazz artist Josephine Baker is the most expressive and vibrant work in the exhibit. Consisting of a single piece of wire, the figure stands a little over three feet high. The wire has been bent to become fingers, toes, curled hair, ears, earrings, eyes, nose and mouth. The body consists of circles and lines, positioned between other circles and lines that are outstretched hands and dancing feet. The eyes -- circles inside of circles -- take on a soulful look. Below them, the large circle, which is the mouth, seems to sing and does.
Then one realizes that this sound is piped-in jazz music. But that merely adds to the ambience of a magical show.
What: "Americans in Paris: Man Ray, Gerald Murphy, Stuart Davis, Alexander Calder"
Where: The Phillips Collection, 1600 21st Street, N.W., Washington
When: Tuesdays-Saturdays 1O a.m. to 5 p.m.; Thursdays 5 p.m. to 8: 30 p.m.; and Sundays noon to 5 p.m. Through Aug. 18.
Admission: Weekends, $6.50 for adults, $3.25 for seniors over 62 and full-time students with ID, and free for visitors 18 and under. Weekdays, by contribution; on Thursday night, $5.
Call: (202) 387-2151
Pub Date: 8/02/96