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Hills

On view

Hills

Artist: Man Ray (American, 1890-1976)

Date: 1914
Medium: Oil on canvas
Dimensions:
Overall: 10 1/8 x 12in. (25.7 x 30.5cm)
Credit Line: Museum Purchase
Object number: 86.1.2
Text Entries

Like a host of other American painters of his generation, Man Ray was converted to modernism in the wake of the 1913 Armory Show, the first grand-scale exhibition of modern art to be held in this country. While the artist had already seen a number of important exhibitions of progressive European and American art at Alfred Stieglitz’s 291 Gallery, it was the large paintings displayed at the Armory Show—particularly those by Picabia, Matisse, and Duchamp—that prompted Man Ray to begin work on

a larger scale, while their abrupt departure from conventional painting only affirmed and encouraged the artist’s modernist inclinations. The show’s impact was so great that Man Ray claimed it overwhelmed him to the point of inactivity: “I did nothing for six months,” he later told a reporter. “It took me that time to digest what I had seen.”(1)

For the next two years, Man Ray would experiment with the most advanced of European art movements, fusing the bright colors of Fauvism with the broken planar structures of Analytical Cubism. His Portrait of Alfred Stieglitz (Yale University Art Gallery), for example—thought to be the first painting he made after seeing the Armory Show(2)- clearly reveals the impact of this new and revolutionary artistic movement, particularly in its similarity to works by Picasso and Braque that the artist would have seen in this important exhibition. But the severe planar fragmentation of Cubism was to occupy only a momentary interest in the artist’s stylistic evolution during this period. In the spring of 1913, a few months after the Armory Show had closed, Man Ray moved out of his parents’ home in Brooklyn and, upon the invitation of a friend, began sharing expenses on a sparsely furnished shack in Grantwood, New Jersey. The remote atmosphere of this small community, which was then still comparatively undeveloped, with only a few isolated houses situated along the heights overlooking the small town of Ridgefield, was exactly what the artist was looking for. Here, in this detached and relatively remote environment, Man Ray was free to pursue his artistic inclinations without inhibition, without the constant interference of relatives, teachers, and friends, many of whom had not always been in complete sympathy with his modernist inclinations.

The first paintings Man Ray executed in Ridgefield were scenic vistas of the surrounding terrain. Whereas a number of these landscapes betray the influence of Fauvism, and others reveal an inclination toward the structural simplification of Cubism, most are relatively faithful renderings of the Ridgefield countryside. Within a year, however, the artist’s depiction of this same rural environment would, stylistically speaking, change dramatically. In the late summer of 1914, on the final afternoon of a three-day camping trip he had taken with his wife and two other couples to New York’s Harriman State Park, Man Ray declared that he would no longer seek inspiration directly from nature. “In fact,” he told one of his friends, “I decided that sitting in front of the subject might be a hindrance to really creative work.”(3) Instead, he announced that upon his return to Ridgefield he would paint a series of “imaginary landscapes,” the subjects of which would be derived from his recollection of events that had occurred during the course of this memorable excursion.

Hills is a painting that must have been among the first of these “imaginary landscapes.” Behind the silhouetted, twisted branches of two barren trees positioned on flanking ends of a horizontally-oriented composition, a magnificent vista unfolds. Deep in the central foreground can be seen the far end of a rectangular field, portions of which are rendered as cultivated ground, for a series of black parallel lines were undoubtedly intended to depict freshly plowed furrows. Behind the field there appears a cluster of brown, semicircular shapes, possibly meant to represent a string- course of trees, the leaves browned by the encroaching frosts of autumn. And directly behind these shapes can be seen the most distinguishing feature of the landscape—a series of gently rolling hills—from which the painting derives its title. These majestic hills, separated from one another by a low-lying atmospheric mist, range in hue from a deep gray in the immediate foreground, through to a brilliant purple in the central range, to a milky gray at the distant horizon. Finally, in the upper reaches of the composition, prominent cloud formations appear to echo consciously the repetitive linear and circular patterns of the landscape below.

The basic components of this small landscape provide the essential background details in a much larger and more ambitious picture from this same period entitled Departure of Summer (1988, Middendorf Gallery, Washington, D.C.), wherein the artist has depicted three nude female figures bathing in a mountain stream, recalling a scene he had witnessed during the time of his outing in Harriman State Park. The flatness and lack of articulation given to these figures and the background landscape point in the direction of the artist’s future work, and thus establishes the painting of Hills as an important intermediary step in the artist’s evolution toward a more abstract, two-dimensional style.(4)

Notes

1. Quoted in C. Lewis Hind, “Wanted a Name,” The Christian Science Monitor (c. November-December 1919), undated clipping preserved in the scrapbooks of Katherine Dreier, Collection of the Société Anonyme, Beinecke Library, Yale University, New Haven), reprinted in Hind, Art and I (New York: John Lane, 1920), pp. 180-85. Despite the early date of this statement—made only five years after the event referred to—it is unlikely that the artist totally ceased artistic production for a period of six months simply because he needed time to contemplate what he had seen at the Armory Show. It is at best an exaggeration, meant only to emphasize the importance of this event.

2. As suggested by Arturo Schwarz, Man Ray: The Rigour of Imagination (New York: Rizzoli International Publications, 1977), p. 30.

3. Unless otherwise noted, all biographical references contained in this entry are derived from the artist's autobiography, Self Portrait (New York and London: Andre Deutsch, 1963); this quotation from p. 54.

4. On this phase of the artist’s work, see Francis M. Naumann, “Man Ray: Early Paintings 1913- 1916, Theory and Practice in the Art of Two Dimensions,” Artforum, vol. 20 (May 1982), pp. 37-46. This subject shall form the basis of a forthcoming monograph on the artist tentatively entitled “Man Ray in America: The New York and Ridgefield Years 1910-1921” (currently in preparation).

 

 

Copyright
Presumed copyright: the artist or the artist's representative/heir(s) / Licensed by ARS, New York, NY