An Indestructible Object of Affection to be Destroyed
Man Ray: Other Objects, Luxembourg + Co. / Buchhandlung Walter und Franz Koenig, 2023
‘An Indestructible Object of Affection to be Destroyed’ is an essay by David Campany written for the book Man Ray: Other Objects, Luxembourg + Co. / Buchhandlung Walter und Franz Koenig, 2023
Often considered as unique artworks, Man Ray’s original sculptures possibly never existed. They are often only known through the artist’s accounts in writing, conversations, or conspicuously dated photographs. In place of these absent signifiers, however, Man Ray created alternative variations on multiples occasions throughout his career, under morphed titles, materials, and in various quantities. These he called ‘replicas’, ‘editions’, or ‘new originals’, depending on their appearance and production method.
This collection of essays, edited by Yuval Etgar, brings to light five new studies, each dedicated to a specific object, or group of objects by Man Ray and their evolution throughout the artist’s career. With contributions by David Campany, Peter Fischli, Alyce Mahon, Jennifer Mundy, and Margrethe Troensegaard, this book explores how inconsistency, difference, and originality was manifested in Man Ray’s process of artistic reproduction and multiplication.
Man Ray: Other Objects is published on the occasion of an exhibition at Luxembourg + Co., New York, in September 2023.
Publisher: Koenig Books
15.6 x 23.4 cm
An Indestructible Object of Affection To Be Destroyed
I had a metronome in my place which I set going when I painted – like the pianist sets it going when he starts playing – its ticking noise regulated the frequency of and number of my brushstrokes. The faster it went, the faster I painted; and if the metronome stopped then I knew I had painted too long. I was repeating myself, my painting was no good and I would destroy it… A painter needs an audience, so I also clipped the photo of an eye to the metronome’s swinging arm to create the illusion of being watched as I painted. One day I did not accept the metronome’s verdict, the silence was unbearable and since I had called it with certain premonition ‘Object of Destruction’, I smashed it to pieces.
Towards the end of his life, in 1973, Man Ray (1890–1976) recalled his use/making and disuse/unmaking of an object dating from 1923. Our knowledge of this object comes from not only the artist’s recollections but also the remade piece, conceived not as an aid to his painting, but as an artwork in its own right. Indeed, it is possible it was remade hundreds of times.
The version of Man Ray that we find in his recollections is entertaining, if not particularly reliable or consistent. There is a sense that the artist was a mystery to himself and any public pronouncements were designed to enrich or stir up the reception of his work rather than reveal anything fundamental about it, or about himself. We might even go so far as to say that his words could be considered a part of his art of playful confusion and dissemblance.
Suppose we accept that the metronome was there in 1923 to help Man Ray in his endeavours to paint, but when it failed to do this, he destroyed it. Did this mean it had to be replaced to aid any future painting, or did the destruction signal the end of his confidence in a metronome’s ‘judgement’? Was it a recognition that the automations of a readymade object and of photography were ill-suited to the longer, less predictable processes of painting? Was it a recognition that creativity could be fast or slow but would always take place in a suspended realm beyond measurable time? Tick-tock, tick-tock. Can we create against the clock?
It seems that when the metronome became a work of art, it was given a different origin story. Here is Man Ray in 1932, writing in the special Surrealist issue of the journal This Quarter: ‘Cut out the eye from the photograph of one who has been loved but is seen no more. Attach the eye to the pendulum of a metronome and regulate the weight to suit the tempo desired. Keep going to the limit of endurance. With a hammer well-aimed, try to destroy the whole at a single blow.’
His words accompanied a reproduction, not of a photograph of the object, but of a small pen-and-ink drawing of it. The page was titled Object To Be Destroyed, but it is unclear whether this title referred to the reproduced drawing, or an absent object/artwork that the drawing purported to depict. But because it is a drawing, and not a photograph, there is no guarantee the object existed. Does the drawing indicate that the object could not be photographed because it had been destroyed? Does the drawing simply avoid any actuality in order to present the object and the act of destruction as ideas, or propositions? Is the drawing a reconstruction of a lost object, an imagining of a future object, or something else? Is it a drawing of a photograph of the object?
The drawing was published shortly after Man Ray’s three-year affair with Lee Miller (1907–1977) had suddenly ended when she fell in love with the Egyptian businessman and engineer Aziz Eloui Bey. Distraught, Man Ray changed not only the supposed purpose or function of the metronome but also the appended photograph. He replaced the original photograph of the eye, probably taken from an image of Kiki de Montparnasse (1901–1953; also known as Alice Prin) – this did not become apparent until 1965, when a ‘replica’ of the supposedly destroyed 1923 version was issued, now titled Indestructible Object – with his cut-out photograph of Lee Miller’s eye. It is Miller’s eye that features in Man Ray’s drawing. Perhaps he had drawn it in order to leave in doubt whether or not he had made and then destroyed the object. A version survives and, on the back, he printed an addendum:
Postscript: October 11, 1932:
With an eye always in reserve
Forever being put away
Taken for a ride…
Put on the spot…
The racket must go on –
I am always in reserve
Lee Miller later recalled: ‘[a]t the time he added my eye , he titled it Objet à détruire (Object To Be Destroyed)’, which suggests that title had not been adopted until then, and that Man Ray’s story about using the metronome to help his painting under the premonitory name Object of Destruction was not true, or not entirely true.
In 1933, the object was shown in Paris at the Galerie Pierre Colle under a less melodramatic name, Oeil-Metronome(Eye-Metronome). Three years later, it was presented as Object of Destruction at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York, in the exhibition Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism (1936–37). In April 1945, in the exhibition Man Ray: Objects of My Affection at Julien Levy Gallery, New York, it was remade with the title Last Object. ‘Last’ as in ‘final’? ‘Last’ as in ‘latest’? It was a typo. It was supposed to be titled Lost Object, a reference to the 1932 version that had been mislaid when Man Ray left Paris in 1940 as a result of the German invasion.
At this point we might feel hesitant even using the term ‘it’ here, as this implies a material continuity. But both the eye and the metronome, an industrially produced and selected item, had changed. If both object and title alter, what is the ‘it’? Is the work simply any combination of a metronome with an image of an eye? Is the ‘it’ guaranteed by Man Ray’s signature? Such questions intrigued him and his good friend and regular collaborator Marcel Duchamp (1887–1968). Both artists challenged the traditional concept of art in a playful, yet serious way, assessing how it might be established, upturned and re-established through its upturning. There is a well-known philosophical conundrum about destruction and remaking: if you have a knife, and you break the blade and replace it, and then you break the handle and replace that, is it the same knife? We might go further and ask if the status of the knife remains the same if we cease calling it a knife and give it another name. Like any conundrum, it is less interesting if you think you have solved it.
A metronome and a photograph are both objects, although the destruction of a photograph is likely to have a more violent psycho-symbolic charge, particularly if it depicts a person. It is not so uncommon – and can be cathartic – to tear up a photograph of someone who has left us, or wronged us. (It is also very ‘analogue’. What do we do in these digital days? ‘Delete’ the image? How do we know it is really gone? Deletion has none of the violence of the physical destruction of a material image.)
There is something sinister, menacing and even a little deathly about an image of a single eye oscillating while it appears to watch us, but is there anything destructive about it? Not really. That association comes from the title and from the various anecdotes that swirl about the work, not part of the work exactly, but somehow framing its meaning. Before we get too carried away with any misanthropy or misogyny associated with Man Ray’s thoughts of destroying Miller or her image, let us remind ourselves that they are only thoughts (and maybe not even his ‘real’ thoughts), directed into an artwork. Moreover, it is worth mentioning here that it was Lee Miller who later committed an unspeakably destructive act. Driving while drunk in Egypt after a party, she knocked over and killed a man, but she was well connected enough, and white enough, to get away with it. Imagine a photograph of the corpse by the side of the road (a little like the corpse of the German soldier Miller would find and photograph floating in a stream in liberated Germany in 1945). Maybe that photo exists in an Egyptian police file. Imagine an artist appropriating that photo and titling it ‘Man destroyed by Lee Miller’. There are quite a few photos of dead bodies scattered across the Surrealists’ project, and there was certainly a kind of violence always bubbling just below its surface.
When I look at the image of Lee Miller’s eye, monocular and strange and oscillating, I do not picture Man Ray taking a hammer to it. Did he ever really do that? A version of the work, presented as Objet à détruire (Object To Be Destroyed) was destroyed when some students removed it from a Dada exhibition at Galerie de l’Institut, Paris, 1957, and smashed it to pieces. Although the insurance company agreed to compensate the gallery for the loss, Man Ray had to give an assurance that he would change the title of any future metronomes to Indestructible Object. He knew there was nothing about the artwork per se that might incite a violent reaction.
Over the next 19 years, until his death in 1976, Man Ray issued many versions of the work, often customising it for friends with inscriptions that sometimes listed its past titles. In 1965, an edition of 100 was issued in Paris with the title Indestructible Object. In 1970, an edition of 40 was issued in Turin with the title Perpetual Motif, with a special version of a new eye printed as a lenticular image so that it appeared to blink when oscillating. In 1975, an edition of 200, titled Indestructible Object, was announced in New York, although it is unclear how many of these were produced. Posthumous versions appeared in Germany and Spain in 1982. I also have one on my writing desk. Several years ago, I bought a metronome, cut out a reproduction of Lee Miller’s eye from a Man Ray book, and attached it. It’s not an official Man Ray artwork, obviously, and initially I had in mind something like the artist’s original non-art function. My idea was to set it in motion before starting to write and then take a break when it came to a halt. But I found the sound annoying, so now it has no function, which does make it more like an artwork.
Suffice it to say, Man Ray’s metronome and eye-photo was a proliferating object, and it is impossible to keep track of them all. Some may well have been destroyed, some may have been lost and some may have even been used as working metronomes. We are in the realm of unreliable versions, misleading multiples, wayward variants, uncertain numbers and conflicting accounts. This is just the way Man Ray would have wanted it.
In 2002, the physicist James Pantaleone from the University of Alaska published a scientific paper titled ‘Synchronization of metronomes’. If two or more metronomes are placed in line on a plank which rests freely on aligned cylinders, and the metronomes are started at different times, after a while they will synchronise and remain in unison until they cease movement. The phenomenon is uncanny and has become a popular demonstration in high school classrooms and on YouTube. It is like watching wayward, independent entities all spontaneously becoming of one mind, one consciousness. Perhaps only something like this could ever unite all of Man Ray’s different metronomes. Thankfully, there are too many to be destroyed with a single blow of a hammer.
 Man Ray in Arturo Schwarz, Man Ray: The Rigour of Imagination, Rizzoli, New York, 1977, pp.205–06.
 Man Ray, ‘Object of Destruction’, This Quarter, vol.1 no.1, special Surrealist issue, September 1932, p.55.
 Mario Amay, “My Man Ray: An Interview with Lee Miller,” Art in America 63 No 3 (1975), p.56.
 Man Ray, Self Portrait, Little, Brown and Company, Boston, 1963, p.115.
 James Pantaleone, ‘Synchronization of Metronomes, American Journal of Physics Vol.70 No. 10, October 2002, pp. 992-1000.