Man Ray and Chess
“The tricks of today are the truths of tomorrow.”

Social phenomenon often creates timely opportunities; the popularity of Netflix series, The Queen’s Gambit has caused interest in chess to surge across the US and around the world.  Since its debut, millions of members have joined chess.com millions of households have watched the show, and sales of chess sets and books about chess have skyrocketed.

This passion for chess was certainly shared by Surrealist artists and in particular, visionary artist Man Ray. This new and rare exhibition offers a timely opportunity to tap into this cultural phenomenon, creating a new original avenue for audience engagement through links to chess.  Drawing upon a superb European private collection, the exhibition presents an evocative overview of this Man Ray’s life, career, a multitude of his passions and in particular chess.  It includes original works of painting, sculpture, drawings, his own “rayographs,” vintage photography, and six of his iconic and creative chess sets, the largest, existing collection of Man Ray chess sets.

Although it seems that Man Ray taught himself how to play chess as a boy, his lifelong passion for the game began in 1915 when he joined the Marshall Chess club in New York city, encouraged by his friend and fellow Dadaist, Marcel Duchamp.  For Duchamp, “chess was art; art was chess,”  but it was Man Ray who was the foremost maker of chess sets among 20th century artists.  The geometric pattern of the chessboard appeared as a key image in Man Ray’s work since as far back as 1911.  Although chess with its strict set of rules might seem at odds with his artistic temperament, he is quoted as saying that the chessboard is “a field for clear thinking, impromptu imagination, surprise, planning for the abstract.”

His earliest-known chess set was made in 1920 out of simple, geometric shapes mostly found among the odds and ends in his studio. The King was a pyramid, the Queen represented by a cone, the Rook by a cube, the Bishop by a bottle-shaped form while a sphere glued to a button was used for the pawn. The Knight was formed from a piece of a violin.

When he moved to Paris in 1921, Man Ray took his chess set with him, and in 1926 was commissioned by the Maharajah of Indore to create a larger version in silver. When living in Hollywood in the 1940s, however, he began to seriously and consistently design and fabricate new sets in wood and modern materials such as anodized aluminum, each new design evolving from the original 1920 set consisting of objects found and reconstructed in his studio. Each set allowed the artist to balance art and design without compromising his principles about either, and still today, each set is an eloquent expression of the intersection between art, geometry, poetry and games.

Man Ray and the Exhibition
“It has never been my object to record my dreams, just the determination to realize them.”

Man Ray (1890 – 1976) was born Emanuel Radnitzky in Philadelphia on August 27, 1890. By the time of his death in Paris on November 18, 1976, Man Ray was well-known as an enigmatic and experimental visual artist who still today defies definition or classification.

Without doubt, Man Ray was a charismatic, iconic and international protagonist of the modern art scene that emerged in the 20th century. Famous as an important exponent of the Dada and Surrealist movements, he was tied to neither. From New York, Paris, Los Angeles and back to Paris, he experimented with many mediums and techniques. Although
he considered himself foremost a painter, he dabbled in sculpture, drawing, film and is perhaps best known for his photography.

This exhibition of +120 works explores the creative genius of Man Ray, a man who fully embraced his own life, a visionary artist who once provocatively declared “I never painted a recent painting.” The exhibition draws upon a superb European private collection and presents an evocative overview of this eclectic artist’s life, career, a multitude of his passions and in particular his love for chess. It includes iconic works of painting and sculpture as well as drawings, photogravures, “rayographs,” vintage photography, other objects and documents of his own collecting and six of his treasured chess sets. It includes the masterpiece Pandora, Portrait of Ava Gardner and a focus on the years Man Ray spent in
Hollywood, his relationship with Albert Lewin and his involvement in the 1951 Surrealistic film classic, Pandora and the Flying Dutchman.

This very unique and comprehensive collection reflects the intense scholarship, dedication and passion of a very private collector. Rarely have works of this collection been on public display, and only at very prestigious venues such as the Tate Modern, London, MNAC, Barcelona, Museum Boymans van Beuningen, Rotterdam, Musée National d’Art Moderne, Paris, to name a few, and as a collection, at the Kaohsiung Fine Art Museum, Taiwan. Provenance is well-documented as are records of previous exhibitions and catalogue publications.

Original Works
  • 4 original paintings dating from 1916-1950
  • 5 original drawings dating from 1929-1954
  • 6 signed chess sets dating from 1926–1973
  • 7 sculptural or 3-dimensional objects dating from 1931–1974
  • 11 original photographs from The Milky Way series (1973) + 2 original photographs
  • 12 Lithographs, signed and numbered (1971), The Origin of the Species by Way of Irrational Selection
  • 22 Heliogravures, Rayographs, solarizations printed for 1934 edition of Photographs of Man Ray 1920-1934
  • Ca. 25 B&W Vintage photography from Hollywood and film set of Pandora and the Flying Dutchman
  • Ca. 25 associated printed materials
Highlights
  • Pandora, Portrait of Ava Gardner, oil on canvas (1950)
  • Largest, existing collection of Man Ray-signed chess sets
  • Heliogravure prints for the 1934 1st edition of Photographs by Man Ray 1920 -1934, printing personally supervised by Man Ray
Exhibition Materials

High resolution images, captions, object labels and wall texts.

Display

Requires approx. 125 linear meters (350 – 400 ft.) of linear display space.

Characteristics of Collection
  • Geographical location of the collection: Europe.
  • All hanging works are shipped framed as per international museum standards.
  • Collection includes shipping crates and packing materials, fabricated to international standards, to ensure safe ‘nail-to-nail’ transport.
  • Collection is comprehensive, covering a substantial representation of the artist’s body of work making it capable of serving as a stand-alone exhibition.
  • Museum curators are provided with extensive information and may curate the exhibition to their audiences, subject to review.
  • Appropriate artworks from the borrowing institution’s collections may be added to the exhibition.

Selected Works