For the first time in history, the Phillips Collection exhibits Man Ray’s Shakespearean Equations alongside the 3-D mathematical models that inspired them.
Man Ray based his painting The Merry Wives of Windsor.
A pioneer of experimental photographic techniques, a celebrated fashion photographer, a formidable Dadaist and Surrealist—there are any number of reasons Man Ray is considered one of the 20th century’s seminal artists. But a groundbreaking exhibition at the Phillips Collection, which opened in early February, reminds us that the artist himself considered his greatest achievement to be Shakespearean Equations, an intriguing series of 23 paintings where art, science, and Elizabethan drama collide.
Entitled “Man Ray—Human Equations: A Journey from Mathematics to Shakespeare,” the exhibition presents the artist’s unprecedented project that spans disciplines, visual mediums, and even centuries. Ray’s paintings, which he made while working in Hollywood in the 1940s, drew inspiration from the photographs of mathematical models that he took in Paris the previous decade. He also named each painting after a Shakespeare play. Featuring 125 pieces, the exhibition puts the original 3-D models—on loan from the Institut Henri Poincaré in Paris—alongside Ray’s photographs and paintings for the first time in history.
“In exhibitions over the years, including major Man Ray retrospectives, there have been one or maybe two of the Shakespearean Equations paintings included,” says Wendy Grossman, exhibition co-curator. “But this is the only exhibition ever that has brought the series together with the photographs and actual models.”
Given the project’s multidisciplinary nature, the Phillips and organizing partners at The Israel Museum, Jerusalem, assembled a cast of experts, from mathematicians to Shakespearean scholars, at the Folger Theatre to consult on the exhibition. The show is organized in acts, comparing Ray’s complex process to a play. Act IV features works by the artist not included in Shakespearean Equations that nonetheless relate back to the exhibition’s themes.
Parallel to Ray’s practice of reframing objects through his work, the exhibition will redefine our own understanding of him, Grossman says. “It will be a surprise for people who know Man Ray well or even for people who know virtually nothing about him,” she says.
Visitors will discover the art of math or, rather, the math of art, Grossman says. “You’ll see that these were mathematicians using three-dimensional modeling to work out problems. It’s ironic that the models are then used as modern art forms to create abstract art, taking the idea from conceptual to literal back to conceptual again.” Through May 10, 1600 21st St. NW, 202-387-2151