MAN RAY AND MILDRED’S: NOTES TOWARDS A HOPEFUL MODERNITY
Art, Anarchism and Utopic Communities.From Ridgefield, New Jersey to Mildred’s Lane
Thyrza Nichols Goodeve
PLEASE NOTE: This Word Press version is just a pasted in document and does not include footnotes (not sure why) and photographs. For the version including these go to Academia.edu and search Thyrza Nichols Goodeve.
A Sort of Song
Let the snake wait under
and the writing
be of words, slow and quick, sharp
to strike, quiet to wait,
—through metaphor to reconcile
the people and the stones.
Compose. (No ideas
but in things) Invent!
Saxifrage is my flower that splits
William Carlos Williams
“My theme tonight is conversation.” Bill Berkson
Simply put, art is the transformation of ideas into things. It is also the work of education and conversation. In the language of William Carlos Williams, both things “Invent!” This essay is about the nature of the local and the concrete action, about the urban and the rural in American art, about friendship, and the evolution of modernisms across the larger context of utopia communities. Man Ray is our ruse, as he is what brought me to Mildred’s Lane to give a talk during the “Country and the City” session; Man Ray before he went to Paris. “Man Ray in New Jersey” also places Mildred’s Lane in a broader context of American 20th and 21st century modernisms, suggesting a lineage for contemporary social practice which, as Morgan Puett reminds us, is something, “We’ve always had.” It is not new. (i.e., born in 1998 with Bouriarrd’s Relational Aesthetics).
To wit, this essay is a product of chance and conversation. It’s about the memory of a tidbit of information and a conversation at a dinner at Cabinet Magazine in Brooklyn a few years ago, where I saw Morgan Puett for the first time in years. While stuffing ourselves with conversation, wine, and food, she invited me down to hers and Mark Dion’s beehive of activity, their home turned “community of entanglement” as Morgan would put it, to give a talk. I said to her, “But what would I do?” She said, look at the website.” I did. I saw the topic: “The Country and The City” and I emailed her. “Well I only have this thought, this little curiosity, something I know nothing about. But, I saw this documentary by Mel Stuart (who also happened to have directed the original Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) on Man Ray and in it there is a moment when it talks about an artists’ colony in Ridgefield New Jersey where Man Ray spent some time. This is all I know but I’d like the opportunity to see what I could come up with.” “Fantastic, ” came back the reply. So with simple notebook scribbled with penciled notes in hand—no formal talk— I headed to Mildred’s Lane.
Man Ray in New Jersey
Legendary Photography,(sic) painter, and maker of objects and films. Man Ray was on (sic) the most versatile and inventive artists of this century. Born in Philadelphia in 1890, he knew the worlds of Greenwich Village in the avant garde era following the 1913 Armory Show; Paris in the 1920s and 1930s, where he played a key role in the Dada and Surrealist movements; The Hollywood of the 1940s, where he joined others chased by war from their homes in Europe; and finally, Paris again until his death in 1976.
What do we learn from this short bio of Man Ray found on the Man Ray Trust’s website? (A website that also includes a Man Ray Boutique)? We read a series of clichés, partly but notably, not the full story (Armory Show, Greenwich Village, Paris). We think we all know who Man Ray is from such abbreviated introductions. He is that elevated figure of high modernism: cosmopolitan, elegant, best friend and collaborator with Marcel Duchamp (absent in the Man Ray Trust’s description), an urban figure more European than American. The name “Man Ray” is the perfect moniker for such a scion of modernism, an aesthetic self-fashioning like Comte de Lautréamont was for Isidore Ducasse.
But much is left out in this website’s depiction. For instance the home he grew up in was one that members of the Mildred’s Lane would value for its emphasis on none other than domestic creativity. His father, Melach, was not only a factory worker, but worked as a tailor at home in the evenings. His mother, Manya, was a talented and innovative seamstress. In one story: In 1890 when she was pregnant with him, she labored, cross-stitch by cross-stitch, on a baby-carriage coverlet for her first child; so that when Emmanuel was born, on August 27, the tapestry was ready. When the whole multicolored work was unfurled, it looked like a crazy quilt from some unknown country. It was fashioned of silk fragments Manya had collected from the workroom floor in her modest frame house at 418 Carpenter Street on Philadelphia’s South Side, where her husband, Melach, worked extra hours to make ends meet as a tailor after his shift at the factory nearby. Each bright scrap was attached by meticulously networked black thread to a soft cotton backing.
He lived within a home of making and production. Emmanuel even won his mother’s respect (and wrath) early on by making a locomotive out of a soapbox fit with a smokestack plume of absorbent cotton that was so successful she hacked it apart one day with an axe for fear he would take it out and use it in the street. There was also some question as to where he had gotten the materials. He never forgave her for the destruction but he did notice that afterwards, “ She nevertheless showed a certain respect for me in matters of art and taste.” In particular she turned to him for advice on fabrics and choices of furniture. (How perfect a child to come to one of Mildred’s Lane’s summer programs for kids.) One day a lampshade fell apart and he decided to replace it with one made out of a piece of flexible brass from the hardware store. What did he use as the model form? The original paper-shade, undone. He traced it and drew an elaborate pattern on it using his mother’s sewing machine. He then poked out the design on the brass as if it were embroidery. “I never explained my technique and my Mother had trouble with her sewing machine when she tried to use it.” Unknowingly, the chance encounter of a sewing machine with a hardware store and an undone lampshade in a Brooklyn tenement, could be seen as his nascent foreshadowing of his future affinity with both dada and surrealism, not to mention the domestic experimentalism of the future Mildred’s Lane.
Although born in South Philly, the family moved to Williamsburg, Brooklyn when he was seven. So, Man Ray can be seen as the first Williamsburg artist. He was a quintessentially urban child, as Brooklyn as he could be, Jewish, and subject to “his times,” in other words anti-Semitism. He never spoke about his Jewish background. It was not a part of his persona. In alias Man Ray, Mason Klein does an excellent job of situating Man Ray within the context of his historical moment as a Jew. (The book was produced for the show of Man Ray’s work at The Jewish Museum in 2006.) Instead of being the example of aesthetic high modernism, Klein states,
” Had his Jewish identity been known, would all the indicators of his life and work, invoked critically—his ‘inveterate eclecticism,’ ‘complete absorption,’ ‘assimilating himself completely’ have been infected with new meaning? Would the idiosyncratic diversity of Man Ray’s work, his habituated behavior, obsessions, and aesthetic strategies have suggested the possibility of an alienation so profound that it dictated his life’s work?”
What would our approach be to this key period of high modernism had we all along been talking of Manny Ray and Marcel (or Mark or Michael) Duchamp. In fact, if you watch the Mel Stuart PBS documentary, you will also hear what may be a surprise if you’ve never heard Man Ray speak. It surprised me and has most of those I have told. Did it ever occur to you what Man Ray, photographer and lover of Paris in its high modernist ecstatic elegance (Kiki!, Lee Miller!) sounded like? In one of the first sound bites, there he is with mustache, beenie beret, and cigar, a bohemian Groucho Marx, going on about his “woiks.”
In 1908 he graduated from high school. He had been awarded a scholarship in architecture at NYU but told his parents he was refusing it in order to paint. He also wanted to find a job “of his own choosing”; work was a kind of freedom for him. His mother was dismayed but his father, remarkably, set up a studio space for him in their house. It was during this period that he would take the train to the end of the line—Coney Island— and set up his canvas on the beach to paint from nature.
On sunny days, with my paint-box, I took the elevated train to the end of the line and found myself at once in the outskirts of Brooklyn—open country, barns, horses and cows grazing in the fields. Here in solitude I thought of myself as a Thoreau breaking free of all ties and duties to society, and as I painted, it seemed to me that my thoughts and feelings flowed through my arm onto the canvas.
Remember, this essay is also the story of an informal talk given out in the country in the Barn at Mildred’s Lane. The cohort of students and visiting artist’s I was speaking to were the very ones planning the Thoreau exhibition. Who would have ever wrapped Man Ray’s urban body in the cloak of Thoreau? Mark Dion and his Bureau of the Centre for the Study of Surrealism and It’s Legacy, that’s who!
Emmanuel began to frequent Alfred Stieglitz’s 291 in 1910. What he found there was the guiding spirit of Stieglitz who took an interest in the young man. Stieglitz himself must be integrated into this legacy of radical pedagogy and art for, “He denied that the function of his gallery was as a showcase for art; he preferred to see it as ‘a place of contact,’ where people/s ideas naturally and spontaneously mixed. Occasionally he even made prospective buyers fill out a detailed questionnaire, asking them, ‘”How much is the picture worth to you in emotions? … before he allowed any money to change hands.” Man Ray found him fascinating but said, “He talked at length about modern art to anyone willing to listen to him. I listened fascinated, but at times it seemed a bit long-winded.”
From a tip he heard at 291, he attended Robert Henri’s famous Exhibition of Independents (1910), the first non-juried show in America, which, like the famous Expositions des Independents in Paris of1863, was a protest against a conservative institution, here The National Academy of Design, who had refused Henri’s work. Henri’s counter-show was held at the Macbeth Gallery in New York. It included the work of his students and other artists, established in 1908 as “The Eight,” (Maurice Prendergast, George Luks, Everett Shinn, Ernest Lawson, John Sloan, Arthur B. Davies, and William Glackens), later called The Ashcan School. The gritty, confrontational realism of immigrant New York was pilloried by the press as “vulgar.” The Eight was first formed as The Four in Philadelphia (William Glackens, George Luks, Everett Shinn, and John Sloan). Their meetings went by the name of The Charcoal Club. They drew but also read from the works of Emerson, Whitman, and significantly, Thoreau.
Man Ray’s encounter with the exhibition was an event. Described by biographer Neil Baldwin:
“A wide-eyed Emmanuel Radnitsky, who had already begun weekend forways into the museums, especially the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences, was at the Macbeth show stunned by the audaciousness of the ‘Ashcan School …. And he was particularly drawn to the works of Robert Henri….”
In 1910 he was still Emmanuel Radnitzky. In 1911 he would change his name not because of an artistic affectation but because as he said, he was “of his times,” which for Jewish immigrants was not very welcoming. His brother Samuel and he shortened Radnitzky to Ray, in order to find work. The name “Radnitsky” was too “ethnic.” For a time he was Manny Ray but eventually he chose the more sparse and almost impersonal Man Ray.
1911 was not only important to the young Emmanuel because it is when he and his brother changed their last name, but it is also the year he participated in a bit of creative domesticity of his own, producing perhaps the first in a legacy of what Puett calls “conceptual textiles.” He called it Tapestry. It was a wall-hanging, hanging a full five by three and a half feet made of 110 samples swatches, borrowed from his father’s inventory.
As his biographer Neil Baldwin describes it:
“In its subtle gradations of color areas, moving from dark to light and back again, it represents abstraction united with function. It is both an exercise in cubist form and a quilt, at the same moment. The materials of Tapestry reflect the domestic environment Emmanuel was forced by constraints to inhabit. Instead of representing the need to share space with his family when he yearned for emancipation, he made good use of what was at hand, placing his stamp of individuality onto otherwise mundane squares of wool—pinstripe, tattersall, plaid charcoal-gray flannels—oddments of current fashion. This signal effort was pinned to a sheet of canvas ….And the canvas was signed, ‘Man Ray, 1911.”
On one of his visits to 291 the following year, he heard about a place where he could take drawing lessons with live nudes. He was already looking for something to do in the evenings because by now he was working and living at home. That “something” ended up being a “social center” uptown where Man Ray and modernism would now take a turn into anarchism, pedagogy, the arts, the labor movement, and eventually to Marcel Duchamp by way of the fresh country air of New Jersey.
What he discovered was The Ferrer Center, which at the point Man Ray started to attend, was in Harlem but had earlier incarnations rooted in the downtown culture of St. Mark’s Place and West 12th Street. The Ferrer School or the more widely known, Modern School — a utopic, alternate pedagogical community and social experiments, like Man Ray’s heavy Brooklyn accent—has been lost to the blinding mythology and aesthetic experimentalism of Paris.
The Ferrer Center
It’s a sort of alchemist’s laboratory where the philosopher’s stone of education is being evolved. It is the great pedagogic experimental station of the new society…It invites investigation and criticism….”
—Adolf Wolf on The Ferrer School
In the summer of 2012, Mildred’s Lane offered a session called “Alchemy.” The above quote by Adolph Wolf is from a magazine article put out by the Ferrer Center. This Adolph Wolf (not to be mistaken for the outsider artist Adolf Wolffi) was a close friend of Man Ray’s.
What exactly was the Ferrer Center? It was an anarchist school founded by Emma Goldman and others anarchists, in memory of the execution of Francisco Ferrer, a Spanish freethinker and anti-cleric. Ferrer founded the Modern School in 1901 in Spain. As described by El Diluvio, a newspaper of the era: “This school is not a commercial enterprise, like most scholastic institutions, but a pedagogical experiment…” It was based on “an education in the natural sciences” (Ferrer). As Ferrer puts it,
‘We shall develop living brains, capable of reacting on our instruction. We shall take care that the minds of our pupils will sustain, when they leave the control of their teachers, a stern hostility to prejudice; that they will be solid minds, capable of forming their own radical convictions on every subject.”
Ferrer was accused of plotting to assassinate the King (a total fabrication). After a mock trial he was executed by the Spanish government and Catholic Church in 1909 for the assassination plot and for running “Godless” Schools. His death affected the international radical, anarchist communities of the time. Emma Goldman decided to found a Modern School in his memory and called it The Ferrer Center. The school was only for the children and adults of the working class.
Man Ray would have a brief brush with anarchism via his classes at The Ferrer Center, but he was never very political nor an anarchist himself. His appearance at Ferrer was purely motivated by his desire for drawing classes with live nudes. In his iconoclastic and eccentric Self-Portrait, he does not talk so much about the politics of the school as much as its power as a social center.
” I continued my trips to the Ferrer School….There were always new faces, people dropping in and out of curiosity or in sympathy with liberal ideas I met new writers and painters; we sat in the café and talked.”
Extraordinary people taught there, among them young William Durant. In fact it was here Durant met a 13 year old girl Ariel who would become his wife and life long collaborator (Man Ray knew her as one of the volunteer nudes in his drawing class). They left the school after they married and would eventually write the 11 Volume, History of Civilization for which they received the Pulitzer in 1968. More extraordinary is that one of his art teachers was none other than Robert Henri. How interesting to think of the French avant-gardist Man Ray learning the fundamentals of drawing from the founder of the first 20th century American art movement. Of Henri Man Ray says,
“He was considered a rebel in art circles and among the critics, but regarded with respect, probably because of his pronouncements in the school that he ran under his name. Passing around from drawing to drawing, he made gentle, encouraging remarks, but never touched the drawings nor criticized adversely. Stopping in front of my work, he put his hand to his chin and was silent for a few moments. Then he spoke: This was the sort of thing most people would understand and like; however, we should try to assert our individuality even at the risk of being misunderstood.”
Another one of his teachers was George Bellows. One day Bellows took one of Man Ray’s drawings and placed it in front of the class. As Man Ray describes it, “He spoke at length about initiative and imagination; everyone looked and listened attentively, including the model standing nude amongst us. What a picture, I thought; it would need a Manet to paint it.”
In 1912 one of the first people he met at the Center was the painter Stephen Halpert. Halpert had just returned from studying with Matisse in Paris. One of the first things he said to Man Ray was that he should “break away from academic influences if he wanted to become a significant painter.” He also suggested that Man Ray come visit an art colony in New Jersey with him.
As early as the mid 1800s, artists began to come to New Jersey. The first being an illustrator, portraitist, and genre painter named James E. Maxfield. He actually built a house on the corner of Studio Road and Art Lane that is still there. William Glackens, Alfred H. Mauer apparently participated. The Country Sketch Club was founded and housed there in 1897. So these roads were already well established when Man Ray arrived. Coincidently the Country Sketch Club folded in 1912, the year before Man Ray arrived.
Hoboken is not the original artists enclave just beyond the boundaries of arty Manhattan. In fact it is a very late incarnation of a tradition of utopic colonies situated around the Pallisades of New Jersey where radical artists, intellectuals and utopic-minded community builders sought to break free of the urban and the conventional. Perdita Buchan in her book, Utopia, New Jersey: Travels in the Nearest Eden tells a tale of quite remarkable places like the Helicon Home Colony started in 1906 founded by Upton Sinclair from the proceeds of The Jungle. It was based on a model put forth by the feminist writer and author of The Yellow Wallpaper, Charlotte Perkins Gilman. A life long socialist, he invited artists, writers, editors, teachers and professionals of all kinds to come out to Helicon, ironically considering the topic of this essay, to “avoid the drudgeries of domestic life.” It did not last long because it burned down in the spring of 1907 under suspicion of arson. But while running, Will Durant visited, as did John Dewey and William James who was apparently quite taken with one residents’ use of the Ouija Board (14). John Coryell, originator of the Nick Carter detective series, and his wife left the center to become two of the first teachers at the Ferrer School.
There was also “Free Acres: A Single Tax colony” founded by Bolton Hall (a follower of Tolstory) and Ami Mali Hicks in 1910 in Berkeley Heights, New Jersey based on the principles of Henry George proponent of the single text movement (between 1895-1927 there were ten single-tax colonies in the United States). Ami Malu Hicks was a famous designer, who had worked with Max Reinhardt and Norman Bell Geddes. She was influenced by William Morris and the arts and crafts movement. Free Acres exists to this day. James Cagney and his wife was one of the early residents.
The most substantial New Jersey community was called The Modern School of Stelton, New Jersey and was a direct outgrowth of the Ferrer Modern Schools. It sought to teach Hand, Heart, Head rather than the three R’s. Devoted to working class children, one of the participants who taught there dreamed of a Worker’s College, in which the children and their elders alike might be trained to bring about a world set free from the ugliness of injustice and the ugliness of greed…For then it may succeed, perhaps, in bringing about the two types we need most—the dreamer –artists to depict a better world. And creator-artists to make a better world!” (Dr. H.T. Schnittkind)
“The artist was fundamental to the dream of a more just society. The buildings of the original school still stand and represent “a landmark in the history of both the free education movement, and, and the anarchist movement in early 20th c America.”
But even before Helicon Home Colony and the Stelton Modern School, there was an artist’s community founded in the Pallisades called The Country Sketch Club (1898-1912). “The club’s objectives were defined as the encouragement ‘of individual work among members and the fostering of an art native to this country.” Its membership grew rapidly, and in 1898 its first exhibition was held.” Today there is no Wikipedia entry for The Country Sketch Club in New Jersey, just a mention of it in a little known but essential essay by Francis Naumann and Gail Stavitsky about Ridgefield, New Jersey and an essay about its founder, “Van Deering Perrine and The Country Sketch Club,” by Arlene Pancza. Rooted in the rural and artistic experience of the American experience, it took a turn towards American modernism in 1901 when Emmanuel Radnitzky was 11 years old:
“A turning point in the history of the Country Sketch Club … with the presentation of a large show of 139 paintings and sketches by twenty-four artists at the Art Institute of Chicago. Among the exhibitors was William Glackens, whose participation has been traced to a visit made by his teacher and colleague Robert Henri (1865-1929) to Ridgefield in 1900.”
Here we have Henri’s visit to Ridgefield a decade before his Ferrer student, Man Ray would turn to it as a source of freedom. In 1910 Emma Goldman is said to have visited Ridgefield. Ironically by 1912 The Country Sketch Club itself ceased to exist, the very same year Sam Halpert took Man Ray to Ridgefield and Duchamp, off in Paris, was painting his Nude Descending the Staircase and placing a bicycle rim on a stool for distraction and amusement.
There were no shops, the nearest village being a mile away. My landlord supplied me with milk, bread, and eggs, which I could fry on a small kerosene stove. His wife offered to kill and roast a small chicken, all for a profit of course. Cold, clear water came from a well nearby. This and the ten minute walk through the woods were to me symbols of my escape from the sordidness of the city.”
There is much that happened to Man Ray during the three years he and Ridgefield were connected but what is important for this essay is it all happened because of his friendships at Ferrer, which all happened because of his wandering into 291. As naïve and unmodern as the newly fashioned Man Ray was in his early 20s, it was at Ridgefield he would begin to find himself a modern artist even before the 1913 Armory show. Seeing Cézanne and Picasso at 291 in March and April of 1912, certainly began the journey but it is at Ridgefield, after painting directly from nature for a good amount of time, that Man Ray returned from what I gather was an arduous hiking trip, only to swear he’d never paint from nature again; he would paint from memory. In other words, his work took on the experimentalism of his time not just because of his visits to 291 nor the 1913 Armory show where he saw Marcel Duchamp’s much maligned Nude Descending a Staircase, (1912) but also because of his experience with nature in Ridgefield before 1913. Apparently, after the Armory Show he made a cubist portrait of Alfred Stieglitz.
In Ridgefield Man Ray also met the Belgian poet Adon Lacroix.She would be at first just a room-mate but soon they fell in love and eventually marry in 1914. She would be the first of an amazing string of marriages and loves in Man Ray’s life such as with Kiki of Montparnasse or the formidable Lee Miller. Adon introduced him to French writers like Baudelaire and Rimbaud, Mallarmé, Lautréamont and Apollinaire. Together they published a small project based on her poems and Man Ray’s drawings. They were even written up in the local newspaper as bohemian celebrities of sorts.
So from 291 to Ferrer to Ridgefield and the 1913 Armory Show, Man Ray’s formation as a modern artist did not sprout whole from the forehead of Paris, nor with his association with New York Dada, nor as the Man Ray Trust infers, from his connections in Greenwich Village (?!), but was based in his participation in a series of indigenous America experimental communities of his time.
Ridgefield was a hotspot of modernist crossings not just in the visual arts, but remarkably, through Man Ray’s roommate the poet, playwright, author Arthur Kreymborg, with the beginnings of American literary modernism as well. As Man Ray remembers it:
“We got an old kitchen table and a chair from the landlord; Kreymborg laid out some books and papers. I was very pleased. We might develop into something more than merely an artist’s colony: Ridgefield, New Jersey —our colony was within its boundaries—could become an advanced cultural center embracing all the arts. We put our chairs out in the sun, talked, smoked and got acquainted.”
Can’t you see it as a scene from Mildred’s Lane?
In 1915, Kreymborg with the help of Walter Arensburg started to publish the important literary journal, The Others, “and the social scene became increasingly lively as pioneering poets affiliated with The Others mingled with anarchists, self-styled nature lovers, and artists taking a break from the city.’” Among them were Mina Loy and Marianne Moore. One of the first contributors to the journal was none other than William Carlos Williams who frequented Kreymborg’s home “to help with the magazine which had saved my life as a writer.” In his memoirs, Williams recalled having ‘arguments over cubism, which would fill an afternoon. It seemed daring to omit capitals at the head of each poetic line. Rhyme went by the board. We were, in short, ‘rebels.’” Williams, along with Malcolm Cowley “… was part of the magazine’s revolving editorship.”
But, in 1915, when Arensberg first arrived, he also brought with him something that would lead to one of the greatest creative friendships of the 20thc —that something was the tall, quiet French artist who had started to create dada four years before formal Dada was founded in Zurich. Duchamp had begun to make a name for himself in Paris before arriving in New York, and had of course scandalized New York critics at the 1913 Armory Show with Descending The Staircase. Man Ray had had one solo show at the Daniel gallery in Chicago by this time. In other words, Man Ray was just forming, while Duchamp was already well-formed. He would give up art for chess in three years. But there they stood, in the cross hairs of New Jersey, shaking hands. Because of the language barrier, their friendship began quite intuitively not with words but with a spontaneous bit of play. Man Ray pulled out a pair of tennis rackets and he began lobbying an imaginary tennis ball to Duchamp. Not missing a beat, Duchamp proceeded to volley over their invisible net, responding upon each hit, merely by Oui Oui/Yes,Yes.
Man Ray would leave Ridgefield in 1915 and move back to New York, eventually leaving for Paris in 1921. From 1915 to 1921 he had three solo shows, became a regular at Arensberg’s soirees, helped found the Societé Anonyme (which means corporation by the way) with Duchamp and Katherine Drier before taking off to Paris. By then he and Duchamp would “try” dada out in New York only to find “New York is Dada,” as he famously proclaimed. In the year before he moved to Paris, Man Ray took a photo of an artwork in Duchamp’s studio. That photograph, Dust Breeding (1920), is the transitional object that will take us to Mildred’s Lane some century later.
After I gave this slight talk among the Thoreau fellows at Mildred’s Lane, Morgan responded enthusiastically, so much so I decided to write it up. As I did I began to realize, Man Ray’s pre-Paris life was actually a premonition, or an early example of, the precise kind of American community of friendship and art that are the foundations of Mildred’s Lane. In other words, friendship and affective bonds, spontaneous communities inflected with what artists do when they are together, all staged within a context of radical pedagogy and domestic environments. (e.g., Arensberg’s home, and remember—for three years Ridgefield was Man Ray’s home.)
Mildred’s Lane is not a school but a social experiment in pedagogy and art. It is not for the working class in Ferrer’s sense but it is for the working class of the artist, particularly ones interested in labor (like “fooding” and “dwelling” and making shacks). In our time, artistic labor is exploited and abused making the artistic class both one of the most privileged as well as materially deprived. Mildred’s Lane is as much about education and the sharing of information as it is a place where artists gather informally to present work. It is a kind of anarchist (in the lose sense) post, post Modern School where Puett and Dion accidently, like Man Ray, Adon Lacroix, Alfred Kreymborg and even William Carlos Williams before them, founded a singular venue for the production of social art, in their home.
Here is an important statement by Morgan from The Grafter’s Shack, an installation on beekeeping that took place at Wave Hill in 2002. In it she emphasizes the desire to bring forth the working life of, as she puts it, “the people who made history but didn’t make the history books,”and to explore and make visible their contributions to the social fabric. I continue to focus more rigorously on the cultural contributions of those people derided as folk, outsider and the untrained by creating conceptual textiles that tell these stories; also through my clothes, site and project-oriented installations, and most particularly my long term project for preservation and adaptive reuse of vernacular outbuildings. I continue to interject these voices into the public discourse, not through a method, which turns ideas and things into artifacts, but rather in a way which elucidates the relevance of past innovation in a contemporary culture. ” [emphasis added]
Could Man Ray’s early brass lampshade and 1911 Tapestry be considered “conceptual textiles” avant le lettre? And might we see the history of Ferrer and Ridgefield as somewhat hidden histories in the story of high modernism? Certainly they are according the description from The Man Ray Estate where they do not even appear.
There are many differences between Man Ray’s time and our own but learning this history, one sees a kind of vernacular American modernism emerge in the visual arts and poetry through affective bonds rather than self-conscious dogmas. There really wasn’t such a thing as an art world at that time, more many communities of artists. According to Arthur Danto, the art world didn’t exist until 1964 – an invention of circuits of galleries, museums and the discourse of art produced in art magazines. Fittingly that art world is precisely what social practice and Mildred’s Lane in particular seeks to confront and turn inside out as seen by the living installation put up at MOMA. As Morgan said, she isn’t interested in method so much as the ways past innovation is part of contemporary culture. Perhaps there needs to be a Man Ray in New Jersey Shack built among the Grafter’s Shack, The Alchemy Shack, or the Bird Blind at Mildred’s Lane.
So one is out in the country at Mildred’s Lane. The Barn is the workspace. It is here, with bats sleeping or circling over-head, that all lectures, seminars, and workshops take place. The main house is where participants eat, some sleep, and where everyone may peruse the library. It is also where Salty the Turtle lives, with his friends Sam and Fran. Salty is integral to Mildred’s Lane, so much so he traveled to MOMA for the exhibition. Salty is a fresh water turtle discovered by Mark Dion and his son, Grey Rabbit along a salty beach where he was most likely abandoned by some well-meaning yet clueless owner. Salty is different from most turtles. If you pass by he comes at you with what appears to be passionate curiosity (but he is of course looking for food). Feeding Salty, as eating at Mildred’s Lane, is one of the great events and pleasures. If you look at Salty, he looks back. He follows you. He is an engaged participant as is anyone who comes to Mildred’s Lane. This is a place for those with the curiosity and passion to connect that Salty embodies.
Mildred’s Lane has now moved beyond the circle of friends into a wider social community. Fellows come from colleges around the country to participate, while artists are invited to create classes, give talks, and explore projects for periods of three weeks at a time, such as The Country and The City, which produced this paper. It is not described as a colony or residency but “a home, an experiment in living that has developed according to a rigorous pedagogical strategy, a working-living –researching environment that fosters engagement with every aspect of life. The entire site has become a living museum —or rather, a new contemporary art complex(ity).” It has emerged organically, out of the relationship and practice of two artists and their community, much like Man Ray’s involvement in Ridgefield grew out of his friendship with Samuel Halpert. Like Mildred’s Lane, Ridgefield is a place rooted in home and affective bonds. But unlike Ridgefield, Mildred’s Lane is sprinkled with lived theoretical relations such as comportment, workstyles, or hooshing .
As Man Ray was part of his zeitgeist so is Mildred’s Lane emblematic of our own. It is an artist’s community driven by a creative practice based on theoretical complexity. Theory wasn’t around in Man Ray’s day, and one assumes he wouldn’t necessarily have been interested in it, although Duchamp more or less invented conceptual art. But theory is part of our world today. A product of the late 20th century; in the 21st c, theory is now embedded in art practice. By this I do not mean one applies theory to art, but art derives from the conversations of our times which are driven by people like Deleuze, Bourriard, Rancière, Zizek, and Gayatri Spivak’s (whose most recent book suggests it is the aesthetic that is the way out of the crises we are in.) This is important because Mildred’s Lane’s is built from an abundance of creative theories such as workstyles, hooshing, and comportment. It is about living thinking. It is also one of the few moments where the ideas of Deleuze about “becoming,” about art as affect and sensation rather than representation, have true relevance as guiding principles. This is not just my egghead point but is embedded in the very literature Mildred’s Lane has produced about itself. In one of the broadsides produced for Renovating Walden they list a number of concepts with definitions. The Lyceum begins with: “affect: concept theorized by philosophers Baruch Spinoza, Gilles Deleuze, and Felix Guattari. According to Spinoza’s Ethics III, 3 Definition 3, an affect is an empowerment, and not a simple change or modification. Affects according to Deleuze, are not simple affections, as they are independent from their subject. Artists create affects and percepts, ‘blocks of spacetime,’ whereas science works with functions, according to Deleuze, and philosophy creates concepts.”
In other places Mildred’s Lane is defined as a community of affects. The very living installation created at Moma is called Common Senses. Most prominent is the idea that Mildred’s Lane is in a constant state of becoming: “Mildred’s Lane as a place is a future preserve becoming.” Or is interested in “the emerging event.” Witness Morgan traveling with Grey Rabbit around the world to engage in “moving the area of the commons.” She calls it “whole schooling.” Where-ever they travel they exchange products of labor and community in “creative innovative domestication.” “When you visit, you are in a life, not in a studio.” Another phrase used is “situated engagement” which echoes Donna Haraway’s “situated knowledges.” Buried in the final essays in the book of Essays produced by the Renovating Walden project, is the connection with Thoreau as a thinker who believed in how “words can…have a transformative effect that motivates people as activists in the service of social justice.” Mildred’s Lane is practical thinking and mindful doing.
Also within these essays one learns the origins of the word economy, one of the early chapters in Thoreau’s famous book. The word “economy” comes from the greek, oikonomia , meaning “ household management, thrift.” Puett has resisted making her home into a non-profit economy because “the minute money comes into it, everything changes.” Instead she has set up the Complex(ity) in downtown Narrowsberg, a full floor building where Puitt has set up a workspace. In it she and her fellows make Morgan Puett Designs (from her fashion line in the 80s and 90s) to raise money for Mildred’s Lane. It is one of the workstyles Mildred’s Lane hopes to use to sustain itself outside of bureaucratic, institutional, corporate funding.
Workstyles is one of the wonderful words Mildred’s Lane uses to reinvent labor, here the domestic labor of everyday life. Workstyles is related to hooshing. Hooshing is basically mindful house keeping, or really mindful living where at every moment one establishes a relationship to the world capable of aesthetic intervention. I imagine Man Ray’s mother Manya was good at hooshing! And just to maintain its avant garde origins, here is Alfred Jarry rnacting a hoosh six years after Man Ray’s birth, while serving in the army!
It is no mere gesture toward the rhetorical that this object, which in the civilian world is commonly known as a broom, is here referred to as a “brush.” This is because it is only suited, at best, for sketching out decorative motifs in the dirt, and for roughly outlining the design of some future sweeping project, one which is likely to remain in the realms of the improbable.
As the Modern School was interested in the laboring classes, there is a tradition of art that is concerned with ideas around work and labor. One of the most thorough contemporary exhibitions on the topic of work is Helen Molesworth’s Work Ethic, held at The Baltimore Museum of Art, October 2003-January 2004. In her catalogue essay “Work Ethic,” she writes on Mierle Laderman Ukeles’s Maintence Work, an artistic legacy critical to Mildred’s Lane. Here is her description:
“In the seventies Ukeles did a series of performances entitled Maintenance Art, in which she cleaned spaces ranging from her home to museums to public sidewalks. These performances posited an equivalence between “public” and “private” institutions of art-galleries, museums, and private homes-by suggesting that domestic labor is not exclusively “private.” Instead, her work argues that maintenance work is a continuum that connects usually unseen/unpaid domestic labor to the same maintenance work that occurs in “public” institutions.”
Ukeles is obviously a guiding spirit of a place like Mildred’s Lane. Her Maintenance Art brings the domestic into the public sphere. She is involved in a kind of urban hoosh. But aside from Jarry’s broom as design tool demonstrating his usual prescience within the history of modernism, Man Ray’s Dust Breeding, 1920 is surely one of the great speciman’s of a pre-Mildred involuntary hooshing
Think of Dust Breeding as the result of Man Ray’s intuitive sense of the hoosh. Hoosh does not mean to clean and order and make nice like Martha Stewart but to construct, discover, and make aesthetic interventions. What else is Dust Breeding than the recognition of the remarkable aesthetics of dust. To have wiped it clean wouldn’t have been a hoosh but a basic house cleaning intervention—a way to clean off the art. Here we are thankful Duchamp was not a tidy house- keeper and that Man Ray realized the dust had basically hooshed itself into a pattern. Dust Breeding’s brilliance is Man Ray’s humorous and yes, dada, manner of turning art inside out: don’t photograph The Large Glass but it’s dust. This is an attention to the invisible and unrecognized everyday life that is here before us. Think of Man Ray as Salty the turtle zoning in on his environment at hand.
In one of the Renovating Walden essays, Erik Benjamin defines hooshing as:
“The hoosh insists on the collective and communal, inherent within a domestic model that warrants a comfortable informality, forming and molding relationships in the kitchen, garden, or parlor. The domestic validates the local: you can and should peep over the fence into the neighbor’s backyard with an invitation for coffee….A hoosh gloriously affirms the active energy inherent in a domestic model that rigorously plays with locality and comfort as tools to imbue a space and setting with a dialogue, joke, critique, drama, lecture, or toast. …Whether dinner or lecture, bedroom or garden, a hoosh does not discriminate. A proper hoosh demands a space or event with bodies that live and breathe, please and woo, and perhaps, most importantly, jumpstart an idea that’s always been there, just often swept off sidewalks into cities we have become so accustomed to.”
On November 4th 2012, in the Common Senses exhibition at MOMA, Kristnya and Marek Milde, held a Do It Yourself workshop called, “The Color of The Home. ” What they did was produce colored wall paint, and a color chart, from pigment made from ordinary household dust. “Special call: If you can, bring a handful of dust sweepings from your apartment for the workshop with you. Just sweep it into a plastic bag before you go!” It is not only Man Ray who knew how to make art out of dust but the extended limbs of Mildred’s Lane. Last summer the artist Eve Andrée Laramée, gave a talk during the Mildred’s Lane Alchemy session. In the 1990s Laramée made work transforming other artists work into foods and medicines. She decided to collect dust from Duchamp’s The Large Glass on view in Philadelphia. She wrote to the Curator of Contemporary Art and asked if he could save the dust that fell off The Large Glass the next time the custodial crew cleaned it. Here is her description:
“Several months later, I received a small padded envelope in the mail addressed from the Philadelphia Museum. I eagerly opened the envelope and out fell a small pile of finely broken glass. My heart sank. I thought they considered my request a joke, and sent broken glass in response to the Large Glass having been broken in transit many years before.”
Upon unfolding the letter within, the letter a tiny dust ball wafted out, about three eighths of an inch in diameter, and a small black plastic screw cap. The letter stated that the museum purchased a brand new Windsor & Newton Series-Seven red sable brush to gather the dust from the metal bar that separates the upper “bride” portion of the Glass from the lower “bachelors” portion. They then placed this miniscule dust ball into a tiny glass vial. The vial broke in transit in the mail.
She calls the piece: Duchamp’s Dustball.
Further connections between Duchamp and Mildred’s Lane are reiterated by Ginger Gregg Duggan and Judith Hoos Fox, in their essay “Being (T)here” As they say, “It is Duchamp’s positioning of the everyday as central with his Ready Mades that urges us to begin our journey here.” By here they mean Mildred’s Lane.
Helen Molesworth elegantly ties it all together in her essay on Duchamp’s “Work Avoidance” from Art Journal in 1997:
“A hat rack and coat rack to hang things on, a comb to straighten one’s hair, a cover to protect a typewriter from dust, a urinal for peeing in, a rack to dry bottles, a shovel to remove snow. Almost all of Duchamp’s readymades could have been found in an average home or store; they are mundane objects of everyday life. Sharing the attribute quotidian, the readymades are also bound together by the processes of maintenance. They are objects for cleaning, hanging, storing, drying, preening, and peeing: objects whose purpose is to aid in self-presentation, objects that allow homes and offices to function. They are the unsung aids that allow us to do the work of maintaining house and body, so that we are better prepared to do our other work, like making art, for instance. “Workstyles is all about putting the work back into the ready made.”
But Molesworth takes the point even further as she analyzes some photographs of Duchamp’s studio from 1912-15. First she reminds us that Duchamp’s ready mades were not widely exhibited until after World War II. She then continues:
“These studio photographs do not show the (glorified) artist at work. Instead, we see ambiguous rooms filled with curious objects. Ambiguous because these rooms are not only Duchamp’s studio, they are also his home. …These photographs provide us with a context to view the readymades, but one characterized by blurred boundaries. The home, traditionally conceived of as a space of rest, is here crossed with the studio, historically understood as the primary site of artistic work”.
By sheer chance this could be a description of Mildred’s Lane as well. Such affinities need not be conscious. Nor Duchamp’s domestic experimentalism, described in Molesworth’s conclusion:
“The lack of a hard-and-fast divide between work and leisure is emphasized by these images of functional maintenance objects-objects designed to aid in the cleaning and tidying up of places and people-rendered deliberately dysfunctional.”
Mildred’s Lane “refunctions” the ready made and turns it away from its alienated production: not vacuum cleaner but broom, not paper towel but repurposed napkins made of raw linen, not house cleaning but hooshing.
No doubt Man Ray and Duchamp would have been at home at Mildred’s Lane. Man Ray’s sewn brass lampshade, made well before he went to New Jersey, is of course a founding object in the history of creative domesticity.
The Gift heralds also an age of antibourgeois domesticity.
Mildred’s Lane does not traffic in anti or pro bourgeois (in a way everyone but the working poor are bourgeois these days) but the idea of the “coevolvement” of inhabited spaces; neither bourgeois or anti-bourgeois but attached to the lost histories Puett works at reinvigorating such as the rural work clothes of the depression era in her fashion line.
While Man Ray and Duchamp did everything they could to unravel art, Mildred’s Lane is where those rambunctious modernist threads return to refashion and repurpose domesticity in order to produce community and critique. In other words, Man Ray’s Tapestry wouldn’t just hang on the wall at Mildred’s Lane but would serve as a blanket to keep body and mind warm during one of the discussions in the barn.
Although there is much more to say about Mildred’s Lane, let me end here, with the chance coincidence of the very subject that brought me to Mildred’s Lane. Innovation is innovation, whether that of Man Ray’s industrious mother, the young Emmanuel with his locomotive and brass lampshade, the two most rigorous of the high modernism of the 20th century playing with everyday objects, or the creative domesticity that heralds from Mildred’s Lane.
In this end, this paper is at once a joke—did you here the one about Man Ray in New Jersey?, and a serious history across a hidden history of modernisms built from the vibrant and important rural artists colonies right outside of New York at the end of the 19th, ushering in the 20th. It is about a simple talk given spontaneously that actually became the framework for a legacy in which to situate Mildred’s Lane, where, in the words of Morgan, “All in all we remain ambassadors of entanglement and seekers of new modalities of exchange that aspire to a hopeful modernity.” A hopeful modernity, Emmanuel Radnitzky, would have liked that.