Man Ray’s Catherine Barometer is the largest and most elaborate of the artist’s early New York objects and assemblages, prior to his departure for Paris in 1921. This peculiar device, created from various found objects, is in every way representative of the insouciant internationalist Dada spirit, and is a signal work of the New York Dada period. The artist’s method and sensibility prefigure Rauschenberg’s combines some thirty-five years later. At the very outset of his career, Man Ray declared, “I shall from now on do the things I am not supposed to do” (quoted in F.M. Naumann, op. cit., 1994, p. 78).
This work was intended as a witty, but telling joke, the thinly disguised subject of which was Katherine S. Dreier, the formidable grande dame of the early American avant-garde. The Armory Show fired a passion in Dreier, a painter herself, to seek out and collect the newest in modern art, foreign and domestic. Following a tour in 1920 of the cutting-edge art scenes in Europe, which included her first direct contacts with the artists themselves, Dreier sought to establish a permanent exhibition space in New York for the study and promotion of international modern art, the first of this kind in America.
Marcel Duchamp, having returned to New York from his stay in Buenos Aires and a trip to Europe, introduced Man Ray to Dreier, and the three of them worked together to bring her idea to fruition. Man Ray came up with the organization’s name at their first meeting. “Presently, Duchamp arrived; shortly after the hostess entered: Katherine S. Dreier,” Man Ray recounted. “She was a large, blond woman with an air of authority...Miss Dreier opened the session by declaring that first a name had to be given to the new venture. After a few suggestions, I had an idea—I had come across a phrase in a French magazine that had intrigued me: Société Anonyme—which I thought meant anonymous society. Duchamp laughed and explained that it was an expression used in connection with certain large firms of limited responsibility—the equivalent of incorporated. He further added it was the perfect name for a modern museum. I was grateful to him, because for a moment it seemed that Miss Dreier would object. The name was adopted unanimously” (op. cit., 1963, p. 77). Once legally sanctioned by the state of New York, the designation “Inc.” was appended to the name, resulting in a Dadaist redundancy: Société Anonyme, Inc.—Incorporated, Inc.
Dreier found a space for their exhibitions, in two rooms of a townhouse at 19 East 47th Street, across from the Ritz Hotel. Man Ray designed the banner that hung outside, and arranged the lighting for Duchamp, who had been designated director of exhibitions. Man Ray became the in-house photographer for promotional purposes, including the production of gallery postcards.
The Société Anonyme inaugural exhibition opened on 30 April 1920. Man Ray showed the object Lampshade, which Dreier had especially admired. Man Ray wrote in Self Portrait that the metal version shown had been hurriedly fabricated by a tinsmith to replace the found paper original which the janitor had mistaken for wrapping material and tossed into the trash. Dreier’s correspondence, however, records that she suggested to the artist that the undulating paper, which had become limp while dangling and was losing its shape, be translated into painted sheet metal.
Found objects such as the paper lampshade, altered and prepared for presentation, had become since 1917 Man Ray’s chief manner of expression, in lieu of paint and canvas, as being most consistent with the Dada spirit of creative activity that contravened any and all aspects of conventional art-making, just as Duchamp had been practicing in his wartime New York readymades. “My attitude toward the object is different from Duchamp’s, for whom retitling an object sufficed,” Man Ray explained to Arturo Schwarz. “I need more than one factor, at least two...that are not related in any way. The creative act for me is the coupling of these two different factors, in order to produce something new, which might be called a plastic poem.” Schwarz added that “Man Ray’s greatest pleasure is to modify the object, either by addition, or by multiplication” (op. cit., 1977, p. 267).
Within the glass-enclosed frame of Catherine Barometer, affixed to a wooden panel, Man Ray configured a wash-board and a glass tube inserted within an expanded spiral wire, set in front of stacked hand-made color strips comprising a paint chart. Man Ray intended this instrument as a commentary on Dreier’s mutable temperament, gauged in the various colors from which she may choose to express herself in paint. If the barometer were shaken, as advised in the oval label below the title, it would act erratically, as Man Ray regarded her characteristically impulsive, domineering approach to matters. Naumann detected “an oblique reference to the collector’s last name”; an actual barometer would measure “whether the atmosphere is going to be more humid or drier...a verbal/visual pun on Dreier’s last name” (op. cit., 1994, p. 91).
Dreier got along well with the graciously mannered and laid-back Duchamp. Her doctrinaire and ever-serious proselytizing, missionary stance on behalf of modern art, however, steeped in Theosophy, was fundamentally less compatible with Man Ray’s anarchic inclinations in art-making. The lack of success with his painting in two one-man shows in New York, and the difficulties he was experiencing with Dreier, then his only hope for advocacy in America, led Man Ray to decide that his new art might be appreciated only in Dada Paris. Duchamp agreed, and having already planned an extended stay in the French capital to visit family and friends, beginning in June 1921, suggested to his friend that he follow and join him there.
Man Ray arrived in Paris on 14 July, Bastille Day. Duchamp met him at the station and took him to the hotel room he had reserved. A few days later May Ray returned to the customs office to collect the art he had brought with him. Among some thirty works packed into a large case and a trunk, the puzzled customs inspector singled out “a strange object—a long, narrow box under glass, containing various materials, wire, colored wooden strips, a zinc wash board, and a title at the bottom: Catherine Barometer,” May Ray recalled. “It looked like some strange scientific contraption. An interpreter was brought in, and I explained that as an artist I used this as a guide for my color combinations, not wishing to enter into an exposé of what constituted a Dada object. It was passed” (op. cit., 1963, p. 94).
Serving as guide and advisor, Duchamp gave Man Ray some useful French lessons and introduced him to the Dadaists, nearly all of whom were poets—Louis Aragon, André Breton, Paul Éluard, Philippe Soupault, Tristan Tzara, and others. “These were youngsters who really had an ideal,” May Ray stated, “a violence, an enthusiasm, a conviction, which I had never come across in America except among anarchists” (quoted in Alias Man Ray, exh. cat., The Jewish Museum, New York, 2009, p. 182).
Together with Boardwalk, 1917, a painted panel with objects affixed, Man Ray showed Catherine Barometer in the 1922 Salon des Indépendants, and featured it in a selection of American and recent Paris works comprising his solo exhibition at the newly opened Galerie Surréaliste in March 1926. Arturo Schwarz classed Catherine Barometer among the artist’s “proto-surrealist objects...Man Ray was a pioneer who anticipated the surrealist object by at least a decade, and who enriched our mental world with poetic constructions…a new reality, something never before seen, a humorous and joyful invention” (op. cit., 1977, pp. 161 and 162).