Man Ray (1890–1976), a pioneering American modernist associated with dada and surrealism, captured this image as part of a photographic series he made beginning in 1934 of “mathematical objects”—old plaster models of algebraic formulae that he encountered on display in dusty cases in Paris’s Institut Henri Poincaré, named for the highly influential mathematician who popularized principles of relativity and non-Euclidian geometry (the geometry of curved planes). Man Ray appropriated these seemingly sterile objects based on logic and, through aesthetic choices, animated them and made them his own.
Here he enlivens the sculptural form and gives it a monumental presence through dramatic lighting and close cropping. The deep shadows and brilliant highlights reflected on its spiraling planes and arcing projections heighten the model’s evocation of a sensual, androgynous figure, capable of movement. Man Ray asserted that “the formulas accompanying [these models] meant nothing to me, but the forms themselves were as varied and authentic as any in nature.” He was no doubt drawn to their conical, ovoid, and spiraling shapes, which echoed the geometric underpinnings of cubism and the biomorphic forms favored by Man Ray and other surrealists. The unadorned plaster construction of these models likely also appealed to him and his artistic cohorts, who favored that inexpensive, white medium for their sculptures and surrealist objects. In this example we see Man Ray recognizing the aesthetic, intellectual, and mysterious qualities of a non-art object born of logic and, through appropriation and aesthetic choices, presenting it as his own, sensuous work, rich with visual and intellectual associations.