Lot 141
  • 141

Man Ray

20,000 - 30,000 GBP
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  • Man Ray
  • Chess Set 
  • signed Man Ray, dated 1945 and inscribed The KING Series II Set No. 5 (on the white king)
  • A wooden chess set comprising thirty-two pieces accompanied by a chessboard 
  • The King: 9cm.; 3½in.
  • Pawn: 4.5cm.; 1¾in. 


Acquired by David Bowie before 1992

Catalogue Note

For Man Ray, the game of chess was not only a pastime, but also an important source of inspiration for his art. He learnt the game under the guidance of his friend and fellow-artist Marcel Duchamp and the two played together frequently. Whilst Duchamp became increasingly focused on the game – eventually playing professionally – Man Ray became more interested in the artistic possibilities of the subject. As he later wrote in his autobiography: ‘Chess occupied him [Duchamp] more and more; he spent much time studying the game and frequenting the chess world. I remained a third-rate player – a wood pusher, as he said: my interest was directed towards designing new forms for chess pieces, of not much interest to players but to me a fertile field for invention’ (Man Ray, Self Portrait, Boston, 1988, p.186).

Man Ray created his first chess set, in silver plate, in 1920 in New York and over the following decades developed increasingly abstract, geometric designs following his own mandate, ‘Begin with Cézanne and terminate in endgame’. His artistic elucidations of the subject were most powerfully demonstrated by the 1944 exhibition The Imagery of Chess in New York. Organised by Duchamp, it brought together works by thirty-two artists (matching the number of pieces on a chessboard), including Max Ernst, Yves Tanguy, André Breton, Dorothea Tanning and Man Ray. The highlights of the exhibition were a number of newly designed chess sets by a variety of artists including Breton’s collaborative Wine Glass Chess Set as well as sets designed by Man Ray. These were accompanied by a text in the exhibition catalogue which insisted: ‘Cannot a new set be designed, that is, without too radical a departure from the traditional figures, at once more harmonious and more agreeable to the touch and to the sight, and above all, more adequate to the role the figure has to play in the struggle? Thus, at any moment of the drama its optical aspect would represent (by the shape of the actors) a clear incisive image of its inner conflicts’ (The Imagery of Chess (exh. cat.), Julien Levy Gallery, New York, 1944-45). 

Man Ray responded to this, continuing to develop striking designs that were modulated by his personal experience as a player and his sensitivity to the formal resonances of the game. Reflecting the artist’s ‘dazzling multiplicity of talents’ (Merry Foresta et al., Perpetual Motif: The Art of Man Ray, 1988, Washington, D.C., p.9), Chess Set illustrates Man Ray’s extraordinary dexterity in his multi-disciplinary approach and his desire to innovate and accomplish in a manner not dissimilar to the cerebral intricacies of a game of chess.