Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 26, 2023
Jennifer Gross, ed. Mina Loy: Strangeness is Inevitable Exh. cat. Princeton, NJ: 232 pp.; 173 color ills.; 65 b/w ills. Cloth $49.95 (9780691239842)
Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Brunswick, ME, April 6–September 17, 2023
Mina Loy, Moons I , 1932. Private collection (photograph by Brad Stanton, provided by Bowdoin College Museum of Art)

“The flux of life,” wrote Mina Loy in a letter published in The Transatlantic Review in 1924, “is pouring its aesthetic aspect into your eyes, your ears—and you ignore it because you are looking for your canons of beauty in some sort of frame or glass case or tradition. Modernism says: why not each one of us, scholar or bricklayer, pleasurably realize all that is impressing itself upon our subconscious, the thousand odds and ends which make up your sensory everyday life?” (23). The sublime hidden in the everyday, openness to chance and intuition, the democratization of art—all these served as touchstones throughout the creative life of artist, poet, and feminist Mina Loy (1882–1966). An outsider among outsiders, Loy’s independent voice gained her admiration from art rebels Gertrude Stein, Djuna Barnes, and Marcel Duchamp. Loy’s poetry, with its electrifying word play, mordant wit, and frankness about sexuality and women’s autonomy, was featured in avant-garde journals on both sides of the Atlantic and has since attracted an ardent underground following.

Yet, despite Loy’s self-identification as a visual artist, her art—at least since her last solo show in 1959 at New York’s Bodley Gallery—has been largely ignored. Roger Conover, the literary executor responsible for keeping Loy’s poems in print, startlingly declared that “until now Loy has literally never been discussed by any art historian” (195). Mina Loy: Strangeness is Inevitable seeks to remedy this imbalance. The exhibition explores the entirety of the British-born artist’s work from 1900 to the late 1950s in media from watercolor to fresco to assemblage, made primarily in Paris, Florence, and New York. It builds the compelling case that although Loy’s art has escaped notice due to her iconoclasm, lack of a signature style, and aversion to self-promotion, the restless vitality of her multimedia explorations of the unconscious makes her a prime candidate for art historical efforts within the last decade to recuperate the work of underappreciated female artists. 

Curated by independent art historian Jennifer R. Gross, the Bowdoin College Museum of Art exhibition is the first major retrospective of Loy’s art, presenting over eighty artworks and publications drawn from a dozen institutional and private collections. These include paintings, drawings, constructions, and archival material from all stages of her career along with avant-garde journals, posters, photographs, drawings, poems, and letters by those Gross calls Loy’s “fellow art warriors.” Supporting the exhibition is a handsomely illustrated catalog edited by Gross with essays addressing Loy’s creative life by Gross, Conover, poet Ann Lauterbach, and art historian Dawn Ades.

In two magenta and slate blue galleries, the exhibition chronicles the dramatic story of Loy’s peripatetic life beginning with her escape from the constraints of her puritanical upbringing in Victorian London to study art in Munich and Paris. Atmospheric photographs from her art school days cast Loy as pre-Raphaelite dryad or dreamy bohemian with a cigarette dangling from her lips. The first image seen of Loy’s design is her exquisitely modeled self-portrait Devant le miroir (1905), in which she bluntly appraises her sorrow after the death of her firstborn child.

The urbane elegance of Loy’s early genre scenes, disturbed by a frisson of eroticism, struck contemporary critics as following in the tradition of the fin-de-siècle Decadents. But lurking beneath the decorative surface is Loy’s fury at the repression of women’s voices. Among the works Loy exhibited in the 1906 Salon d’Automne in Paris and her first one-person show at the Carfax Gallery in London in 1912, her watercolor L’amour dorloté par les belles dames (ca.1906) reverses gender stereotypes by portraying a listless young man reclining, entirely nude, in the arms of a fashionable lady on a seaside promenade. La Maison en Papier (1906) presents an enigmatic allegory of metamorphosis in the form of six human figures whose similarity of feature and gesture invite us to read them as a single identity, with a spectral woman cloistered indoors evolving into a robust androgynous figure dressed in traveling clothes. “FORGET that you live in houses, that you may live in yourself,” reads an adjacent facsimile of Loy’s Aphorisms on Futurism (1914). Inspired by the stentorian style of the Italian Futurists (whose leading figures, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti and Giovanni Papini, were Loy’s lovers), her Feminist Manifesto (1914)—a passionate call to smash the double standard that makes a cult of female chastity and demands an erasure of women’s personality—is displayed in all its broadside vitality, its typographical explosions and peppery punctuation designed to shock.

Gross showcases Loy’s creative versatility and cross-pollination with other modernist pioneers during the interwar years. Her 1922 drawing of James Joyce is paired with her poem on Ulysses heralding its “Hurricanes / of reasoned musics.” Constantin Brancusi’s photograph of his abstract sculpture Golden Bird dialogues with Loy’s portrait of the Romanian-born sculptor and her poem admiring the bird’s streamlined rendering: “a naked orientation / unwinged   unplumed.” Wyndham Lewis’s whirlwind figures match with Loy’s poem on Lewis’s painting The Starry Sky (ca. 1917), illustrating their shared exploration of the “austere theatre of the Infinite.” In her ekphrastic poems and intimate drawings (lips and eyebrows often tell us as much about the sitter as their eyes), she teases out a rare perspective on revolution.

For Loy plein air meant soaring overhead. The exhibition dramatizes her stylistic swerve into Surrealism in the 1930s, as we move past Lee Miller’s elegant black-and-white photograph of Loy into the second gallery, by surrounding us in “the celestial conservatories / blooming with light” in her poem about Lewis. Representative of her astral perspective paintings shown at New York’s Julien Levy Gallery in 1933, Moons I (1932) depicts two disembodied half-moon faces floating among the clouds, their blank marble eyes glowing as if lit from within, a string of stars draped over their long, sinuous fingers. Gone are the subtle reds and yellows of her realist studies of women, replaced by a cold blue haze like the “icicled canopy” mentioned in her poem on Poe in the first gallery. According to Gross, Loy added sand to the “fresco vero” base of plaster and gesso to enhance the luminosity of the series (70). By placing several works of contrasting subject matter in a row, Gross demonstrates the way the wonderstruck profiles of her celestial beings evolved from her sketches of women at work such as Woman Weaver (1930).

One revelation that arises from seeing Loy’s art displayed chronologically in the two galleries is that the work from the 1930s onward joins a newfound freedom of form with her voice of protest and fascination with metamorphosis present from the beginning. In her diurnal, high-altitude paintings such as Moons I and the nocturnal, watery dreamscapes of her Drift of Chaos series (1933) hanging nearby, Loy merges spiritual and artistic aspiration. Charged with disdain for a repressive system that censors imagination, her poem Apology of Genius (1922) envisions artists sharing an ascetic exile with God that bears little resemblance to any conventional idea of heaven: “We are the sacerdotal clowns / who feed upon the wind and stars / and pulverous pastures of poverty.” In portraying the artist as visionary clown or trickster, Loy aligns herself with the playful subversiveness of the Dadaists. According to Loy’s biographer Carolyn Burke, during the controversy surrounding Duchamp’s Fountain in 1917, Loy answered a reporter’s question about Duchamp’s intentions through generalization: “‘The artist is jolly and quite irresponsible,’ Mina began: art was a ‘divine joke’ which the public did not get simply because it had been trained to see things in just one way. But the artist saw each object with fresh eyes” (Picador 1996, 229). For Loy, the artist plays the role of spiritual medium, reintroducing us to our inner lives in defiance of received wisdom.

While Loy’s surrealist scenes, both light and dark, share the dream-like imagery of the Surrealists she knew in Paris, she distanced herself from what she saw as their indulgence in visual surprise and “black magic.” Like her New York friend and art ally Joseph Cornell, she believed the pathway to a more profound truth lay in the aesthetics of the everyday. Testifying to the “active studio exchange” (95) that invigorated Loy’s increasingly reclusive later years are a collaged letter from Cornell to Loy, his box Untitled (Woodpecker Habitat), and an aqueous portrait by Cornell that evokes Loy’s famously otherworldly demeanor by submerging a Man Ray photograph of her beneath blue glass and the shards of a broken mirror.

The exhibition also demonstrates that, like Cornell, Loy reveled in recycling and repurposing throughout her career. In Paris she sold lamps made from antique bottles found in flea markets (in the first gallery, silent film footage from 1932 of Loy wandering through the Marché aux Puces with her daughter Fabienne gives a delightful glimpse of her in what she joked was her “true environment . . . the dustbin”), and photographs of her ingenious trompe l’oeil lampshades are on view alongside patent applications for her innovative designs. Loy’s belief in the revelatory powers of found objects saved from oblivion reaches a culmination in the assemblages of her final solo show in 1959. Duchamp, cocurator of that final exhibition, admired what he called, in a mix of English and French, “MINA’S POEMS À 2 1/2 DIMENSIONSHAUT-RELIEFS AND BAS-FONDS” (163) to play on Loy’s uncanny use of high relief to show the depths of human suffering. In these constructions made in 1940s and 1950s New York, Loy turned her compassionate but unsentimental gaze on her most destitute neighbors in the Bowery, a world, as it appears in her poem Hot Cross Bum, “Beyond a hell-vermilion / curtain of neon” with “faces of Inferno / peering from shock-absorbent / torsos.” In Communal Cot (1949), miniature figures of people sleeping rough on the pavement are seen as if from a great height, wrapped in rags and hugging themselves for warmth. Thus the exhibition shows that Loy thought critically about the discarded and unvalued as both material and subject matter. As University of Essex professor Sanja Bahun noted in an exhibition lecture, Loy, who endured long periods of hardship herself, avoided the trap of exoticizing poverty. Instead, the artist returned to a theme common in her art and poetry, that “the earth can be redeemed by reclaiming the cast-off, by fighting against the idea that objects and people are disposable.”

Strangeness is Inevitable does not strive to squeeze Mina Loy into the highest pantheon of modern art. Instead, the ambition in recognizing the work of Loy and her peers is more realistic and ultimately more meaningful: “to enrich the definition of modernism in the twentieth century,” writes Gross, “as a phenomenon that was more aesthetically nuanced, media fluid, and culturally inclusive” (2). Loy believed in a spiritual transformation of the material world, and it is fitting that among the last glimpses we have of her in the exhibition are the lines: “Aviator’s eyes / on arrow excursion / into profusion of distance / beyond our residence.” Next to the handwritten poem is a self-portrait that reduces her image to her vigilant eyes, gazing just past us in their observation of the invisible.

Brian Boyd
Lecturer, Department of English, University of Maine Augusta