The Brooklyn Rail


All Issues
JULY/AUG 2023 Issue

Mina Loy: Strangeness is Inevitable

Mina Loy, <em>Devant le miroir</em>, ca. 1905. Graphite on brown paper mounted on cardboard, 16 × 13 inches. Private collection. Courtesy Bowdoin College Museum of Art. Photo: Jay York.
Mina Loy, Devant le miroir, ca. 1905. Graphite on brown paper mounted on cardboard, 16 × 13 inches. Private collection. Courtesy Bowdoin College Museum of Art. Photo: Jay York.
On View
Bowdoin College Museum Of Art
Strangeness is Inevitable
April 6–September 17, 2023
Mina Loy: Strangeness Is Inevitable
(Princeton University Press and the Bowdoin College Museum of Art, 2023)
Edited by Jennifer R. Gross
Contributions by Jennifer R. Gross, Ann Lauterbach, Roger L. Conover, Dawn Ades

One of the first artworks on view in Mina Loy: Strangeness is Inevitable at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art is an early self-portrait titled Devant le miroir (ca. 1905), in which graphite carves the waterline under a young eye suffused with heavy darkness. Below, a cheek shades down into a curve around sensuous lips that, one feels, used to smile. This is Mina Loy (1882–1966), a creative light both renowned and obscured in Modernism’s histories, whose eponymous exhibition is the first monographic presentation of her work, and significantly restores her to the center of international 20th century Modernism. Curated by renowned curator and scholar Jennifer R. Gross, whose research and propulsive writing build a strong current that seamlessly carries all the components of this complex show, the exhibition gathers a stunning variety of drawings, paintings, paper collages, and archival materials in its forceful argument that Loy was foremost, and in the current expansive meaning of the word, an artist.

Better known (until now) as a writer, the poet, lampshade designer and entrepreneur, international artist agent, and artist Mina Loy, born Mina Gertrude Lowy, was a British-born assimilated Jewish woman who spoke and wrote in four languages, and lived in Munich, Paris, Florence, London, New York, Mexico, and finally Aspen, where she died a naturalized American citizen. The exhibition, which originates at Bowdoin and will then travel to The Arts Club of Chicago in the spring of 2024, is largely possible due to the Mina Loy archives held by Roger Conover, the literary executor of Loy’s estate and a long-serving art and architecture editor at MIT Press. In assuming (while also demonstrating) Loy’s centrality to Modernism as it shifted with its ideas and practitioners across places and times, the exhibition and its catalog allow both a historical and contemporary view of Loy, analyzing her literary and artistic careers and works historically through her archive, and also in light of an expansive current concept of artistic production. The catalog’s contributors, who include the poet and art critic Ann Lauterbach, look back and forth between word and image, knitting back together the different parts of her life—social, literary, artistic, and entrepreneurial—that have formerly separated Loy’s accomplishments and obscured her art historical importance. The exhibition is suffused with this re-knitting, which takes physical form as paintings and drawings on the walls peer out over cases filled with archival “little magazines,” letters, photographs, and other vestiges of Loy’s busy life among Modernists.

Loy’s life took her many places, but she somehow always landed in an artistic center. She was close friends with Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas, and Djuna Barnes in Paris, lovers and collaborators with Tommaso Marinetti and Giovanni Papini in Italy, a beloved member of the Arensbergs’ circle in New York (her writing appears in the same issue of The Blind Man as Duchamp’s famous defense of his Fountain, and he curated a show of her work in 1959), a business partner with Peggy Guggenheim, an artist agent for her son-in-law and gallerist Julian Levy, and a muse and friend of Joseph Cornell, her life was lived among the Modernist pantheon. Both the archival cases and her works in the exhibition demonstrate these connections to emphasize Loy’s equal participation in the intellectual milieu of her moment. In the exhibition cases, a plenum of letters to Loy from her friends and lovers, yellowing “little magazines” opened to Loy’s poems, and photographs of Loy and her circle trace their togetherness. The artworks, too, demonstrate Loy’s friendships; a sensitive drawing of Man Ray, whose graphite-black eyes pierce from beneath peaked eyebrows, is signed at lower right: “Man Ray BY Mina Loy / Never say I don’t love you.”

Mina Loy, <em>Portrait of Man Ray</em>, ca. 1925. Graphite on paper, 20 × 12 inches. Private collection. Courtesy Bowdoin College Museum of Art. Photo: Jay York.
Mina Loy, Portrait of Man Ray, ca. 1925. Graphite on paper, 20 × 12 inches. Private collection. Courtesy Bowdoin College Museum of Art. Photo: Jay York.

In her adventurous intellectual and international life, self-possessed sexuality, and independence, Loy epitomized the “modern woman” of the early twentieth century while also complicating that celebrated stereotype. She navigated parenthood, mental illness, tragic loss, and a powerful conviction to her Christian Scientist faith, all of which complicated her trajectory as a woman artist. Indeed, even at Modernism’s center, her life and identity from the 1970s until now have proved difficult to reconcile in the writing of history as it is usually divided by discipline (and often gender), and then sub-divided further within scholarly fields. The exhibition reconnects the formerly separated elements of Loy’s hybridized artist identity into a genre-defying, internationalist, visual-linguistic creative consonant with the expansive conceptions of artistic creative production and identity of today.

Indeed, the exhibition argues for all the arguments that could be made about Loy if we view her as an artist foremost. Gross explained, “We wanted to [include] as much [archival material and artwork] as we could so people could start looking.” The exhibition and catalog offer up mountains of research that, as Gross explained, can and should seed a slew of master’s theses and doctoral dissertations. To give but one example, Loy was an innovator in the field of decorative arts, creating lampshades for fashionable late-1920s interiors and selling them through her successful Paris shop (backed by Peggy Guggenheim). Setting aside an antiquated art historical aversion to viewing such commercial activity as the stuff of art history, the exhibition asks what research might be possible with the widest possible conception of who an artist is or might have been.

The show does, at times, feel like a research gallery. In the space of two galleries, twelve didactic sections and eleven archival cases contain Modernist publications, photographs from Loy’s archive, correspondence, and ephemera, which seem to press, literally and symbolically, against the exhibition’s walls. The exhibition insists on Loy’s work, but its installation highlights the constant dialogue between her artworks and her life, writing, and visual art.

Mina Loy, <em>Moons I</em>, 1932. Mixed media on board, 26 1/4 × 35 1/4 inches. Private collection. Courtesy Bowdoin College Museum of Art. Photo: Brad Stanton.
Mina Loy, Moons I, 1932. Mixed media on board, 26 1/4 × 35 1/4 inches. Private collection. Courtesy Bowdoin College Museum of Art. Photo: Brad Stanton.

The catalog cover features one of Loy’s ethereal blue-white paintings of the 1930s, Moons I (1932). The series, which was the subject of an exhibition in 1933 at the Julien Levy Gallery in New York, covers a substantial section of the exhibition’s second room, its coruscating blue-white surreal scenes of clouds, snails, and seraphim conjuring a visionary haze. Pried free of the archival cases, these paintings by Loy prove as singular as they are strange. So, too, her incredible sculptural collaged paper works from late in her life demonstrate the scale and visual power she ultimately achieved in her artworks.

Perhaps it is the challenge of Loy, to her curators and executors and her audience, that there is so much of her vigorous life and work that it can be hard to get to the artwork. In Loy’s early self-portrait, close looking renders not only her intent eyes and set mouth, but the dark eyebrows above and the ropey twist of her slender neck below. Upright underneath the curved brim of her hat, a pensive face, beautiful and pained, knits tension, intelligence, and endurance into a steady gaze. The young artist whose face set itself toward her future and reflection in this self-portrait dares us to see her as her full self, as a creative person fluent in language and image, as an artist.


Amy Rahn

Amy Rahn, Ph.D. is Assistant Professor of Art History and Charles Danforth Gallery Director University of Maine at Augusta.


The Brooklyn Rail


All Issues