On ViewBowdoin College Museum Of Art
Strangeness is Inevitable
April 6–September 17, 2023
Mina Loy’s financial precarity may have limited the volume of her creative output, but certainly not its inventiveness or its prescient capacity to shape then-future trends in art. Loy’s ability to transform the material of the everyday, including other people’s trash, into monuments of honor—poetic installations that document the margins—may have been fostered by the necessity of resourcefulness, but it also enabled her astute commentary on socio-cultural inequities.
Mina Loy: Strangeness is Inevitable, currently on display at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art, showcases numerous, never-before exhibited works by the poet, artist, actor, designer, inventor, and cultural theorist in a groundbreaking retrospective that finally gives this early-twentieth-century artist her due. Although Loy’s significance in literary history is now well-established, she has remained relatively unknown in the wider art market and her contributions to art history are only now beginning to be recognized.
Even during the period of her life when she was very much a part of Parisian and New York art scenes in the 1920s and 1930s, Mina Loy (born Mina Gertrude Lowy, 1882–1966), was hard to place. This was due in large part to the breadth and scope of her aesthetic talents. But her blurring of boundaries was not simply aesthetic. She was spiritually and intellectually committed to the potentiality of the in-between. Loy’s liminality was at once her greatest gift and also a curse. Her map-making of threshold spaces drew the cardinal points of a cerebral and celestial territory of expression that defied categorization. In this Loy shares something with Florine Stettheimer, another until-recently overlooked multimedia artist. With her own long-overdue retrospective in 2017 at the Art Gallery of Ontario and New York’s Jewish Museum, Stettheimer’s intermedial aesthetic was similarly progressive and innovative. Indeed, Loy’s son-in-law, art dealer and gallery owner Julien Levy, encouraged a comparison if only to underscore the marketability of their shared inter-arts explorations. Following Stettheimer’s success in creating the stage sets and costumes for Gertrude Stein’s (and Virgil Thomson’s) opera Four Saints in Three Acts, Levy wrote to his mother-in-law proposing a show: “Whereas last year your pictures were criticized for being feminine and personal, now everybody is crazy for pictures which are ‘féerique’ and candy box and magical… You would like her pictures. They are your style but not as good as yours.”2
Over eighty works animate the show, including paintings, drawings, and constructions, as well as a number of her poems, letters, ingenious inventions and patents, and her prescient cultural criticism. In the show, and the accompanying catalogue of the same name, Loy dazzles in her dexterity, intellectual complexity, and aesthetic flexibility. With a muscular elegance, Loy’s images as poems and poems as linguistic constructions “blooming with light”3 bear an uncanny resonance with the current moment. They seem to anticipate a growing intolerance for the confines of heterogeneity and the boundaries of personal and public hegemony of all kinds. An interdimensional becoming characterizes much of Loy’s creative expression. Shifting and expanding what constitutes art, Loy’s influence on the trajectory of modernist art and experimentation is, the show makes clear, indisputable.
Near the entrance of the exhibit, Julien Levy’s short film of his mother-in-law walking through the Marché aux Puces in Paris in 1932 plays on a loop. Loy’s figure sways with her peripatetic orientation, as though offering guests instructions for their own discovery of her once hidden gems mounted on the gallery walls. The film also signals Loy’s insistent embodiment, an assertion that living is itself an art practice. Navigating between delicious finds in the everyday and the free fall of anxious despair, of loss and grief, Loy lived multisensually—her perceptual antennae tuned to the frequency of embodied consciousness. Through a remarkable ability to open herself to her subject, Loy transmutes her subjects, even agonizing pain, into art that is redemptive. In the film, Loy walks tall, commanding her space as she seeks materials for her alchemy. It’s a cinematic glimpse into Loy’s performative creative practice. Her daughter Fabienne moves into frame as a foil—proof, it would seem, of Loy’s life-giving capacity to manifest.
The works in the show come from a number of private and institutional lenders, but many were rescued by, or entrusted to, Loy scholar and editor Roger Conover, who has protected them for decades, not so much as a collector but as a keeper of wisdom, a process which began long before Loy’s daughters Joella Bayer and Fabienne Benedict made him their mother’s literary executor. Conover recounts:
Joella mentioned to me that she was tired of paying storage fees for “some of Mama’s Bowery trash art” and that if I wanted to pay the final bill and drive to the storage barn in Waterbury, Connecticut . . . “You can have whatever you might find there. But don’t expect much. Nothing Mama made was meant to last.”4
In the same spirit, others who have found themselves in the possession of Loy’s work sought out Conover for the safe keeping of their finds. For over forty years, Conover has been honoring Loy’s interstice of the literary, visual, and performative arts that is her monumental contribution to modern and contemporary art.
Ambulating through Loy’s multidimensionality allows visitors a chance to witness her associative and integrative art practice and process. Jennifer Gross’s curatorial acumen manages an arresting intimacy with this elusive artist, progressively removing the frame to our encounter with her spirit as we advance through the show. Layer by layer of the artist’s proclivity for disappearing (behind linguistic games and—paradoxically—through aesthetic proliferation) is removed as visitors enter the back rooms where Loy’s late assemblages beckon. Made first from New York’s Bowery trash and later from whatever she could find in Aspen’s streets (where her daughters moved her toward the end of her life), these astonishing works will give a new generation of art historians much to think about in terms of the development and practice of assemblage as an art form.
Loy’s integrationist tendency, her facility for bringing her subjects into the fold of her astonishing mind, characterizes her practice of collage and assemblage. For Loy, the emphasis is on integration rather than severance—less the cut and more the join. She was, as Gertrude Stein once wrote, “…able to understand without the commas. She has always been able to understand.”5 Loy did not need to parse things apart or follow the conventions of syntax. With an intuitive and somatic intelligence, Loy seemed at ease following the rhythms of human thought and emotionality. Her deployment of materials in the constructions is exacting even when it may appear casual or haphazard. An inscrutable attention to detail sanctifies her “Refusées”6—the derelict angels who populate her images as she repurposes and upcycles rags, egg cartons, and tin cans into cogent commentary on the human condition.
Consider for example, Christ on a Clothesline (ca. 1955–59), a mixed media assemblage in which an interdimensional God head, as grotesque as it is miraculous, emerges as though momentarily between the sway of linen and stockings on a clothesline. In this fantastic redeployment of the Shroud of Turin, the very concept of an imprint—a trace, foregrounds questions of authenticity, of self, of the art object, of perception, and of meaning-making. In contrast to the representational nature of the cityscape behind the figure (one, by the way, which is by no means emphatically male with its arms made of women’s stockings and a torso recalling the fabric of Loy’s female dress designs) contrasts the ephemeral, wind-blown entity whose hands are open not in a gesture of begging but of offering, the right wrist outturned and sending forth. Always troubling expectation, Loy insists on a deeper look. Are those facial features menacing? Or, more likely, do they depict an awakening, a coming into being as the veil of incarnation slips off and Christ arises from the mundane. Something ethereal emerges from the tenement despair.
Loy was well-versed in grief. She lost her son and first daughter as a child and baby respectively. She never recovered from losing the love of her life, her husband and the father of her daughter Fabienne when, in 1918, the proto-Dadaist poet-boxer Arthur Cravan disappeared on or off the coast of Mexico.
As a single mother, Loy worked hard to support herself and her children, trying to bridge her art and commercial production through fashion designs and inventions, even with a modicum of success, launching a lamp and lampshade business backed by Peggy Guggenheim. Archival photographs of many of these exquisite designs are on display, alighting a kind of magic lantern show of embodied modernist art making. As she writes in her poem “On Third Avenue”:
Such are the compensations of poverty
Transient in the dust,
of a trolley
loaded with luminous busts;
lovely in anonymity
with the mirage
of their passage.7
The “strangeness” of the show’s title captures the radically progressive hybridity of Loy’s creative expression, but also the otherworldly—the metaphysical investigations Loy both sought and challenged. From Madame Blavatsky and Aleister Crowley to New Thought and, ultimately, Christian Science, Loy sought the interdimensional from which an integrative healing could be found. Connection characterizes much of Loy’s work and is at the heart of this show.
As I stare into the vitrines displaying her inventions, including a startling material Loy designed called “Chatoyant”—a shimmering, reflective piece of sky, I recall holding those very same pages in my hands as a doctoral student. Sitting in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale, I couldn’t believe the literal jewels she conjured on the page or in her letters and notes, how viscerally I could sense her vocal rhythm and breath line, apprehending where and how the pressure of her pen traced the impulse of her convictions. It was transformational for me as a young writer and thinker. Like she has for so many fellow Loyalists, Loy accompanied me through my own articulations of becoming. For all those who visit the show she will no doubt do the same. Despite the ever-generative lines of Loy’s poetry that consistently score the soundscape of my thoughts, I am left speechless upon exiting the museum. Witnessing such a monumental talent come to life with such vibrancy, one whose artistic contributions have been overlooked, dismissed, and worse, potentially misattributed for decades, is extraordinary. Although the exhibition will travel to the Arts Club of Chicago, major museums worldwide should take note and follow suit.
Loy’s work is a matrix of revolutionary and regenerative thinking, contracting and dilating time so her sensitivities, insights, and artmaking are still new almost a century later. As she writes in her poem “Parturition”:
I am absorbed
Of cosmic reproductivity8
Mina Loy: Strangeness is Inevitable makes abundantly clear that Loy’s “Color-Picture Maps of Destiny” have given us her future and our own.
- Loy, Mina. “At the Door of the House” in The Lost Lunar Baedeker. Ed. Roger Conover. (Manchester: Carcanet, 1997), 33.
- Undated letter on 602 Madison, Levy Gallery, stationary to Mina from Julien, Julien Levy Papers, PMAA.
- Loy, “‘The Starry Sky’ of Wyndham Lewis,” LLB, 91.
- Conover, Roger. “Mina Loy, Bowery Construction.” https://mina-loy.com/art-exhibits/storymap-of-bowery-construction/
Gertrude Stein, Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (New York: Random House, 1960), 132.
Conover, Roger. “Mina Loy: ‘I’m Not the Museum’” in Mina Loy: Strangeness is Inevitable. New Jersey: Princeton UP, 2023, 185.
Loy, Mina. “On Third Avenue,” LLB, 110.
Loy, “Parturition,” LLB, 7.