The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2023

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SEPT 2023 Issue
Art Books

Mina Loy: Strangeness Is Inevitable

Edited by Jennifer R. Gross, Ann Lauterbach, Roger L. Conover, and Dawn Ades
Mina Loy: Strangeness Is Inevitable
(Princeton University Press, 2023)

Fille en robe rouge (1913), by writer and artist Mina Loy (1882–1966), is a delicate watercolor that shows a young woman who makes steely eye contact with the viewer, as if you caught her attention in passing. Her face is calm and composed, her lips pursed, her posture relaxed. She interlocks arms with another woman, whose back is turned to us as she exits the frame. The portrait is placeless; they exist amidst a rich umber background. It upends the traditional portrait form—while she is still, almost posed, her companion is in motion, ushering her along.

Loy’s star-studded list of friends and contemporaries included William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound, Man Ray, Marianne Moore, Sylvia Beach, Sigmund Freud, Djuna Barnes, James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, Marcel Duchamp, Peggy Guggenheim, and Florine Stettheimer, to list a few. A new book titled Strangeness Is Inevitable (Princeton University Press) and a corresponding exhibition at Bowdoin College Museum of Art suggest some ideas as to why she isn’t more well-known, and provide a primer on the multifaceted artist and writer. The book chronicles her life and work through photographs, letters, sketches, essays, and contextual ephemera with an emphasis on Loy’s artistic pursuits, which Jennifer Gross argues have gone largely unacknowledged. “While literary historians have embraced the breadth and force of her written work,” writes Gross, “art historians have yet to fully acknowledge the modern marvel that was Mina Loy.”

This canonical omission matters in part because Loy didn’t see her artistic and authorial efforts as separate: “The two, writing and painting, go together with me,” she once wrote in a letter. Her sense of sound and sight merge; her poems are often dense and florid, heavy with adjectives, and difficult to parse. “Lunar Baedeker,” a fever dream of infernal alliteration, opens, “A silver Lucifer / serves / cocaine in cornucopia / To some somnambulists / of adolescent thighs / draped / in satirical draperies.” She once said that “poetry is prose bewitched,” and there is certainly a witchy quality to her work, particularly her fascination with moons, an image that recurs in both her writing and art. Poetry, she continued, is “a music made of visual thoughts, the sound of an idea.” This belief lends her writing an abstract, dizzying quality.

Mina Loy, <em>Untitled (Surreal Scene)</em>, ca. 1935, gouache with collage on panel, 20 3/4 × 16 3/4 inches. Private collection. Photo: Jay York.
Mina Loy, Untitled (Surreal Scene), ca. 1935, gouache with collage on panel, 20 3/4 × 16 3/4 inches. Private collection. Photo: Jay York.

Loy, as many of the writers in the book point out, ducks and dodges categorization. Her life was unstable, at times nomadic, often financially precarious, and always aesthetically varied—her work spanned from high art to trash that she scavenged on the street and then crafted into theatrical, disquieting scenes of New York City’s Bowery. Historians struggle to situate her within a single movement, aligning her most closely with Futurism, Dadaism, Surrealism, and Cubism. In a 1914 letter to then-husband Stephen Haweis, she wrote, “I am not intellectual enough to become a futurist—but am intelligent enough to have given up everything else.” A mutual admiration and friendship with Gertrude Stein placed her adjacent to the giants of the Paris avant garde.

Loy’s early work consisted of delicate, thoughtfully wrought line drawings, mostly portraiture, designed with dynamic compositions. Eight years before Fille en robe rouge, Loy sketched her self-portrait, Devant le miroir (ca. 1905). This image is less stylized and rendered with greater detail than Fille, but the subjects wear the same cool expression and seem to see right through the paper to the viewer. These quieter moments of clear-sighted interaction with the audience are particularly compelling.

Loy created an impressive breadth of output, which, seen together, reveals an ongoing interest in women’s experiences, fashion, and the spiritual. By 1930, her work had evolved into surrealist paintings composed of religious or galactic imagery. In her eerie “Drift of Chaos” series, her subjects don’t take concrete shape; they are soft unrealized essences, plush and illusionistic, implying something both present and unknown. This phase resonates with much of her writing in its shared ethereal and abstract qualities. “The celestial conservatories / blooming with light / are all blown out,” she writes in the poem “‘The Starry Sky’ of Wyndham Lewis.”

Throughout her life, Loy endured tragedies that would shape her outlook on the world: the death of a child, a difficult marriage and subsequent divorce, world wars, the sudden loss of her second husband at sea, and ongoing financial woes. She did a variety of jobs to make ends meet, always finding ways to incorporate her desire to create. She designed hats and clothing, drafted new inventions, and ran a successful lamp business in New York City, selling imaginative, whimsical designs featuring graceful images of fish, sailboats, flowers, and airplanes. The book includes her sketches as well as diagrams and press coverage for these creations.

Her perspective was also undeniably and irrevocably shaped by her gender and the lack of agency she suffered as a result of society’s treatment of women. She formed her identity in cahoots with and in opposition to the role she was dealt. Loy possessed an antagonistic view of men versus women. She spent most of her life pushing against the patriarchal values and systems that stripped women of agency and recognition. In “Feminist Manifesto,” which is reproduced in full in this book, she writes, “Professional & commercial careers are opening up for you—Is that all you want?” She questioned the presumed patriarchal values women “should” adopt as they fought for equal rights.

Known for her beauty, perhaps Loy’s insistence on showing work that dealt outside of the realm of pure aesthetics related to her sense of herself as a woman. She wrote that she wanted to be “untempted by the potency of beauty,” to be a woman who “succeeded in holding on to herself.” Maybe this is why she never shied away from the grotesque, the dark, the fearful, or the mysterious in her art.


Kate Silzer

Kate Silzer is a writer living in New York City. Her work has appeared online at Hyperallergic, Los Angeles Review of Books, Artsy, and Interview Magazine.


The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2023

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