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Mina Loy, the mysterious figure who depicted wartime New York’s underbelly

Apr 21, 2023Apr 21, 2023

Mina Loy's mixed-media assemblage Christ on a Clothesline (1955-59) evokes "the drunken ‘bums’ of New York's Bowery neighbourhood"

Photo: Dana Martin-Strebel

Mina Loy (1882-1966) was an innovative Modernist poet and writer in the inter-war years. Although she trained as an artist, her art is much less well-known, a condition that is bound up with its fragility and difficulties of survival against the odds. She was born in London to a Hungarian Jewish father and English Evangelical Christian mother; two of Loy's four children died in infancy and, having divorced her first husband, the English painter Stephen Haweis, she literally lost her second, the provocateur Arthur Cravan (nom-de-plume of Fabian Lloyd) when he went to sea never to return.

She had met Cravan in 1917 in the Dada circles of wartime New York, where she contributed poetry and prose to avant-garde magazines. In 1920s Paris, while publishing her first collection of poems, The Lunar Baedecker (1923, the ‘c’ apparently a typographer's insertion), Loy established a successful business producing lampshades of complex artistic construction. By contrast, back in New York in the 1940s she made works of such defiant precarity as to be uncommercial, even anti-commercial. Berenice Abbott, Joseph Cornell, Marcel Duchamp and Peggy Guggenheim were among the small band who admired Loy's artworks, but the main challenge today is that very little remains from four decades of production.

This publication accompanies an exhibition curated by Jennifer R. Gross for Bowdoin College Museum of Art in Maine (until 17 September), which confronts the task of making sense of the fragmentary remnants of Loy's art. It is the first volume to address her artistic output in detail, from her early training at Munich's Kunstlerien Verein in 1900 and then the Académie Colarossi in Paris to her late "assemblages". Gross's introductory chapter makes up over half of the publication, and is followed by shortersections from the poet Ann Lauterbach, the art historian Dawn Ades, and the author/editor (and renowned "Loy/alist") Roger Conover. All contributions are accompanied by images of Loy and her circle, as well as photographs of lost works, articles and archive material.

Loy's repute as a writer (poet, satirist, polemicist, critic, feminist), and the international scholarship around it, underpins how the visual works are here brought to public attention. The contributors approach the task discursively: Lauterbach considering Loy's engagement with truth and beauty, Ades exploring the trajectory from Dada to the late constructions, and Conover writing more self-reflexively as a result of his experience of 50 years studying and editing Loy's work. This is a noble endeavour but, as Conover states: "Mina Loy presents formidable challenges when it comes to exhibition and publication." Foremost among these, as noted, is the debilitating loss of material, although this publication may cause some "lost" works to be recognised from the period photographs and to re-emerge. As it is, the surviving material is sometimes perilously thin. Loy's engagement with the Futurists in Florence, for instance, has encouraged Gross's suggestion that she made paintings "to test her hand at their fragmented and energetic style of painting", but this description isundercut by a footnote declaring the works "now lost". It is, of course, no fault of the curator that the works are missing, but the publication's device of directing readers to an image of a document (as in this case), rather than of a work, proves anticlimactic.

Among the early works that do survive is a 1905 self-portrait drawing, Devant le miroir. Its power is enhanced by the fact that three of the contributors interpret it in markedly different ways. Writing of "a blank, dull gaze, a somber self-regard", Gross tellingly associates the drawing with Loy's grief at the death of her first child. Ades sees the drawing as "rather imperious … in full Edwardian splendor with magnificent hat", while to Lauterbach, it is sensuous: "her eyes … look back with an expression of coolly detached appraisal." All three views hold true, so that it can be argued that only a drawing of considerable power can elicit such a variety of responses.

Loy's self-portrait, Devant le miroir (around 1905), invites multiple interpretations in the book

Photo: Jay York

The most numerous survivors are the monochromatic blue paintings that Loy showed at the New York gallery of her son-in-law, Julien Levy, in 1933 (the gallery for which she served successfully as the Parisian agent). The paintings, for which Levy coined the term bleuaille (playing on grisaille), are ethereal in their cosmic subject matter of idealised heads. They conjoin Loy's experience of the Paris avant-garde and her Christian Science beliefs, and are executed in a surreal illusionistic technique comparable to that of her friend—and the protagonist of her 1937 novel Insel—the German painter Richard Oelze. In a striking phrase, Loy's alter-ego narrator imagined "draw[ing] forth incipient form" from chaos so that "the female brain might achieve an act of creation". This vision of a female Genesis is powerfully anti-patriarchal and exemplary of Loy's feminism. (This quotation is, however, used—in full—three times; one of several signs of hurried editing. In addition, Untitled (Surreal Scene) is included among the opening images, even though Gross suggests that it may be by Loy's daughter Fabienne; and the numbering of the illustrations is confused from fig. 3.13 onwards.)

Loy's assemblages of the late 1940s and early 1950s are extraordinarily, even perplexingly, individual. Through the support of Abbott, Duchamp and Levy, they were shown by David Mann at the Bodley Gallery in 1959, their unfashionable realism garnering widespread indifference. They address, with sympathy, the condition of the most neglected members of society—the drunken "bums" of New York's Bowery neighbourhood—and their rich associations are extensively discussed in this publication. The haggard figure of Christ on a Clothesline appears to evoke the Bowery's flophouses where, as Simone de Beauvoir saw in 1947, tramps "sleep siting on benches, their arms leaning on a rope … until their time runs out; then someone pulls the cord, they fall forward, and the shock wakes them". Loy took these assemblages to a substantial scale, their fragility echoing that of the lives of her subjects. Ades questions the idea of Loy using junk, by noting how her careful workmanship was consistent with her "habit of making treasures of undervalued things". Such materials are vulnerable, however, and it is noticeable that one figure in Communal Cot—a bird's eye view with nine sleeping "bums"—has changed position: in 1959 it was upright (as Abbott's photograph records) where now it is buckled over and aligned with most of its companions. Here, as elsewhere, there is still much to explore.

What the curator—and we as the audience—faced, therefore, is a remarkable promise but a tantalising fragmentation. With the exception of Househunting, which Guggenheim acquired in 1959 (and the absence of which in the exhibition suggests the sort of difficulties behind the scenes that haunt all projects), this appears to be as comprehensive a gathering as possible with such an eroded oeuvre. As Loy herself wrote: "The Public and The Artist can meet at every point except the—for The Artist—vital one, that of pure uneducated seeing." The ambition to make such an engagement possible, even given the limitations of the surviving material, ensures the necessity of the current project.

• Jennifer R. Gross (ed) with contributions by Jennifer R. Gross, Ann Lauterbach, Dawn Ades and Roger L. Conover, Mina Loy: Strangeness is Inevitable, Princeton University Press, 232pp, £42 (hb)

• Matthew Gale is an independent arthistorian and curator

• Matthew Gale