Man Ray, “Mina Loy” (1920), gelatin silver print, 6 1/2 inches x 5 1/8 inches (© Man Ray 2015 Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY / ADAGP, Paris 2022; photo by Luc Demers, all images courtesy Princeton University Press and The Bowdoin College Museum of Art)

In 1959, Marcel Duchamp curated Mina Loy’s final solo show. The exhibition at Bodley Gallery in New York City featured Loy’s groundbreaking collages from the 1940s and early 1950s, which were made of rags, cardboard, egg cartons, and other discarded materials picked up around the Bowery, where the artist had lived. Called “shocking and macabre” by a contemporary reviewer from Arts Magazine, Loy’s works predated the celebrated assemblages of artists like Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg. “She made art from trash long before dumpster diving was a thing and multimedia was a term,” says writer and editor Roger Conover. But Loy’s late works weren’t just materially experimental; these collages depicting homeless men and other destitute figures from her neighborhood had a distinctly human element.

Mina Loy, “Christ on a Clothesline” (c. 1955–59), cut-paper and mixed-media collage, 24 inches x 41 1/2 inches x 4 1/2 inches (photo by Dana Martin-Strebel)

If you’re asking yourself why you haven’t heard of Loy before, you’re not alone. Outside of the poetry world — where she has had some notoriety — she is not well known. Of course, Loy lived between the end of the 19th and the middle of the 20th centuries, at a time when many women were kept at the margins. She also lived an itinerant life, moving frequently between England, Germany, France, Italy, Mexico, and the United States. She was close with some of the era’s most notable cultural agents including Berenice Abbott, Constantin Brancusi, and Gertrude Stein, but many of Loy’s own artworks have been lost. As a single mother, she went long periods without making fine art in order to provide for her children. And Loy herself was ambivalent about her own art career: When asked why she didn’t attend her 1959 exhibition in New York, she later replied, “But, I’ve already seen my work. Why would I go?”

Perhaps the main reason we don’t know much about Loy today is due to the artist’s refusal to conform to a set method, material, movement, or style. Conover calls this Loy’s “anti-aesthetic aesthetic,” and it has made her a difficult subject to capture and historicize. But, like Meret Oppenheim, another unclassifiable 20th-century female artist who has recently come into focus, it appears that the world is finally ready to take a long look at Loy. A forthcoming book, Mina Loy: Strangeness is Inevitable (Princeton University Press), honors the artist with a series of thoughtful essays by Jennifer R. Gross, Ann Lauterbach, Dawn Ades, and Conover. Accompanied by an exhibition of the same name at The Bowdoin College Museum of Art, the book gives a crucial account of Loy’s varied life and art, and also shines a light on other aspects of her multifaceted creative output, including her work as a writer, poet, playwright, inventor, and fashion and industrial designer.

Born Mina Gertrude Lowy in London in 1882 to a Jewish immigrant father and a conservative English mother, the artist spent much of her life defying her restrictive Victorian roots. Loy’s pursuit of art was in itself a rebellion: Her mother would destroy the artist’s childhood drawings and poems as a sort of punishment. Loy gave birth to four children by three fathers, none of whom served as long-term co-parents. She made ends meet by making custom clothes and hats, opening a lampshade design business, serving as a European representative for her son-in-law Julien Levy’s New York gallery, among other jobs.

Mina Loy, “Moons I” (1932), mixed media on board, 26 1/4 inches x 35 1/4 inches (photo by Brad Stanton)

“Unlike many in her cohort, Loy was financially and socially secure for only brief periods, a fact that gave the choices she made in her life an essential precarity; she was always inventing survival tactics,” Lauterbach notes in the book. Nonetheless, Loy had a rich cultural life in the 1920s, traveling to destinations such as Florence, New York, and Paris. The book gathers examples of her sensitive pencil portraits on paper, as well as a number of fascinating archival materials that trace her commercial and artistic successes. Though Loy didn’t exhibit frequently, a high point came in 1933 when she showed a number of ethereal, ciel-colored paintings of mysterious celestial bodies at Julien Levy Gallery in New York. A number of these works are beautifully illustrated in the book, and are said to represent her complex spiritual views.

Strangeness is Inevitable makes clear that Loy lived a life of intensity, bohemianism, and movement. Reviewing her vibrant and diverse life’s work, a line from her text “Incident” sounds autobiographical: “So this was Life; being a sort of magnet to a sort of universal electricity.” This book provides an essential foundation for future scholarship on this fascinating and enigmatic artist.

Mina Loy, “Devant le miroir” (c. 1905), graphite on brown paper mounted on cardboard, 16 inches x 13 inches (photo by Jay York)
Joella Haweis Bayer, photograph of Mina Loy, “Calla Lily Lamp ‘Arum Lumineux'” (c. 1927), gelatin silver print on paper, 7 7/8 inches x 4 15/16 inches (photo by Luc Demers)
Mina Loy, “Untitled (Surreal Scene)” (c. 1935), gouache with collage on panel, 20 3/4 inches x 16 3/4 inches (photo by Jay York)
Mina Loy, “Portrait of Man Ray” (c. 1925), graphite on paper, 20 inches x 12 inches (photo by Jay York)
Mina Loy, “La Maison en Papier” 1906, gouache and graphite on paper, 19 3/4 inches x 12 1/2 inches

Mina Loy: Strangeness is Inevitable is on view at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art through September 17. The exhibition was curated by Jennifer R. Gross.

Mina Loy: Strangeness Is Inevitable edited by Jennifer R. Gross, Ann Lauterbach, Roger L. Conover, and Dawn Ades will be published by Princeton University Press on May 23 and is available for pre-order online.

Lauren Moya Ford is a writer and artist. Her writing has appeared in Apollo, Artsy, Atlas Obscura, Flash Art, Frieze, Glasstire, Mousse Magazine, and other publications.

One reply on “The World Is Finally Ready for Mina Loy”

  1. It’s terrific to see attention focused on Mina Loy via this collection of essays and accompanying exhibition. But Mina Loy has actually been much in the news recently, partly because of an acclaimed book by distinguished scholar Mary Ann Caws that was published last year (Mina Loy: Apology of Genius; Caws’s book was, as the author notes, more centered on Loy’s writing, but also of course discussed her as a visual artist. It was reviewed in the New York Review of Books just a couple months ago and in the Brooklyn Rail, among other places. It seems odd to leave it out of this review by Ford.

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