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.
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.
“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: 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.