Mina Loy, “Untitled (Surreal Scene)” (c. 1935), gouache with collage on panel, 20 3/4 x 16 3/4 inches (photo by Jay York, all images courtesy Bowdoin College Museum of Art)

Mina Loy, though best known as a modernist poet and novelist, was also a visual artist. Championed by collectors and artists including Peggy Guggenheim, Marcel Duchamp, and Joseph Cornell, Loy had a few modest solo shows during her lifetime, but there has never been a larger exhibition of her works until now. Curated by Jennifer R. Gross at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art in Brunswick, Maine, Mina Loy: Strangeness Is Inevitable and its accompanying catalogue aim to demonstrate the wide range of Loy’s visual production.

Installed across two galleries, the exhibition features archival material in the first room, including published writings, textile and lampshade designs, photographs, and letters. Paintings and assemblage works command their own attention in the adjoining space. This selection includes a set of ethereal blue paintings of half-human figures (1932) and what remains of the more severe, landscape-oriented Drift of Chaos series (1933). 

Mina Loy, “L’Amour dorloté par les belles dames” (1906), watercolor on paper, 15 1/2 x 22 1/4 inches (photo by Jay York)

From having artwork included in the First Free Futurist International Exhibition in Rome in 1914 to publishing one of her most famous poems, “Brancusi’s Golden Bird,” in the same November 1922 issue of The Dial in which T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” appeared, Loy was a participant in some of the most significant events of the modernist avant-garde. Strangeness Is Inevitable implicitly asks why Loy has been so overlooked in comparison with her notable compatriots. The exhibition answers without needless justifications and excuses, instead presenting its case with a strong display of the artist’s work.

The show chronicles Loy’s early Aubrey Beardsley-esque drawings as well as clothing designs, her time in Florence and Paris when she thrived as an experimental poet and painter, her years in New York City, and her final years in Aspen, Colorado, where she continued to generate work, including abstract assemblages featuring tin can lids and scrap metal. 

Mina Loy, “Communal Cot” (1949), cut-paper and mixed-media collage mounted on board, 27 1/4 x 46 1/2 inches (photo by Michael Tropea)
Mina Loy, “Christ on a Clothesline” (c. 1955–59), cut-paper and mixed-media collage, 24 x 41 1/2 x 4 1/2 inches (photo by Dana Martin-Strebel)

Two of the exhibition’s most striking objects are assemblages Loy constructed from debris found on the streets of New York City during the four years after World War II, when she lived on the Bowery. “Christ on a Clothesline” (c. 1949) is a trompe l’oeil rendering of an older, emaciated figure wearing a gray gown and pinned by his shoulders to a clothesline with a decaying cityscape as a backdrop; “Communal Cot”(1949) features 10 small paper and fabric figures, each with unique features, sleeping on the ground. The latter may have been inspired by Loy’s view of the Bowery’s slumbering denizens. In fact, the assemblages Loy began creating from detritus anticipate the sculptural objects made by Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns soon after. Loy’s work as an artist and writer was as groundbreaking as it was evanescent, and Strangeness Is Inevitable is helping to bring it back into view. 

Mina Loy, “Devant le miroir” (c. 1905), graphite on brown paper mounted on cardboard, 16 x 13 inches (photo by Jay York)

Mina Loy: Strangeness Is Inevitable continues at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art (9400 College Station, Brunswick, Maine) through September 17. The exhibition was curated by Jennifer R. Gross. 

The exhibition will travel to the Arts Club of Chicago from March 18 through June 8, 2024.

Alan Gilbert is a poet and writer whose most recent book of poems is The Everyday Life of Design.