Loosening the Stays

Mina Loy, "Moons I," 1932. Photo: Brad Stanton. Courtesy of Bowdoin College Museum of Art.



The sublime, t’would seem, does not solidify.—Mina Loy, “Phenomenon in American Art”

Criticism’s provisionality is intoxicating.
—Bill Berkson, “Critical Reflections”

Bowdoin College is not a place particularly accommodating to weirdos—or at least it wasn’t when I attended lo these many years ago. Perhaps things have changed, as 2023 found a major one nestled in the school’s museum: the poet and painter Mina Loy (1882–1966), an iconoclastic, elusive artist feted in her day and mostly forgotten in ours. 

This is the first paragraph of a 700-word review I wrote for Artforum’s December 2023 issue.

Filling to the brim two rooms at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art, “Mina Loy: Strangeness Is Inevitable” practices reclamation. 

I pulled this piece in the wake of editor David Velasco being fired by the magazine for publishing an open letter supporting Palestinian liberation and calling for a ceasefire in Gaza. 

For most of my fifteen-year relationship with the publication, David was the entirety of my Artforum, the person who brought me in and—miraculously, transformatively—said yes when I pitched the idea of a performance column unbeholden to discipline silos and inspired by a mutual hero, the great Jill Johnston. For five years, I wrote that column for and with him alone. Editor as first and best reader. 

But a magazine is many people. The editor of this final review was not David, but Alex Jovanovich.

The show gathers much of Loy’s extant work (many of her pieces are unaccounted for), contextualizing her varied output in a heady whirl of twentieth-century figures, including Djuna Barnes, Joseph Cornell, Marcel Duchamp, Peggy Guggenheim, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, Marianne Moore, Man Ray, and Gertrude Stein—just a small sampling of Loy’s friends, lovers, rivals, and supporters. 

Mina Loy, Untitled, ca. 1950. Photo: Jay York. Courtesy of Bowdoin College Museum of Art.

You can’t separate Loy’s criticism (and I do claim her as a poet-critic, even if she didn’t, wouldn’t, claim herself as such) from the fleeting, artist-run journals that published her, from the Blind Man to Rogue

Criticism, particularly criticism published in periodicals, is time-based and site-specific, created within networks of artists and writers and editors and publishers and readers and advertisers who cohere, if they cohere, only for so long, and, like so many art collectives, sometimes only in retrospect. “To publish a magazine is to enter into a heightened relationship with the present moment,” writes Gwen Allen in Artists’ Magazines: An Alternative Space for Art (MIT Press, 2011). And: “The art magazine might be conceived not as a single universal discursive space but as a site of multiple, competing modes of communication.”  

I can’t separate this piece from Alex, nor from Gwen, who suggested to Roger Conover, Loy’s great champion, that he ask me if I might be interested in writing about the Bowdoin show. Wanting a better way to understand the rise and fall of Artforum in the wake of the open-letter debacle, I remembered that in Gwen I have a friend who has literally written the book on art magazines (edited—of course!—by Roger). Her chapter on Artforum’s early history reminds that, almost from inception, the publication couldn’t reconcile the dueling forces of open expression and the market. Founded in San Francisco in 1962 as an antidote for West Coast artists ignored by New York critics, Artforum was soon colonized by these very critics (drawn to its “purity”) and barely made it five years before decamping to New York.

Assorted supplementary materials present a welter of passionate affairs, artistic entanglements, abandoned children, business dealings, and manifestos, tracking the English-born Loy’s ambivalent peregrinations across countries, scenes, art forms, and movements. 

I love Loy for her ambivalence.

In 1974, Lynda Benglis placed an advertisement in Artforum, a photograph in which, naked and oiled up, she grasps an impressively long dildo—a pitch-perfect critique of art-world sexism and double standards. Looking at the photograph again, I thought of Loy’s 1914 “Feminist Manifesto”: “To obtain results you must make sacrifices & the first & greatest sacrifice you have to make is of your ‘virtue.’” 

I’d have thought every woman in the art world would have cheered Benglis on—and indeed, many did. But as Gwen relates, several of Artforum’s women editors were aghast. Annette Michelson (who, with Rosalind Krauss and others, publicly rebuked the magazine and eventually left to found October) bemoaned “that the magazine itself is the brothel within which things are for sale. And I did not see myself as the inhabitant of an intellectual brothel.”

Michelson’s politics aside, does anyone writing for glossy magazines today see themselves as anywhere other than inside the brothel? Can anyone truly believe the institutional art world to be about anything but itself, which is to say, the market? If I felt surprise amid another Artforum boycott fifty years later, it was mostly at the shocked outrage from those confusing acceptable speech for any sort of freedom. As the online vitriol flew, I thought of what it is to be an individual within a loathed institution. I thought, as I often do these days, of the great W. H. Auden poem “Law Like Love”:

And always the loud angry crowd,
Very angry and very loud,
Law is We,
And always the soft idiot softly Me.

One wonders, among many intriguing questions Loy can no longer answer, what choice words she would have found for this worthy effort. Roger Conover, executor of Loy’s literary estate, has been editing, collecting, and curating Loy for more than four decades, and writes in one of several engrossing essays in the accompanying catalogue:

At the end of her long (non)career, Mina Loy waved off would-be rediscoverers with a shrug: “But, why do you waste your time on these thoughts of mine? I was never a poet.” She had a similar reaction when asked why she didn’t attend the opening of a show of her own work at the Bodley Gallery in 1959: “But, I’ve already seen my work. Why would I go?” 

Carolyn Burke’s impressively comprehensive biography Becoming Modern: The Life of Mina Loy (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1996) overwhelmingly presents a portrait of a woman withdrawing—at least in part, tragically, because she mourns her lost beauty. 

A small heartbreak, attempting to reconcile this narcissistic doom with the fierce, wild creature that is Loy on the page.   

“I resist the idea of a withdrawing, partly because I don’t want that for her.”
I so relate to this resistance, offered by Karla Kelsey when I interviewed her after reading the two Loy books she is gifting us with this year: Lost Writings: Two Novels by Mina Loy (Yale University Press, 2024) and Transcendental Factory: For Mina Loy (Winter Editions, 2024); the latter hovers between historical account and fiction, like so many of Loy’s own poet’s novels. But also, Karla added, referring to movements such as Futurism and Surrealism through which we view Loy, “in the 1940s those lenses, which were always insufficient, no longer apply. So she almost becomes illegible.”

Mina Loy, Untitled (The Drifting Tower), ca. 1950. Photo: Jay York. Courtesy of Bowdoin College Museum of Art.

Having not already seen Loy’s paintings, I went quite still upon first contact with her luminous 1932 “bleuaille” series, so named by Loy’s son-in-law and gallerist, the Surrealist art dealer Julien Levy. There is such delicate movement in these enigmatic figures, whose hands undulate and whose bodies curl into snail-like shells, and such light. Their eyes lack irises—whatever they see, it surely comes from within. Two paintings from her “Drift of Chaos” series, 1933, are similarly radiant—only darkly so, their diaphanous fragments of figures at sea in velvety shadow. I thought of the endless, end-of-the-world waters conjured by Ursula K. Le Guin in her great coming-of-age journey A Wizard of Earthsea (1968), in which her hero goes “beyond the sources of the sea and eastward behind the gates of daylight.”

In J. G. Ballard’s novel The Drowned World (Berkley Books, 1962), a portrait of the human race both seductive and repellant, I found darker echoes of Loy: “Epochs drifted. Giant waves, infinitely slow and enveloping, broke and fell across the sunless beaches of the time-sea, washing him helplessly in its shallows. He drifted from one pool to another, in the limbos of uncertainty.”

Does chaos drift? It wouldn’t seem to, and yet. In Untitled (The Drifting Tower), ca. 1950, a cut-paper and mixed media collage, a floating figure, her groin literally pinned, is tethered by rope to a kaleidoscopic fortress amid waves and clouds. Which is the anchor? “Or which of us,” to quote from Loy’s 1917 poem “Human Cylinders,”

Would not
Receiving the holy-ghost
Catch it          and caging 
Lose it

A journalistic review, when it works, is a marvel of compression and omission both like and unlike a poem. It’s a point that poet and critic Bill Berkson makes in “Critical Reflections,” published in Artforum in 1990, in which he also writes, “The critic who faces art’s manifold dialectic head-on risks seeming to want to be abstruse when really he or she is only trying to stay true to a complex situation.” 

I imagine Mina Loy nodding along.

Once you loosen the stays, things become amorphous . . . what to include, what not to? 

Karla, in Transcendental Factory, describing “a skirt so voluminous only a highly trained seamstress might pleat the thirteen-and-a-half yards of fabric into the twelve-inch waist of a gown that requires a maid to attend its complexity”: “What forms of consciousness, of creative spirit, does such architecture make possible? Impossible? What forms of desire?”

I realize I’m not saying much to encapsulate Loy. More than most artists, she isn’t well-served by that treatment—and besides, she beguiles in fragments. 

Reading Burke, I found myself alienated from Loy. It’s a trouble I often have with comprehensive biographies: what life can withstand such scrutiny?! It’s remarkable, exhausting even, to contemplate the amount of work required to capture a life—but also the hubris, imagining one could ever achieve more than the illusion of capture, could ever account for everything. All that exists beyond the oppressive scope of facts. I never even liked the idea of criticism being the first draft of history. Why can’t its worth be contained in something more slippery? The close-up view is necessarily incomplete.  

Transcendental Factory, again: “Detail is adoration. A tin can, relieved of its wrapper, crushed beyond circumference, rusted out of holding, is secured—but how—to a piece of cardboard rubbed with pastel to an impossible blue.” 

It takes a particular writerly alchemy to allow us safe passage through time.

Mina Loy, Devant le miroir, ca. 1905. Photo: Jay York. Courtesy of Bowdoin College Museum of Art.

Mina Loy, Communal Cot, 1949. Photo: Michael Tropea. Courtesy of Bowdoin College Museum of Art.

The woman moved restlessly between emerging artistic movements (she likened herself to the butterfly, a frequent motif in her work). She was celebrated as the modern woman and was also a devoted Christian Scientist. She had a thriving lampshade business in Paris for a time and her idiosyncratic inventions include a window washer, a blotter bracelet, and something she called an Auto-Facial Construction, which she claimed would allow the user to self-induce facial reconstruction. Ultimately, the one-time fashion magazine regular found as much or more kinship with denizens of Manhattan’s Bowery than the art world, turning her scavenging scalpel of an eye to abject individuals in assemblage paintings at once tender, merciless, and inscrutable. She ended up marooned in Aspen, Colorado, of all places, where her prospector figures sift smashed, rusted cans through slender fingers. 

The figures of Loy’s earlier years are draped in luscious fabrics; in later years, rags. The scalpel-like precision remains consistent. But in her Bowery renderings the exactitude is soulful, painful. Karla, in our interview: “Maybe she withdrew from the parties and openings. But she didn’t withdraw as an artist or a writer.”

Maybe she grew bored—or, more to the point, finally made good on the boredom lancing her witty portraits of high art society. Maybe she just grew up.

Her life wasn’t an easy one, from unhappy childhood to unhappy first marriage, personal poverty and the sweeping disruptions of wars, the deaths of two children, and the disappearance of her great love, Arthur Cravan. She herself was always leaving, always disappearing. “There is something highly elusive about her, and the work itself,” Roger said when I spoke with him months after seeing the show. “Breton celebrated the idea an artist would leave nothing behind save the enigma of existence, whereas today the tendency of contemporary artists is an obsession with leaving a mark, self-monumentalizing.” He continued: “[The] self-promotion and identification that’s rampant today definitely was not the case for Mina Loy and Arthur Cravan. They worked in this liminal space, she dealing with ephemerality and materials that would by definition decompose and not be around. It’s a miracle that some of it was saved; most of what she produced will never be seen, because it doesn’t exist anymore.” 

And yet, and still—

—the picture is still emerging. Since this exhibition opened last April, Conover has gotten wind of another Loy painting, owned by someone who didn’t know who she was before hearing about the show. The work was found in a flea market—fitting, given Loy’s devotion to discarded treasures. 

Last night a friend and I were wandering through a favorite bookstore in San Francisco. “Mina Loy!” he suddenly exclaimed, pulling a slim volume from a shelf full of weathered periodicals. And so it was. Issue 8 of Eliot Weinberger’s journal Montemora, published in 1981, featuring a selection of Loy poems edited by Roger: 

Come to me    There is something
I have got to tell you    and I can’t tell
Something taking shape
Something that has a new name
A new dimension
A new use
A new illusion

It is ambient    And it is in your eyes 

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