Mina Loy, Bowery Construction
(c. early 1950s)

Introduction by Roger Conover

In the mid-1970s, as a graduate student in English at the University of Minnesota, I began studying the little magazines and small presses associated with the free verse movement, and the writers, artists, and editors who made their debuts and early reputations in their pages.

Yellow cover of April 1917 issue of Others Magazine, featuring Loy's Songs to JoannesI was drawn not only to the literary content, but to the advertisements, editorials, covers, and formats of magazines like Others, Little Review, Dial, Rogue, Contact, Trend, and Camera Work.   As variable as their formats and editorial manifestoes were, these magazines had one thing in common: they all printed the work of a poet I had never heard of, and whose voice was like no one’s I had encountered before. I was captivated by lines like this, without equivalent:

Spawn        of  Fantasies
Silting the appraisable
Pig Cupid    his rosy snout
Rooting erotic garbage
‘Once upon a time’
Pulls a weed         white star-topped
Among wild oats   sown in mucous-membrane

(from “Songs to Joannes,” by Mina Loy, LLB96 53)

Her name (or one of her names) was MINA LOY. But who was she?  Why was this once so-present poet not mentioned in any of the standard histories of 20th century poetry, not included in the anthologies we were reading, and unknown to later generations of scholars and poets? I needed to find out all that I could about her. I wanted to write about her. I was going for a PhD, but that aside, she became my all-consuming subject. My professors indicated that this was not right: I left graduate school. Thus began my lifelong quest to find Mina Loy, the poet and the artist, and to discover any unpublished and unseen work she might have produced in the several decades since she was last heard from.

Early in my research, I learned that Mina Loy had two daughters, still alive:  Joella Bayer was then living in Montecito, California, and Fabienne Benedict was a resident of Aspen, Colorado.  Over the next couple of decades, while working on two editions of Mina Loy’s poems, I spent many fascinating hours with Joella and Fabienne, who were then the keepers of Mina Loy’s papers and the repository of vivid stories of their mother’s lives– in Florence, Paris, New York, and Aspen, the four primary places they knew her in different phases of their own lives.  Many of their stories concerned her art objects and devotion to art-making, but except for a few pieces in known collections, extant examples of Mina Loy’s art remained elusive.

In the summer  of 1990, I received a letter from the daughters asking me if I would like to be Mina Loy’s literary executor. At 82, Joella had her hands full with Herbert Bayer’s legacy and Fabienne was helping look after her husband Fritz Benedict’s architectural practice. They needed to delegate some responsibilities. I believe they were also weary of answering questions about their mother, who had by then become a subject of increasing academic interest following the publication of her poems by Jargon Press (The Last Lunar Baedeker, 1982).   After signing the executor agreement, Joella mentioned, almost as a throwaway, that she had been paying storage fees for “some of Mama’s Bowery trash art” ever since Loy left New York City. And that if I wanted to pay the final bill and drive to the storage place in Waterbury, Connecticut (where Joella had lived when she was married to the art dealer Julien Levy), “you can have whatever you might find there. But don’t expect much. Nothing Mama made was meant to last.”

I had no idea what to expect; “whatever” would have been in storage for close to 40 years, and Joella’s description of the fragility of the work her mother produced in the Bowery was not promising.  (Had it not been for Julien Levy, who showed Loy’s work in his gallery, the work probably would not have been preserved). A few days later, I drove to Connecticut to pay the final bill and retrieve the “art trash”. A few corrugated cardboard boxes in a dilapidated storage barn barely fit in the back seat of my Volkswagon. I remember having to keep the windows open the whole way back because of the smell of mildew and mouse droppings. When I got home, it was like the opening of King Tut’s tomb–one epiphanic moment after another as I unwrapped an astonishing collection of paintings and assemblages. Mina Loy’s constructions, or refusées (as she called them), were seeing light for the first time in decades, and I was seeing textures that were to my eyes incomparable–visual passwords into the material side of her poetic imagination.  Some of the pieces were rain-damaged and torn, requiring restoration. Others had survived in more or less pristine condition, even if mouse-nests were the only insulation.

This piece, dating from the early 1950s, was one of them. Tin and copper plates and cans rescued from Bowery gutters float in loose gravity before the hands of a beatific bum who looks back at us with contented consolation from a cardboard-fashioned face. Duchamp’s Bowery doppelganger, or:

a folly-wise scab of Metropolis
pounding with caressive jollity
a breastless slab

his cerebral fumes
arms’ enlacement

decorously garbed
he’s lovin’ up the pavement

(from “Hot Cross Bum,” by Mina Loy, LLB96 144)

StoryMap by Susan Rosenbaum,
Suzanne W. Churchill & Linda Kinnahan

Use the arrows to take a guided tour of Mina Loy’s Bowery Construction
(c. early 1950s)

(View StoryMap in full screen)