Mina Loy, Prospector 1

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 reputations in those 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. Thus began my lifelong quest to find Mina Loy, the poet and the artist, and to discover any unpublished and unseen work she might have produced in the several decades since she had last been heard from.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 sole 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 primary places they had known  her in different phases of their own lives.  Many of their stories concerned her art objects and devotion to art-making, but except for one or two pieces in private collections, Mina Loy’s art was more rumored than reproduced. 

In the summer  of 1990, I received a letter from Mina Loyi’s daughters asking me to be Mina Loy’s literary executor. At 82, Joella had her hands full with Herbert Bayer’s legacy and Fabienne was looking after her husband Frederic 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 minor academic interest following the publication of her poems by Jargon Press (The Last Lunar Baedeker 1982).  In that context, Joella mentioned to me that she was tired of paying storage fees for “some of Mama’s Bowery trash art” and that if I wanted to pay the final bill and drive to the storage barn 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 survived). So I drove to Connecticut to pay the final bill and retrieve the “art trash” which was housed in a few corrugated cardboard boxes.  On the drive back to Maine, allergies erupted. I was not only transporting art, but mouse nests and bird feathers. When I got home, trash became treasure. Mina Loy’s refusées (as she called them) were seeing light for the first time in decades, and I was seeing work that was deserving of exhibition. That was 30 years ago. 

When I first saw Prospector 1 (and a companion piece, Prospector 2), I assumed the tin and copper plates and cans floating in loose gravity before the hands of a beatific bum looking back at us with contented consolation from a cardboard-fashioned face (modeled after Duchamp?) had been constructed in the Bowery. But when the two Prospector pieces were sent to the Williamstown Art Conservation Center for evaluation and stabilization in preparation for the exhibition at Bowdoin College Museum of Art in 2023, it suddenly became clear that these pieces had not been made in the Bowery, but in Aspen, Colorado.  When the framing and backing material was removed, the place and date of composition were revealed in bold marker, in her own hand: “Mina Loy, Aspen, 1959.” Mina Loy carried her downbeat aesthetics and recycling practice from the streets of Lower Manhattan to a former mountain mining town (then in the process of becoming a ski-resort) in Colorado. But whereas she once considered herself a collector of trash, she now credited herself with depositing it, as if in defiance of her daughters’ wish for her to leave her “garbage art” behind. Alongside the date and signature on the backs of her Prospector pieces, she proudly scrawled the words “I’m a Litterbug.”

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

Use the arrows to take a guided tour of Mina Loy’s Prospector 1

(View StoryMap in full screen)