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International Conference “Mina Loy and her Networks”

Sorbonne Université and Université Sorbonne Nouvelle, September 8-9, 2023
Elise Ottavino

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1The conference “Mina Loy and her Networks” took place on September 8-9, 2023 at the Maison de la Recherche of Université Sorbonne Nouvelle and in the humanities building of Sorbonne Université. It was organized by Yasna Bozhkova (Université Paris-Nanterre) and Diane Drouin (Sorbonne Université) and sought to explore the notions of interconnections and interweaving in the work of modernist painter, poet, and lampshade artist Mina Loy (1882-1966). Panelists were notably inspired by Bozhkova’s description of Loy’s “shifting artistic allegiances as a series of ‘constellations’ in constant reconfiguration” (6-7) as they formulated different analyses on the topic of “networks.” Whether it was through a historical, philosophical or literary approach, the conference cemented Loy’s importance as a connecting figure between avant-garde movements: her many travels and multimedia endeavours contributed to a wide array of artistic communities in the twentieth century. Emphasizing the role of networks beyond Loy’s oeuvre, the official editor of her writings, Roger Conover (Executive Director Emeritus, MIT Press), mentioned in his keynote Q&A that the poet was no longer his secret, but that of the scholarly community sharing ideas and expanding the field thanks to the colloquium. The first day was structured around four panels and two keynote addresses presenting the latest work of field experts. On the second day, the three panels mainly revolved around the work of emerging scholars. The final day ended on one last keynote lecture and an informal conversation on future collaborations that would be interesting to cultivate in the field of Mina Loy studies. “Mina Loy and her Networks” not only celebrated the centenary of Loy’s first published collection but also opened new perspectives on Loy after a year marked by Mina Loy: Strangeness is Inevitable (Princeton UP, 2023), a carefully curated retrospective exhibition of Loy’s visual works, which included some documents hidden until now in the private collections of a few contributors, and an online international symposium that gathered old and new voices of the field.

2On September 8, Benoît Tadié (Université Paris-Nanterre) opened the conference by chairing the first panel entitled “Loy’s Late Work.” In “Communal Cot: Mina Loy, the Homeless, and the Economy of Discomfort,” Sanja Bahun (University of Essex) interrogated the meaning of home—or lack thereof—thus providing essential theoretical framework on Loy’s living conditions, a recurring theme throughout the conference. Home was defined as the creation of a community: the Manhattan Bowery, where Loy lived in the 1940s and 1950s, was a home away from home for impoverished migrants. However, Loy’s works do not romanticize the bums. Instead, the poet hints at the disposability of human beings and the transient nature of urban grime, best represented in “Communal Cot,” an assemblage composed of pieces of trash Loy redeemed. Though the viewer can only look down on the canvas and the street it represents, Bahun mentioned that “Communal Cot” also forces a form of interaction that links urban poverty with social, intimate, and spiritual concerns. In “Thirteen Ways of Looking at Loy’s Street Economies,” Linda Kinnahan (Duquesne University) expanded on the other locations Loy inhabited beyond the Bowery and how they influenced her depiction of the street. The nod to Wallace Stevens in the title set the tone for the presentation’s rather creative format. Julien Levy’s short film of the poet posing at the flea market rolled in the background as Kinnahan explored snapshots of Loy’s urban economic encounters. Far from claiming that Loy was a flaneuse, the talk stressed her gendered view of the urban landscape—a place where women are seen as either consumers or workers. If Kinnahan implied that the market determines women’s value in Loy’s works, she then showed how the poet undermined this capitalistic oppression: the street homes the rhythms of the maternal body and provides an escape from the confining space of the house. Alex Goody (Oxford Brookes University) brought the first panel to a close with a talk entitled “Incipient Form and Inhuman Affect in Mina Loy’s Late Work.” Following on Sandeep Parmar’s concept of “incipient consciousness” (51), Goody took a look at the non-human figures peppered throughout Loy’s oeuvre to posit a metamorphic mode of emergence in both the paintings and the poems. In this visual and literary corpus, the human coalesced with snails, insects or even oysters, attesting that everyday life slowly moved toward the realm of surrealism. Loy’s fascination for the transformative side of chaos was eventually connected with artistic practices, for Loy’s use of debris hints at the post-apocalyptic landscape of a post-human world.

3After this productive first session, Diane Drouin introduced keynote speaker Laura Scuriatti (Bard College Berlin), whose 2019 seminal monograph, Mina Loy’s Critical Modernism, revitalized the field of Mina Loy studies. Her address, “Mina Loy’s Ephemeral Collectivities, Interrupted Communities,” began with a simple remark: Loy has a tendency to move from singular to collective pronouns in both her essays and poems. Scuriatti then elaborated a definition of “community” based on ideas of sociability, conviviality and reciprocity. In a community, one’s pleasure is predicated on that of others. Building on that idea, the speaker went back to the etymology of the term: in his book, Communitas: The Origin and Destiny of Community, Roberto Esposito states that “cum munus” entails a debt, a gift. By applying such a concept to poetic language, Scuriatti proved that Loy’s relation to language is a living one, entangled in multiculturalism, multilingualism, and feminism, among others. The talk ended on the idea that community and language are political and aesthetic tools that let the readers rethink what poetry does. The lecture was followed by a rich conversation among audience members concerning the aestheticization of the political in all its forms.

4The second panel, focused on “Poetry, Art and Craft,” was chaired by Sanja Bahun and centered around Loy’s fascination for the materiality of art. In his presentation, “Portraying the Avant-Garde: Readymade and Painterly Abstraction in Mina Loy’s Art Poems,” Bowen Wang (Trinity College Dublin) applied the notion of “readymade,” developed by André Breton and Paul Éluard, to Loy’s poetic experiments. Defined in the Dictionnaire abrégé du surréalisme as “an ordinary object elevated to the dignity of a work of art by the mere choice of an artist” (Evnine 407), the readymade—best exemplified in visual art by Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain (1917)—can also be verbal. By putting into dialogue Duchamp’s discussion of “nominalism” with Marjorie Perloff’s work on poetry and infrathin, Wang suggested that the plasticity of language described by both authors was embodied in Loy’s Alphabet That Builds Itself, a toy prototype based on the idea that letters can all be constructed using the same set of shapes. This process of dismantling and recreating using similitudes was then expanded to Loy’s poems on Gertrude Stein and James Joyce. In “Mina Loy’s Parisian Lamps: A Case Study for Modernist Craftivism,” Amy Wells (Université de Caen Normandie) scrutinized what is known of Loy’s lampshades through a craftivist lens. Craft, according to Sarah Corbett, “involves skills in making things mostly by hand not machine” (10). Craftivism, then, is the portmanteau word composed of craft and activism, popularized by Betsy Greer in 2003. Wells’s thought-provoking presentation questioned whether Loy’s lampshade-making had a political vocation and could be considered an act of craftivism. Despite the difficulty to provide a clear-cut answer, Wells touched upon many concerns at the heart of Loy’s crafting endeavour, notably the artist’s thoughts on mass production, collecting and curating, questions of copyright, upcycling, and social justice, before showing her own take on craftivism through the creation of a lamp inspired by Loy’s “Feminist Manifesto.”

5The third session, “New Approaches to Loy’s Visual Art,” hosted by Juliette Utard (Sorbonne Université), brought attention to the work of Anne Goodyear (Bowdoin College Museum of Art) and Jennifer Gross (Independent Art Historian and Curator). Goodyear and Gross are two figureheads of the momentous exhibition Mina Loy: Strangeness is Inevitable, which ran from April to September 2023 at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art. Anne Goodyear’s “Reinventing Mina Loy: The Dynamics of Her Visual Art” astutely analyzed the fine arts milieu Loy evolved in, specifically her relations with Marcel Duchamp, Peggy Guggenheim and Berenice Abbott. Goodyear not only went over possible intertextual nods to Loy’s artworks in that of other artists, but also studied the social aspect of setting up an exhibition. She expressed, for instance, the possibility that Duchamp’s involvement in Loy’s art might have given him opportunities to promote his own work. Though art history proves that Loy was a central visual artist of the twentieth century, she was thoroughly absent from Guggenheim’s artistic repository and never mentioned in Duchamp’s overview of the modernist movement. Thus, Loy’s very artistic networks played a role in her lack of visibility in later years. Jennifer Gross’s “Truant of Heaven: The Artist Mina Loy” continued the exploration of Loy’s visual artworks. Gross was attentive to Loy’s perception and transcription of reality onto her canvas. The recurring motif of the moon in both paintings and poems hints at Loy’s interest in creating various realities: she was fascinated by nature’s nocturnal stage as much as the celestial life. Gross established the theme of heaven on earth as a form of truancy which points out and transcends the ephemerality of human experience. Throughout the presentation, topics such as the structure of insomnia, the ecsatsy of enlightenment or even loss were fruitfully put into dialogue with Loy’s overall disappointment with the world. “Being alive,” Loy affirmed, “is a queer coincidence” (15) and Gross explored the various ways in which this statement is embedded in her art. The session was followed by a dynamic conversation with the audience on the poet’s posterity and intermedial practice.

6Yasna Bozhokova then introduced the fifth panel, “Loy’s Poetics of Location,” which followed the work of Karla Kelsey (Susquehanna University). “A Childhood Composed in Paris” emphasized the impact of Loy’s Parisian community on her autobiographical texts. Kelsey is set to publish two such narratives, The Child and the Parents and Islands in the Air, in 2024. Her presentation focused particularly on the first one. In the section on adulthood, Loy presents herself as an unfulfilled and repressed woman while infancy is marked by the social values and patriarchal structures molding the child. Kelsey put these pieces of information back in context when she described the type of life Loy led in Paris. Among people like Natalie Clifford Barney and Djuna Barnes, Loy cultivated in her apartment a tidy social space where private and public mingled. Her writings are also influenced by these prominent intellectuals: Loy satirized her wedding night in her autobiographical writings, which seems to directly respond to Barney’s presenting Loy her condolences for daughter Joella’s wedding announcement. The questions that stemmed out of this presentation offered an in-depth reflection on the inner workings of Kelsey’s massive publishing project. Editing manuscripts such as The Child and the Parent and Islands in the Air drew attention to questions of accessibility and archival classification.

7The first day ended on an unplanned Q&A with Loy’s official editor and literary executor, Roger Conover, who published the two collections of Loy’s writings currently available, The Last Lunar Baedeker (1982), and The Lost Lunar Baedeker (1996). These books have certainly shaped the state of the field to this day as they are the easiest entry into Loy’s poetic world. The first question was focused on the editor’s first encounter with Loy’s works, in the 1970s, when Conover pursued a degree at the University of Minnesota. At the time, a few of Loy’s close friends were still alive and communicative, happy to share her works with a young scholar. The rest of the questions were concerned with the poet’s papers and artefacts that have not yet been unveiled to the public and the gradual publication of Loy’s works, from a few collectors’ Derridean archival fever, to translations and editions of the texts. Conover’s approach was informed by textual studies and left the audience curious about the breadth of Loy’s oeuvre and how her voice has been framed through editing since her first publications.

8The second conference day started with a transatlantic session on “Avant-Garde Networks,” chaired by Linda Kinnahan. The first speaker, Eva Isherwood-Wallace (Queen’s University Belfast), presented a paper entitled “‘Conformed / to continent sculpture’: Mina Loy, Laura Riding and Sculptural Modernism.” Though Loy is often seen as an underrated modernist, Isherwood-Wallace compared her with an even more forgotten figure: American writer Laura Riding. The two artists evolved in the same literary sphere, shared a Jewish background and an interest in linguistic play, but there is no record of them referencing each other in their works. Riding’s dictionary of exact words rested on linguistic legacy, and clashed with Loy’s hope to create language anew. Yet, both writers are examples of sculptural and haptic modernism who cracked their poems’ structures, just like the sculptures they translated in words, to explore the intimacy of the self. Johanna Pelikan (University of Hamburg) recontextualized Loy among her European networks in “Ostracized with Gods in France – Mina Loy’s Parisian Network as Key to her Aesthetic Theory.” Pelikan affirmed that Loy’s time in Paris had a direct impact on her philosophy of art and how she experienced beauty. To illustrate her point, the speaker used various prose texts in which Loy seemed to construct an aesthetic theory: throughout her Stories and Essays, Loy conceives the artist as “an acrobat” (260) “whose consciousness is deepest within himself” (272). In poems such as “Gertrude Stein” and “Joyce’s Ulysses,” the poet puts her aesthetic theory into practice as she simultaneously describes those figures as masters of the art and uses the very poems as playgrounds for her own art. During the following Q&A, Pelikan challenged the audience by suggesting that the poet could also benefit to be discussed outside of her network.

9Panel six, “Editing and Networking Loy’s Poetry,” was moderated by Alex Goody, who introduced Elise Ottavino (University of Western Ontario) and Richard Aldersley (NYU). Both speakers focused on the reception of Loy’s poems, during her life and after her death. Elise Ottavino’s “Resisting the Baedeker: Mina Loy and the Feminist Side of Editing” offered an analysis of the “Feminist Manifesto” as an example of D.F. McKenzie’s sociology of texts. While the extravagant typography of the manifesto is often discussed in relation to the rhetoric of destruction that fills the text and seems to respond to both futurism and British first wave feminism, Ottavino noted that the manuscript is but an intimate document shared in a letter to Mabel Dodge Luhan. Its layout and typography reflect Loy’s usual epistolary style, which problematizes the editing process: how can the tension between the private nature of the document and its genre be better evidenced through editing? The panelist noted that Loy’s poems tend to recreate the social intimate world of the modernist salons as the unfinished aesthetic of the papers seem to encourage the reader to participate in the act of creation. Richard Aldersley’s paper, “‘The Long Nightmare’: Mina Loy’s ‘Anglo-Mongrels and the Rose’ and Networking the Modernist Long Poem,” explored the genre and formal elements of Loy’s “Anglo-Mongrels and the Rose.” Aldersley’s precise analysis of the poetic form, between lyric and epic, served as a springboard to explore the various influences that seem to entwine in the poem. The speaker focused on Ezra Pound’s misidentification of Loy as an American and inspected Loy’s poems to find traces of what could be considered to be typically American modernist style in order to make sense of that remark. Yet, the talk went beyond the traditional view of Loy as a poet borrowing from others: turning that idea upside down, Aldersley pointed out how Pound’s discovery of Loy was pivotal for his own work as well, thus showing Loy’s centrality in the modernist movement.

10During the seventh session of the conference, entitled “Mina Loy and Arthur Cravan,” Olivier Hercend (Université Paris-Nanterre) presented Jennifer Ashby (European University Institute). “‘My fatal plurality!’: Mina Loy, Arthur Cravan, and the Remains of Loy” mapped Loy’s relationship with her second husband from their meeting in 1917 at the Blind Man’s Ball to Cravan’s disappearance, somewhere off the Mexican coast, in November 1918. Ashby deplored the tendency to depict the couple as an example of epic avant-garde love, since Cravan entertained correspondences with Renée Bouchet and Sophie Treadwell while committed to Loy. The French press even portrayed Bouchet as Cravan’s widow after his presumed passing, with no mention of his actual pregnant wife. The presentation exemplified the gaps in Mina Loy studies: first, instead of intersecting with other scholarships, the field remains too withdrawn, second, the difficult access to Loy’s long poem on Cravan, Colossus, impoverishes scholars’ ability to conduct in-depth research on their marriage. Ashby’s talk was received with enthusiasm as it opened unexplored avenues for future Loy-related endeavours.

11The final keynote lecture, “Mina Loy, Modernism, and the Archives,” was delivered by Susan Rosenbaum (University of Georgia). Bozhkova first acknowledged Rosenbaum’s essential role in giving scholars and students better access to documents pertaining to Loy. Indeed, Rosenbaum, along with Linda Kinnahan and Suzanne Churchill, is one of the creators of the digital repository, Mina Loy: Navigating the Avant-Garde, a cherished resource among Loy scholars as it encourages feminist and collaborative theories that are extremely productive to the study of Loy’s works. Following on a surge of interest in archival material from emerging scholars, Rosenbaum’s address contemplated how to expand the scope of Loy’s archives. The archive is generally understood as either a place or an historical document but Rosenbaum quoted Judith Halberstam’s definition to assert that it is first and foremost “a theory of cultural relevance, a construction of collective memory and a complex record” (169-170). Collecting Loy exceeds the boundaries of one institution, Rosenbaum argued. Though the Beinecke Library’s digitization of the Mina Loy Papers expanded access by removing the walls of the archives, the panelist suggested that the digital medium did not resolve all problems: it actually further distances us from the materiality of Loy’s manuscripts. For Rosenbaum, before discussing the form of Loy’s archives, scholars should track down clues about missing manuscripts and artworks, further explore artistic networks, read original issues of little magazines and continue to document Loy’s travels. The audience celebrated Rosenbaum’s ideas by reflecting on various instances of archival preservation throughout Loy’s work and questions of purity in relation to variations.

12In a final exchange, panelists and organizers pondered on the key ideas that framed the conference. Emerging scholars also learnt more about the publishing world and what the various modernist-centered publishing houses and journals were looking for. This more casual chat, built on peer support and mentorship, was a final meaningful reminder that networks remain an essential part of Mina Loy studies to this day. Overall, the conference did a good job at highlighting the tension between the various ways Loy has been portrayed, as both an original artist that brought her own spin to modernism and an extravagant socialite who knew all about avant-garde movements. Most importantly, it was one of the first—if not the first—in-person conferences revolving entirely around Loy. It enabled scholars from all over the world to meet and discuss the overlaps in their researches, which could lead to further collaborations. “Mina Loy and her Networks” laid a strong foundation for more recognition of Loy’s impact on the modernist world.

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Bibliographie

ADES, Dawn, et al. Mina Loy: Strangeness is Inevitable. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2023.

BOZHKOVA, Yasna. Between Worlds: Mina Loy’s Aesthetic Itineraries. Clemson: Clemson University Press, 2022.

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LOY, Mina. “Build Your Own ABC.” 1941. Beinecke Digital Library, YCAL MSS 6, Box 7, Folder 184, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut. Yale University Library, collections.library.yale.edu/catalog/11863187. Accessed 12 Sept. 2023.

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LOY, Mina. The Lost Lunar Baedeker. Ed. Roger L. Conover. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1997.

LOY, Mina. “The Parent.” Undated. Beinecke Digital Library, YCAL MSS 6, Box 1, Folder 20, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut. Yale University Library, collections.library.yale.edu/catalog/11871646. Accessed 12 September 2023.

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PERLOFF, Marjorie. Infrathin: An Experiment in Micropoetics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2021.

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Elise Ottavino, « International Conference “Mina Loy and her Networks” »Transatlantica [En ligne], 2 | 2023, mis en ligne le 01 novembre 2023, consulté le 22 février 2024. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/transatlantica/22334 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/transatlantica.22334

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Elise Ottavino

University of Western Ontario

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