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From the Gutter to the Gallery: Berenice Abbott Photographs Mina Loy's Assemblages
Published online by Cambridge University Press: 23 October 2020
In 1958 Marcel Duchamp and a friend gained access to the modernist poet Mina Loy's apartment on stanton street near the Bowery in New York, so that they could display the art she was storing there in a one-woman show of her assemblage artwork (Burke, Becoming 433–34). The show, which Loy herself couldn't attend since she was unwell and living with family in Aspen, Colorado, was known as the Bodley Gallery Exhibition and generated considerable interest, even drawing the increasingly reclusive Djuna Barnes to its lively opening (434). The show was described by Stuart Preston in a New York Times review as a boxing match between the popular art of the time and “Mina Loy's shocking and macabre big collages, composed most graphically of refuse, and inspired by scenes near the Bowery” (qtd. in Burke, Becoming 434). Loy's dadaist assemblages, Preston's review made clear, were a formidable opponent not only of mainstream art but also of the larger politics of art at the time: the “alliance” they reflected “between Dada and social comment,” he wrote, was “downright sinister,” and they contained a slightly apocalyptic undercurrent of social critique. Loy's artwork incorporated discarded objects, such as bottles and pieces of cardboard, from New York City's liminal spaces—especially the Bowery's alleys and abandoned buildings, places where the homeless and unemployed gathered in desperate conditions. Transporting the gutter to the gallery, this body of work depended on her close relationship to the city's so-called refuse, the homeless people she befriended who helped her collect the objects she recycled as art. It has been almost impossible to know what Loy's body of assemblage artwork—carefully dusted off and hung up by Duchamp—looked like at the Bodley Gallery show. But one fellow Bowery artist, the American photographer Berenice Abbott, had photographed Loy's assemblages. Abbott and Loy had been friends since the 1920s, when they frequented the same art scene in Paris, where Abbott was Man Ray's assistant. Abbott photographed Loy's children, and the two artists are pictured together, along with Tristan Tzara, Jane Heap, and Margaret Anderson, in a famous photograph taken at a party in Constantin Brancusi's studio in 1920.1 In this image, Loy and Abbott fill the center of the frame; Abbott's eyes confront the camera, as if to say, “I know what you're up to,” her confident head emerging over Loy's right shoulder—Loy looking as ethereal as she does glamorous. Their friendship picked up again in New York in the 1940s and 1950s, where it was defined by Abbott's interest in Loy's success and well-being.
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