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Handiwork: Mina Loy, Collage, and the En Dehors Garde

This article is part of a special series on the Visualities blog exploring digital archives connected to modernism’s visual cultures. Over the next few months, contributors to the forum will introduce and model the uses of online resources spanning art, film, media, book history, print cultures, and more. In attending to specific visual artifacts from these collections, they will also reflect on issues of methodology raised by developing and using digital archives, including in times of crisis and remote working. In this piece, the creators of Mina Loy: Navigating the Avant-Garde share from their experiments with working collaboratively online to produce new, creative modes of theory-making—and to account for the material conditions of artistic and scholarly labor.

Alix Beeston 


Although Mina Loy consorted with nearly every historical avant-garde movement, she was contained by none and is rarely mentioned in their histories. She’s not alone in this regard. Canonical histories and theories of the avant-garde typically marginalize the work of women, people of color, queer, and disabled artists. Despite significant efforts to articulate the importance of gender, sexuality, and race to the avant-garde, scholars have yet to offer a comprehensive theory of the avant-garde that accounts for the experiences of marginalized artists who were often ambivalent about claiming affiliation with white, male-dominated movements.[1]

In our digital scholarly book Mina Loy: Navigating the Avant-Garde, we propose a new term, en dehors garde, to better accommodate artists who have been relegated to the margins of the avant-garde. Whereas “avant” means “before,” implying that artists are in front of culture and ahead of their time, “en dehors” means “toward the outside” or “turning outward.”[2] Rather than assuming a militant position at the forefront of culture, en dehors garde artists often came from the outside and circulated on the margins, working strategically to transform gendered, racialized, and ablest visual cultures and literary traditions that excluded or objectified them. The term en dehors garde aims to move beyond the limits of the historical avant-garde and theorize the more diverse set of strategies, articulations, and communities that characterizes artistic innovation and dissent in the twentieth century.

We don’t simply want a new theory, but instead a new method of theory-making—one that takes advantage of digital tools to turn humanities scholarship outward. In Summer 2018, we organized a social media campaign and invited users to join a digital “flash mob,” submitting post(card)s that expressed their ideas about the en dehors garde. The post(card)s are displayed online in a randomized grid; users can select and arrange them in their own theoretical or aesthetic formations (fig. 1).

Screenshot of en dehors garde (post)card display at Mina Loy: Navigating the Avant-Garde.
Fig. 1. Screenshot of en dehors garde (post)card display at Mina Loy: Navigating the Avant-Garde.

Not only was the most popular form of post(card) the collage, but the process of theorizing through selecting and arranging post(cards) bears a strong kinship to this practice. A collective theory of the en dehors garde emerges in a variable collage of voices, visions, perspectives, and materials.

It’s no accident that collage animates the theory of en dehors garde, since collage has been especially conducive to feminist practice, its “aesthetics of dissonance” used to express feminist dissent.[3] Like this essay, which has been stitched together from various drafts, chapters, and conversations, collage is a collaborative form that challenges masculinist notions of individual genius and originality. Its disparate materials are produced by various makers, whose thumbprints or mechanical imprints remain visible in the composition.

In the two parts that follow, we examine one of Mina Loy’s Bowery collages and the en dehors garde method it enacts, before turning to survey the en dehors garde methods taken up in collage post(card)s created for our digital flash mob. Recently, Amy E. Elkins and Glenn Adamson wrote collaboratively in this forum of how such handiwork “matters” to women modernists, and for us, too, a thread that ties Loy’s collage to digital post(card)s is an emphasis on handiwork: physical embodiments, material conditions, and hand-collected and handmade works that resist or critique commodification.

Although this emphasis on the material conditions of creative and scholarly work may seem surprising in the context of our born-digital project, the digital does not occupy an immaterial or abstract realm. As digital humanities (DH) and Black studies scholar Safia Umoja Noble and others have argued, artistic and scholarly work using digital technologies runs the risk of rendering invisible the social, political, and economic constraints on their production; Noble calls upon scholars to think “more responsibly about the material conditions that enable DH work, conditions that include labor and exploitation in the service of making digital infrastructures and systems.”[4] The (post)card collages created for the digital flash mob highlight such conditions, even as they exist in digital forms.

Part I: Mina Loy’s Refusees

While living near the Bowery in the 1940s and early 50s, Mina Loy created a series of collages inspired by the homeless people she encountered. Constructed of discarded materials she found on her walks, these collages, like her poems of this era, use trash to materialize and interrogate the socioeconomic forces that governed the lives of the Bowery’s most vulnerable occupants. Loy called her constructions Refusees, which Carolyn Burke describes as a “punning blend of refuse, Refusés [refused], and refugees.”[5] Finding common ground with her subjects in her own experience of age, poverty, and anonymity, Loy’s Refusees not only comment on the treatment of the homeless, but also make room for perspectives marginalized by institutions of art and the masculine avant-garde.

The Face of Duchamp

One of Loy’s Refusees, which can be explored in a StoryMap on Mina Loy: Navigating the Avant-Garde, exemplifies her use of collage as a form of en dehors garde practice.  In this work, Loy paints the figure of the “bum” with the face of her friend and fellow avant-garde artist, Marcel Duchamp (figs. 2-3).[6] By incorporating Duchamp into her collage, Loy critically reframes the history of the avant-garde, while pointedly departing from Duchamp’s collage practice.

 

Details from Mina Loy, “Bowery Construction,” c. 1950s.
Figs. 2-3. Details from Mina Loy, “Bowery Construction,” c. 1950s. Reproduced with permission of Roger Conover, Literary Executor of the Mina Loy Estate.

Loy’s choice to paint Duchamp as a Bowery bum is suggestive: both were “unproductive” from the perspective of the wider culture, as Duchamp preferred idleness, conceptual thought, and playing chess to producing art as a visual commodity for the “holy museums.”[7] Is Duchamp, with his half-closed eyes, an avant-garde saint whose soul is leaving his body for subconscious or conceptual realms? Or has Loy depicted him as a bum trapped by the material realities of his body and the environment? Loy’s collage invites the viewer to consider the juxtaposition of the different materials and techniques she uses, including her painting of face and hands on cardboard relief elements, the selection and arrangement of crushed cans, and the swirls of blue wash and painted shadows on the cement-colored backdrop.

The relationship between these elements depends on the viewer’s perspective. If one looks at the collage vertically, Duchamp’s face and hands protrude near the top of the composition, recalling Loy’s “Christ on a Clothesline” (ca. 1955–1959). The blue wash seems to allude to the blue of Christ’s robes in icon paintings, suggesting the ephemerality of Duchamp’s clothing and body. And the flattened cans—“readymades” altered on the street—float below Duchamp like either art materials or sacred objects. However, if one looks down at the collage displayed horizontally, Duchamp appears to be embedded in or emerging from a cement sidewalk, surrounded by cans: he’s an inebriated bum one might walk by on the street.

Is Loy’s tone reverent, ironic, or both? By referring to Christ while insisting on the detritus in which the body remains lodged, Loy’s “blasphemous” portrait, to adopt Steve Pinkerton’s term, emphasizes the materiality of the body and art. Loy’s Refusee refuses to allow Duchamp to ascend to a purely abstract plane.[8]

The Hands of the Artist

Loy’s combination of painted elements and readymade objects echoes Duchamp’s Tu M’ (1918), while the pose of her Duchampian bum alludes to Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam (figs. 4-5). Through her framing of Duchamp-as-muse and her critical departure from Tu M’, Loy theorizes her own feminist collage practice.

Michelangelo, The Creation of Adam, c. 1512.
Fig. 4. Michelangelo, The Creation of Adam, c. 1512. Public Domain. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Marcel Duchamp, Tu M’, 1918.
Fig. 5. Marcel Duchamp, Tu M’, 1918. Oil on canvas, with bottlebrush, safety pins, and bolt. Gift of the Estate of Katherine S. Dreier. Image courtesy of Yale University Art Gallery.

The hand in Loy’s collage and Duchamp’s Tu M’ refers to the hand of the artist, allowing us to compare each artist’s self-reflexive commentary.[9] In Tu M’, the hand was made and signed by a commercial sign painter. In pointing to an actual bottle brush protruding from the canvas, it signifies that, in the age of mechanical reproduction, the artist has been supplanted by the craftsman and painting has become another “readymade” commodity.[10]

Loy, meanwhile, comments on the art of the readymade by depicting Duchamp after Michelangelo’s lounging Adam. In Michelangelo’s painting, Adam’s left hand is lazily extended, not quite touching that of God, which strains towards him. There is a physical and spiritual divide between artist and creation. In Loy’s collage, Duchamp’s left hand reaches towards and almost touches a dented can, as if the artist is preparing to select a readymade. Loy has created her bum–saint as a debased copy of Adam, himself a debased copy of God. Positioning Duchamp as a species of readymade, Loy implies that the modern artist, who selects and alters mechanically-produced objects, is drained of his divine, embodied spark—a point only emphasized by the shadow cast by Duchamp’s head, which forms an ironic halo.

Whereas Tu M’ reflects on how the readymade “elides” the painter’s hand, as Dalia Judovitz suggests, Loy employs contouring and shading to mark her painting of the hand as lovingly created (Unpacking, 225). Loy’s collage insists on the work of hands, as well as on the presence of the human outcasts and physical detritus that stubbornly “remain” on the street despite their exclusion from the dominant economy of their society. Unlike Duchamp, who rejects painting for readymades, Loy puts the two forms in dynamic relationship, altering how we understand each. Loy’s cans lack the pristine form of the brush that protrudes from Tu M’. Weathered by time on the street, some of the cans resemble copper coins with worn faces, suggesting the metaphorical connection between Loy’s “worthless” materials and her homeless subjects. At the same time, the arranged objects insist on their found quality, their literal status as refuse. These formal, material distinctions and connections prompt a recognition of the figure’s humanity amidst but distinct from strewn trash.

Creating a space for the en dehors garde, Loy theorizes the readymade quite differently than Duchamp: crushed cans, used by particular hands, are not abstract products of capitalism, but attest to the embodied, human experience of poverty on the Bowery.[11] Loy’s collage invites us to  reenvision the cast-off, both human and non-human, and to see the transformative creativity inherent in all people.

Part II: En dehors garde Post(card)s

Our en dehors garde flash mob likewise highlighted human creativity—and it didn’t produce anything resembling theory as we know it. Few of the post(card)s take the form of direct position statements; many of them employ collage techniques resistant to unified theorizing.

Why was collage the preferred form? Did contributors value its potential to subvert hierarchies and pattern new, unorthodox relationships? Were contributors inspired by the postcard form’s mixture of word and image? By Loy’s crossing of verbal-visual boundaries? As a way to juxtapose past and present, connecting the historical avant-garde to contemporary thoughts about the en dehors garde? Or was this form, which became dominant in the early twentieth century, and has been further enabled by digital technologies, simply an expedient choice?

Whereas scholars such as Yvonne Spielman theorize the difference between analogue representation and digital simulation, our flash mob deconstructs this opposition.[12] It shows how digital and analog methods work in tandem to emphasize the materiality of forms, as well as the physical, social, and structural relationships that matter for all of us working in patriarchal, capitalist, and neocolonial systems of power and value. As Gwen Raaberg observes, “collage strategies of feminists arise out of an awareness of their position as marginal in the dominant culture,” an awareness registered by “both fragmentation and relational strategies.”[13] Below we enumerate three en dehors garde strategies of handiwork, which, through a “candid acknowledgment of the constructedness of its images,” create new relations and perspectives (Harding, Cutting, 24).

Strategy 1: Splicing the Body

Several collages splice and recombine visual information constructing the gendered, raced, and nationalized body. By “manipulating already existing signs,” to borrow Elza Adamowicz’s words, such collages “unmask, critique, and renew the perception of utilitarian reality and modes of representation” (Surrealist Collage, 11).

Tao Leigh Goffe and Alicia Grullón, “Unmapping the Caribbean.”
Fig. 6. Tao Leigh Goffe and Alicia Grullón, “Unmapping the Caribbean.” All en dehors garde (post)cards are reproduced with the permission of their creators.

For example, Tao Leigh Goffe and Alicia Grullón’s “Unmapping the Caribbean,” a born-digital artistic collaboration, constitutes “a practice of unmapping through the body, forming a counter-map of sanctuary” (fig. 6). By inserting a human hand into the digital map, they interrupt that map’s smooth surface while being inscribed by it.

Cheryl Werber, “Teenage Collage”
Fig. 7. Cheryl Werber, “Teenage Collage”

Meanwhile, Cheryl Werber enacts one of the most familiar forms of popular collage-making in “Teenage Collage” (fig. 7). Werber retrieves a personal archive—an actual collage of magazine images made by her teenage self in the 1990s—in considering the role of media representations of the female body in the act of self-presentation—an act of display that depends on self-erasure in accordance with the standards of beauty seen in the magazine images.

RBD, “WOW are you ever” 
Figs. 8 and 9. RBD, “WOW are you ever” 

Similarly, RBD’s [Rachel Blau Duplessis] “WOW are you ever” collocates images of fragmented body parts from the media into a collage blazon, capturing the ideological processes of normalizing the “white woman-ity” that absorbs the unaware consumer (figs. 8-9).

Strategy 2: Revaluing Housekeeping and Handicrafts

In the 1980s, feminist artist Mariam Shapiro coined the term “Femmage” to distinguish works of assemblage that “reshape artifacts from women’s culture and give them new voice.”[14] Feminist collage, more generally, claims women’s spaces and handicrafts as en dehors garde territory, while critiquing the denigration and appropriation of domestic culture to promote masculine identities in art and otherwise.

Mary Montgomery-Lee, “Mina Loy”
Fig. 10. Mary Montgomery-Lee, “Mina Loy”

This is evident in Mary Montgomery-Lee’s “Mina Loy,” which intertextually situates visual references to Loy and her 1950s assemblage “Housekeeping” amid supposedly “domestic” techniques and materials (fig. 10). Stained teabags stitched together as canvas recall Loy’s use of debris, and assembled “tidbits” of the artist’s life and works—the marginalized ephemera of the domestic and the discarded—are arranged like a fabulous hat on Loy’s head.

Amy Elkins, “Craft as Negative Space”
Fig. 11. Amy Elkins, “Craft as Negative Space”

Likewise, Amy E. Elkins’s “Craft as Negative Space” displays a tapestry needlework by H.D., edged by a row of photographic negatives depicting her thimble (fig. 11). Contemplating the relationship of women’s crafts and writing—textile and text—Elkins inhabits the ghostly space of H.D.’s body by inserting her finger in the poet’s thimble. The photographic negative, she writes, “turns an image en dehors. The negative and positive together are necessary, but so often we only focus on the positive, the finished thing over the thing-in-process. . . . An en dehors garde archive reveals the literary objects forgotten on the flip side.”

Strategy 3: Handing Down and Unsettling Traditions

Finally, collage can offer a model for what James Harding calls “feminist historiography,” calling attention to the constructedness of histories of the avant-garde—and, by extension, energizing reconstructed feminist lineages (Cutting, 25).

Marsha Bryant, “En Dehors Garde Limericks for Stevie Smith”
Fig. 12. Marsha Bryant, “En Dehors Garde Limericks for Stevie Smith”

Thus Marsha Bryant addresses her work to the modernist author and poet Stevie Smith. “En dehors garde Limericks for Stevie Smith” arranges buttons and puzzle pieces around a handwritten, sly homage to Smith and a Smith-like doodle drawing of a woman with a handbag and a big hat (fig. 12). The found domestic objects floating outward ironically chime with Smith’s dissatisfaction with “Domestic roles for modern femmes,” while underscoring her poetry’s wry uses of the domestic. Echoing Smith’s irony and wit, the collage form invites knowingness about how history and power intersect, opening up cracks in history’s dominant canons and institutions.

Elizabeth Savage and Debbie Mix, “Daylight Astonishing”
Figs. 13-14. Elizabeth Savage and Debbie Mix, “Daylight Astonishing”

Elizabeth Savage and Debbie Mix’s “Daylight, Astonishing” pieces fabric into a “crazy quilt,” an unprescribed pattern emerging as one sews (figs. 13-14). Quilt pieces are embroidered with words referencing Gertrude Stein, a language quilter. The post(card)’s back includes a poem by Savage, its compact lines like fragments stitched, speaking across visual and verbal assemblies to emphasize the cross-discursive nature of the postcard.

Lastly, Jade French and Lottie Whalen, in “Making Something from Modernism,” construct a feminist/woman-centered genealogy, embedding “feminine-coded” handicrafts and decorative arts—the “making” of something—to the avant-garde (fig. 15). Visual parataxis suggests a forgotten lineage of women’s creativity: the “links between what might be considered ‘traditional feminine crafts’ . . . [and] the experimental works of Anni Albers, Hannah Höch, and Sophie Taeuber-Arp.”

Jade French and Lottie Whalen, “Making Something From Modernism”
Fig. 15. Jade French and Lottie Whalen, “Making Something From Modernism”

At the center of collage pieces referencing traditional craft and modernist works, French and Whalen place an image of Faith Ringgold’s Dancing at the Louvre (1991). Combining quilting, representational painting, and textual language, Ringgold’s work depicts Willia Marie Simone, a fictionalized Black American woman encountering writers and artists in modernist Paris, in an effort to puncture modernism’s whiteness—creating, like this collage, alternative and dissenting historiographies.

Collaborative Coda 

The flash mob, inspired by Loy’s collage practice, taps the feminist potential for engaging the digital as a space of collaboration and interactivity. We conclude with our own post(card), “The Brides’ Redress,” a tribute to the feminist interventions of en dehors garde writers, artists, and scholars, both past and present (fig. 16). In this post(card)—and in this essay—our collaborative work as feminist scholars opens up modernist studies to diverse perspectives, interpretations, and laboring, art-making hands. This “turn outward” from individualized into relational scholarship embraces the logic of collage as varied voices overlap, conjoin, and touch edges. Like collage, en dehors garde theory is the work of many hands—an ongoing project to reinvent the way art and scholarship are produced, and to acknowledge their social and material conditions of production.

Suzanne Churchill, “The Brides’ Redress”
Fig. 16. Suzanne Churchill, “The Brides’ Redress”
 

Notes

[1] Key studies to account for gender, sexuality, and race include Paola Sica, Futurist Women: Florence, Feminism, and the New Sciences (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2016); Mirella Bentivoglio and Franca Zoccoli, The Women Artists of Italian Futurism: Almost Lost to History (New York: Midmarch Arts Press, 1998); Paula Kamenish, Mamas of Dada: Women of the European Avant-Garde (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2016); Naomi Sawelson-Gorse, Women in Dada: Essays on Sex, Gender, and Identity (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1998); Penelope Rosemont, Surrealist Women: An International Anthology (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1998); Mary Ann Caws, Rudolf E. Kuenzli, and Gwen Raaberg, Surrealism and Women (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press 1991); and Whitney Chadwick, Women Artists and the Surrealist Movement (Boston, MA: Little Brown, 1991).

[2] The term en dehors garde was suggested by dramaturge, director, and feminist scholar Nancy Selleck.

[3] James Harding, Cutting Performances: Collage Events, Feminist Artists, and the American Avant-Garde (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2012), 24.

[4] Safiya Umoja Noble, “Toward a Critical Black Digital Humanities,” Debates in the Digital Humanities, ed. Matthew K. Gold and Lauren F. Klein (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2019), 27–35, 28. Also available to read online.

[5] Carolyn Burke, Becoming Modern: The Life of Mina Loy (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), 420.

[6] Even as Loy’s collage criticizes Duchamp’s masculine disembodiment, it also acknowledges the affinities between the two artists. Duchamp was Loy’s fellow traveler in the avant-garde: they met in New York in 1916, both returned to Europe in 1920, and both made a permanent move back to New York due to World War II. Subsequently, Duchamp and Julien Levy helped organize the exhibition of Loy’s Refusees at the Bodley Gallery in April 1959. See Burke, Becoming Modern, 213–19, 230–33, 304, 417, 433–35.

[7] Calvin Tomkins, Duchamp: A Biography (New York: Henry Holt, 1996), 285.

[8] As Pinkerton argues, Loy’s depictions of Christ in her works of this time simultaneously critique orthodox religion and open up Christ to unorthodox, feminist, and sexualized meanings. See Blasphemous Modernism: The 20th-Century Word Made Flesh (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), 57–58.

[9] Elza Adamowicz argues that the “recurrent motif of the painting hand” in surrealist collage emphasizes “the overt staging of seams, material tears, semantic incoherence, iconographic anomalies or narrative non-sequiturs.” See Surrealist Collage in Text and Image: Dissecting the Exquisite Corpse (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 15.

[10] On Tu M’ as a retreat from painting and a reflection on the readymade’s status as an indexical object like the photograph, see Rosalind Krauss, The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1985), 197–209, and Dalia Judovitz, Unpacking Duchamp: Art in Transit (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995, 1998), 221–26.

[11] See Burke, Becoming Modern, 420.

[12] See Yvonne Spielman, “Aesthetic Features in Digital Imaging: Collage and Morph,” Wide Angle 21.1 (1999): 131–48.

[13] Gwen Raaberg, “Beyond Fragmentation: Collage as Feminist Strategy in the Arts,” Mosaic: An Interdisciplinary Critical Journal 31.3 (1998): 153–71, 157.

[14] Miriam Shapiro, “Femmage,” Collage: Critical Views, ed. Katherine Hoffman (Ann Arbor, MI: UMI Research Press, 1989): 295–315, 296.