Stone: Let’s wander through Aspen’s avant-garde past
Quick quiz: Do you know who Mina Loy is?
OK. Time’s up.
For those who said, “Isn’t she a movie star from back in the 1930s?” Nice try, but that was Myrna Loy. No relation.
I was reminded of Mina Loy when I was trying to confirm my recollection that when I first got to town the Hotel Jerome was painted white.
In my Google search on the hotel paint job, I stumbled across a reference to Mina Loy in Aspen — which included the observation that a lot of local residents were upset when that “newcomer” Walter Paepcke had the Jerome painted.
So I was right about the Jerome, but now — as is the nature of life in the age of Google — I was thinking about Mina Loy.
Born in 1882, Mina Loy was an artist in the widest sense of the word: painter, poet, novelist, playwright, actor, designer, creator of found-object “assemblages” — and more: a Modernist, Futurist and dedicated member of the avant-garde art world. Loy’s work ranks somewhere between significant and important.
In a life that was peripatetic, to say the least, she roamed from London (where she was born) to Paris; Florence; Greenwich Village, N.Y.; and Mexico, following the demands of her life, her art and — perhaps mostly — a succession of lovers and husbands.
In the early years of the 20th century, she gathered an astonishing roster of friends and acquaintances: poets, painters and writers such as Gertrude Stein, Picasso, Henri Rousseau, Marcel Duchamp, William Carlos Williams, Man Ray and Marianne Moore.
And all her roaming ultimately landed her in Aspen in 1953, where she settled down and spent the rest of her life.
What brought this cosmopolitan, intellectual avant-garde artist to Aspen in those very early years? It was her two daughters: Joella and Fabienne — better known in Aspen by their married names: Joella Bayer (wife of Herbert, the man who issued that controversial decree that the Jerome should be painted) and Fabi Benedict (wife of Fritz).
Though she was into her 70s when she moved here, Loy continued her art, gathering a strange assortment of objects from the unpaved streets of Aspen — eggshells, tin cans, scrap metal — which she stored in her wildly untidy apartment (despite her daughters’ disapproval) and used in her final series of “assemblages.”
In “Becoming Modern: The Life of Mina Loy,” biographer Carolyn Burke describes the Aspen of the early 1950s as “a heterogeneous mix of ranchers, sheepherders, artists, intellectuals and self-declared free spirits who enjoyed the town’s seedy charm.” And while most residents “dressed Western style,” says Burke, “Mina wore trailing robes of velvet or brocade and wrapped her head with scarves or turbans pinned with antique brooches” as she wandered the muddy streets gathering those tin cans, eggshells and scraps of metal.
Interesting, even fascinating — but so what?
So this: Loy was a vibrant part of modern Aspen’s real intellectual and artistic roots. She was well-known in the art world, but certainly no celebrity. She didn’t come here with the gloss of Paepcke’s “industrial” corporate sponsorship. And she definitely didn’t fit in with the severe Bauhaus style of Paepcke’s chosen artist, her own son-in-law, Herbert Bayer; nor did she fit in with the determinedly middle-brow intellectualism of the Aspen Institute’s guiding spirit Mortimer Adler.
In her life and her art, Loy made no concessions to the conventional.
And she deserves to be better remembered and honored in contemporary Aspen, where that “heterogeneous mix of ranchers, sheepherders, artists, intellectuals and self-declared free spirits” has become as endangered — or just plain lost — as “the town’s seedy charm.”
And I mention this because — OK, get ready for a hyperspace leap — I got an unexpected flash of that old spirit last week at, of all places, Paepcke Auditorium (a central part of the Bayer/Adler legacy), when Maria Semple and her kid brother, Lorenzo, took the stage to chat about her wonderful novel, “Where’d You Go, Bernadette?”
The two Semple kids (I get to call them kids because I’m a lot older than they are) are part of a newer generation of wonderfully creative, slightly off-kilter (sorry, guys, live with it) Aspen artists.
Their father was the screenwriter Lorenzo Semple Jr., who, with his wife, Joyce, lived in Mexico, then Spain, turning out some great writing along the way, before settling in Aspen for two decades to raise their family.
At Paepcke last week, Maria — and though I’ve never met her, after an hour of listening to her and laughing with her at Paepcke, I feel that I can only call her by her first name, no simple “Semple” for her — was interviewed (if that’s the word — and it isn’t) by kid brother Lo.
And the Maria and Lo Show was one of those brief shining moments (has someone used that phrase before?) that gives me continuing faith in this town.
The auditorium was jammed, and everyone was in a great mood. Partly, I am sure, because “Bernadette” is wonderfully funny. I cannot remember the last time I laughed out loud so often while reading a book.
But a major reason for the good mood was that the Semples are a part of Aspen.
During the family’s years here, the Semples’ dinner table was a “salon” for the town’s brightest and most creative residents and visitors.
Eventually, Lorenzo Jr. and Joyce moved back to California. Maria, too, headed west, to L.A. and Seattle. Lo has stuck around, writing a great column for one of the local newspapers (which one? The name escapes me at the moment), skiing Highland Bowl almost obsessively in the winter and, as he often boasts, cutting West End lawns in the summer.
Three great writers. Definitely not difficult or avant-garde — Lorenzo Jr. wrote the “Batman” TV series and followed that with major Hollywood movies; Maria wrote for “Beverly Hills, 90210” and “Saturday Night Live,” and “Bernadette” has been on the best-seller list for a year; Lo is compulsively readable — but definitely part of that still-discernable stream of creativity that makes this town special.
From Mina to Maria, the line is clear, if fragile. Let’s keep it going, OK?
Andy Stone is former editor of The Aspen Times. His email address is email@example.com.