A Long-Overdue Artist Spotlight on Marlow Moss
Jul 5, 2019
Marlow Moss was a master of constructivist art, yet few today know her name. That could be because Moss was more than just a constructivist; she was a female, lesbian, British constructivist in a time when those four words were almost never used together in a sentence. Despite public ignorance, however, Moss was radical in her aesthetic experimentation, and secure in her own genius, evidently caring little or nothing about wealth and fame. She walked proud through a life she carved out for herself, giving no power to anyone who doubted or rejected her worth. Even today such a figure would likely be controversial in the art field, so it is no surprise, really, that Moss was nearly forgotten by history. Too often the writers of art history put all of the importance on being important. Only the most important artists are curated into exhibitions, and only the most important exhibitions are given press. But what does important mean? And who decides? Moss was friends with Piet Mondrian, and their influence ran both directions. She was also a founding member of Abstraction-Création, a group of abstract artists that formed in Paris in the 1930s to oppose the rise of Surrealism. She was also one of the most innovative artists living in St. Ives when the area was a hotbed of abstract innovation. Yet until relatively recently, her name was rarely uttered and her work was almost completely unknown by the public. Moss has recently enjoyed a revival, however. Her work is currently part of a traveling exhibition on view at The Stanley & Audrey Burton Gallery, University of Leeds. The ambitious exhibition, titled Fifty Works by Fifty British Women Artists 1900–1950, adds a significant dimension to the straight white male dominated art history canon. It is only a start of course. But we all must do our part to achieve parity and equity. That in mind, and realizing that all fifty artists in this exhibition likely deserve their own article, here is our attempt to shine a little more light on Moss, an artist whose contribution to human culture was, in our opinion, important.
Thank You Tate
Marjorie Jewel Moss was born in London in 1889. She changed her name to Marlow around 1926, and died in Cornwall in 1958. During her 69 years, she created an enormous body of work that spanned several distinct aesthetic evolutions, including Neo Plasticism, Constructivism, and Biomorphism. Yet, most members of the British public only first became aware of her name in 2014, when the Tate Britain opened a solo exhibition of her work. Many viewers were shocked and surprised to see such superb work, and wondered why they had never heard of Moss before. Various reasons were postulated. One is that she was a woman, and a cross dresser, who refused to work within the male structure of the art world. Another was that she was gay. Undoubtedly those factors contributed to her anonymity. But the reason most people clutched onto stemmed not from her personality, but from her work—specifically, her early paintings, which share distinctive traits with the work of Piet Mondrian.
Marlow Moss - Composition in Yellow, Black and White, 1949. Oil paint and wood on canvas. 508 x 356 x 6 mm (frame: 616 x 465 x 54 mm). Tate Collection. Presented by Miss Erica Brausen 1969. Photo: © Tate, London 2019.
Moss moved from England to Paris in 1927. Sometime over the course of the next year she met Piet Mondrian, one of the founders of De Stijl. Mondrian had dropped out of the De Stijl movement in 1923, and established his own signature variation of the style, which he called Neo Plasticism. Its simple method consisted of painting flat compositions using a combination of horizontal and vertical lines and five pure hues—black, white, red, yellow and blue. The moment Moss saw her first Mondrian, she became convinced of the radical superiority of the Neo Plasticist method. She began a friendship with Mondrian, and exchanged ideas with him. The key difference to their two approaches was that Mondrian constructed his compositions intuitively, while Moss constructed them using a mathematical approach. Indeed, their Neo Plasticist works do resemble each other—a valid point. But there are several pictorial elements Moss employs that make her works stand out, and even a couple that Mondrian evidently copied, such as double parallel black lines.
Marlow Moss - White and Yellow, 1935. Oil paint, string and canvas on canvas. Unconfirmed: 622 x 400 mm
(frame: 776 x 550 x 85 mm). Tate Collection. Purchased with assistance from Tate Members 2014. Photo: © Tate, London 2019.
The Moss Method
Another key difference between Mondrian and Moss was that Mondrian sought spiritual purity in his work, while Moss sought precision and elegance. Even her most Neo Plasticist works are looser than anything Mondrian did. Where a Mondrian composition feels anchored, Moss let her forms float free. Where a Mondrian looks flat, Moss let her colors interact in such a way as to create illusionistic depth. Most importantly, Mondrian was ever on a path towards simplification. While Moss was no Minimalist, she did embrace the possibility of more. She employed other materials besides surfaces and paint. She made metal sculptures such as “Spatial Construction in Steel.” She blended metal with natural materials, as in “Balanced Forms in Gunmetal on Cornish Granite” (1956-7), which was shown at the Tate, and an untitled triangle sculpture from 1950 that sits upon a rustic wooden base. Such experiments show an understanding of how mathematics and geometry coincide with the natural world, revealing an embrace of animal nature distinctly missing from Neo Plasticism.
Marlow Moss - Balanced Forms in Gunmetal on Cornish Granite, 1956–7. Metal and granite. 220 x 330 x 285 mm. Tate Collection. Presented by Miss Erica Brausen 1969. Photo: © Tate, London 2019.
Moss is also notable for her geometric drawings. Within their subtle compositions, worlds of circular planes, orbs, and floating forms open up new visual dimensions. In total, her method is suggestive not only of Neo Plasticism, but also of Biomorphism, Constructivism, Op Art, Process Art, even Minimalism. Moss summons the conceptual grandeur of Mondrian while channeling the elegance of Brancusi and the humanism of Barbara Hepworth. In any case, even if Moss did imitate Mondrian at first, her paintings in many ways surpass his. But understand that this is what we do when we look only for the most important artists. We seek only the innovators, and never give fair due to those who mastered what others devised. There must be room for mastery, lest every artist be burdened with the impossible goal of having to invent something entirely new. In any case, Moss moved beyond Neo Plasticism, and invented an idiosyncratic method all her own. It is right that she is now receiving more attention for what she achieved. Fifty Works by Fifty British Women Artists 1900–1950 is on view at the University of Leeds through 27 July 2019.
Featured image: Marlow Moss - Untitled (White, Black, Blue and Yellow), 1954. Oil paint on canvas. Frame: 707 x 556 x 25 mm. Tate Collection. Lent by Hazel Rank-Broadley 2001, on long term loan. Photo: © Tate, London 2019.
All images used for illustrative purposes only
By Phillip Barcio