Marlow Moss, Who?

Notes on an Overlooked Maverick

Notes on an Overlooked Maverick

The outcry that the seven-time Oscar-winning blockbuster movie Oppenheimer neglected to mention that many women were involved in the Manhattan Project was loud last year. And rightly so. In Christopher Nolan’s movie, female scientists such as Chien-Shiung Wu, Naomi Livesay, and Leona Woods, who worked as mathematicians, physicists, chemists, biologists, or computational analysts, are mostly absent. However, this is not surprising, as science and cultural history share a tradition of struggling to attest authorship to non-male human beings, especially when they perform activities that are generally considered male occupations. Fortunately, there is always time to learn about them, rewrite history, and attribute inventions correctly. This text is about one such case.

Let me put you to a little art history test, first.
Can you guess who’s work we have here?
White, Black and Blue, 1931
Oil on canvas
54 x 44.5 cm

Indeed, when I saw this 1931 painting, White, Black and Blue, for the first time, I too thought of Dutch painter and art theoretician Piet Mondrian. But in fact, the 54 x 44.5 cm oil on canvas painting is by British constructivist Marlow Moss, born in 1889 as Marjorie Jewell Moss. “Moss, who?” you might ask. Let me assure you, you are in good company if you haven’t heard of Moss.

Moss is a figure of great significance to the histories of Modern art, the style and theory of Neoplasticism, and the LGBTQ+ community, with an oeuvre speaking of clarity and power. On the occasion of Pride Month, and in anticipation of Art Basel, where von Bartha will showcase the above work by Moss, let us have a closer look at the work and biography of this overlooked maverick.

In recent years, Moss’ forgotten oeuvre has raised some attention, thanks to curators and scholars such as Lucy Howarth, who 2008 wrote the first and still only existing full-length thesis on Moss. About the artist’s character, transformation, and look, she wrote: “Moss believed firmly in the existentialist idea of perpetual becoming, the awareness of the ability and responsibility to create one’s own existence through action. She (…) adopted a masculine appearance around 1919. This was precipitated by a ‘shock of an emotional nature’ (perhaps the discovery of her sexual orientation) and the abandonment of her studies at the Slade.”(1) 

Portrait of Marlow Moss
Photo: Stephen Storm, circa 1950, private collection, found on

While researchers such as Howarth – or artists like Andrew Bick, who have continually brought Moss to the table (2) – are indispensable, it is also heartening to see that today’s pop culture and queer icons, such as drag-superstar Sasha Velour, rediscover Moss. Valour explains in a TateShots video that she was fascinated by the artist, whose queerness was erased from history and whose innovation was written into other people’s biographies. The drag queen adds in relation to a work by Moss from 1949: “As a queer person, as a non-binary person, (…), I find geometry and color more reliable categories than man and woman. In some ways, I can see myself more in a square of yellow than in a drawing of a man or woman.”

“LGBTQ+ Icons at Tate Britain” – Sasha Velour at TateShots

In 1927, Moss moved from London to Paris and attended Fernand Léger’s atelier at the Académie Moderne. In France, Moss met their lifelong partner, the Dutch writer Antoinette Hendrika Nijhoff-Wind. It was Nijhoff who introduced Moss to Mondrian.

The artist’s journey reminds us that art history has long been written solely by and about men: While the works of Mondrian are world-famous today, Moss is less known, although the influence was mutual. Moss’ approach was more mathematical, Mondrian’s more intuitive, but the fact that the British painter was the first to introduce the double grid lines in 1930, which the Dutch painter embraced later, is indisputable. Moss’ painting at hand, White, Black and Blue, from 1931, was created around this time when Moss had already started working with the double line. One could say that the thick, black horizontal line on the right side of the painting is on the verge of separating into two lines while holding up the weight of the blue square above.

Here, the point is to be made: Widely, Mondrian is celebrated for the invention of the double grid lines – as is Oppenheimer “celebrated” for building the atomic bomb – but looking closer, one must come to the conclusion that there maybe wouldn’t be a double-line if Moss hadn’t started experimenting with it two years prior to Mondrian. At the time, „there was some controversy,“ says Christie’s specialist Angus Granlund. Even „Georges Vantongerloo accused Mondrian of not giving Moss enough credit for the double line.“

In a letter, Mondrian asked Moss to explain the use of this extremely unorthodox technique within the strict formal language of Neoplasticism. Moss replied: “First: single lines split up the canvas so that the composition falls apart into separate planes (…). Second: single lines make the composition static. Third: the double line or a multiplicity of lines renders ‘a continuity of related and inter-related rhythm in space’ possible, which makes the composition dynamic instead of static.” Even if Mondrian did not understand the theory at first, he, nevertheless, would later use the parallel lines himself, without referring to Moss’s authorship.(3)

Despite the controversy, letters between Mondrian and Moss prove their respective admiration, and it was Mondrian who suggested, that Moss should join the Paris Association Abstraction-Création as a founding member along with Vantongerloo, Theo van Doesburg, Auguste Herbin, Jean Arp, and others. Moss later became an active member in the artists groups Les Surindépendants, Groupe Anglo-Americain, Association 1940, and Salon des Réalités Nouvelles. At the beginning of World War II, the Jewish artist fled France and went to Cornwall in the UK (where Moss lived until they died in 1958), but unfortunately, a lot of the works got destroyed or lost in the war. Howarth wrote: “A 1944 bombardment destroyed all of her works that were stored in Gauciel.”(4)

Exhibition views, Marlow Moss, Museum Haus Konstruktiv, 2017. Photo: Stefan Altenburger

Living a life as a non-binary person or trans-male, although this terminology was not available during her lifetime, and it is not known if she would have adopted it,” (5) the change of name, and having to flee a world war, have certainly not made Moss’ career easier. In spite of everything, Moss’ oeuvre has found its way into some of the most significant exhibitions at the time, including Konstruktivisten at Kunsthalle Basel (1937) and Tentoonstelling Abstracte Kunst at Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam (1938), as well as major collections today, including Fondazione Marguerite Arp, Locarno; Henry Moore Institute, Leeds; Israel Museum, Jerusalem; Kunstmuseum Den Haag; Museum of Contemporary Art, Antwerp; Museum of Modern Art, New York; Nijhoff/Oosthoek Collection, Zurich; Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam; Tate, London; and many private collections.

Exhibition view, Kunsthalle Basel, Konstruktivisten, 1937 with works by Alexander Calder, Walter Dexel, Theo van Doesburg, Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, El Lissitzky, Kasimir S. Malevič, László Moholy-Nagy, Piet Mondrian, Marlow Moss, Pablo Picasso, Sophie Taeuber-Arp, Wladimir Tatlin, Georges Vantongerloo, Friedrich Vordemberge-Gildewart, among others. Photo: Atelier Eidenbenz, Courtesy Photo Archive Kunsthalle Basel / Basler Kunstverein

While reading and thinking about the representation of Moss’ work, Moss’ transformation, their non-binary existence, and the greatness of the work in general, I recently visited Fondation Beyeler’s current collection exhibition. Suddenly, I was struck by a painting with the title Composition with Double Line and Blue, which was very close to the work described above. For years, I would have just passed it, crediting it as a Mondrian. But now I couldn’t be sure anymore. The moment of doubt and the realization that there is a little bit of Moss in this Mondrian too, made me leave the museum with a broad smile.

Piet Mondrian Conservation Project von La Prairie und der Fondation Beyeler: Piet Mondrian, Composition with Double Line and Blue, 1935, Fondation Beyeler, Riehen/Basel, Beyeler Collection. © Mondrian / Holtzman Trust c/o HCR International Warrenton, VA USA. Photo: Mark Niedermann
Piet Mondrian Conservation Project von La Prairie und der Fondation Beyeler: Piet Mondrian, Composition with Double Line and Blue, 1935, Tableau No. I, 1921–1925, Fondation Beyeler, Riehen/Basel, Beyeler Collection. © Mondrian / Holtzman Trust c/o HCR International Warrenton, VA USA. Photo: Mark Niedermann

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