Marlow Moss is a prominent but neglected woman artist who worked in geometric abstraction, and her unique approach to space deserves more attention. This manuscript follows Marlow Moss’s work Composition in Red, Black and White (1953) from the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam’s collection as a case study and explores Moss’s concept of double and truncated lines. In activating an abstract artwork of an overlooked artist produced in the postwar period, I explore the potential of a concept of embodied space. The study reflects on the interrelation between space, movement and body in geometric abstraction. How can engaging with geometric abstraction reveal that space and gender are related? How can feminist concepts of space disrupt the patriarchal spatial systems? What is the relationship between space and social identities? How can Moss’s spatial approach revivify a feminist concept of corporeality?
Firstly, some brief biographical information on Moss is given for historical background. Then, I discuss how the dominant masculine discourse of art history has an exclusionary structure. Subsequently, I examine Moss’s approach to space and body. I explore how the construction of space and gender are interrelated by focusing on the dynamism and flow in Moss’s canvases. I propose that Moss made a crucial contribution to the vocabulary of geometric abstraction with her concept of double and truncated lines, and argue that her lines are the abstraction of a corporeal movement. Finally, I propose Moss’s understanding of space through bodily movement can be interpreted as a feminist strategy and enables a retheorization of the body outside patriarchal frameworks.
Marlow Moss, Composition in Red, Black and White, 1953, oil on canvas, 76 x 51 cm. Courtesy of Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam.
Marlow Moss (1889–1958), born in London, was once described by Fernand Léger as an artist “who resists the modern mania for classifications.” To mention some of her attributes, she was a student of Léger, disciple of Piet Mondrian, painter, British artist in Paris, migrant in the Netherlands, woman, queer, drag king, upper middle class, Jewish, atheist, and existentialist.
Initially, Moss was studying art at Slade, London, when she changed her name, Marjorie Jewel, to a gender-neutral name, Marlow, and started wearing men’s clothes. In 1927 she moved to Paris and attended Académie Moderne, taught by Fernand Léger and Amédée Ozenfant, who both influenced Moss in major ways. In Paris she met her lifelong partner, the Dutch writer Antoinette Hendrika Nijhoff-Wind. It was Nijhoff who introduced Moss to Mondrian; Moss became fascinated by the architectural structure and colors of Mondrian, and she adopted Mondrian’s neoplastic language to realize her ambition of “space, movement, and light.”
Moss was an important actor of the interwar Parisian art scene, and was good friends with Jean Gorin, Georges Vantongerloo, and Max Bill. She was one of the founders of the Abstraction-Création (1931–1936), an association of abstract artists set up in Paris with the aim of promoting abstract art through group exhibitions. Throughout the 1930s, she exhibited regularly with the Association 1940 at the Salon des Surindépendants, Parc des Expositions, Parc de Versailles, and Le Salon des Réalités Nouvelles in Paris, as well as at the group exhibitions Konstruktivisten at the Kunsthalle (1937), Basel, and Abstracte Kunst (1938) at the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam.
At the beginning of World War II, she left France and moved to the Netherlands. The following year, the German invasion forced her to return to England. Exhibitions during her lifetime at Hanover Gallery (1953, 1958), London, and after her death at the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam (1962) focused on presenting her visual approach. However, Moss’s work is still not sufficiently recognized for its importance within interwar abstract movements. The first reason is the destruction of her works in her French studio during a bombardment in 1944. The second is the structure of art history, which is constituted within the framework of masculinist domination and compulsory heterosexuality.
Out of Sight
In 1971 Linda Nochlin asked “Why have there been no great women artists?” in her famous essay which shares the same title with this urgent question. The critique of the Western art historical canon is not new, but is still relevant. According to Nochlin, the problem is systemic: the structure of art institutions that shaped museums’ programs, funding, and collections is constructed on a white, masculine subject. This subject is assumed as “natural” in the narrative, and therefore art history and institutions excluded women, queer, and non-Western artists. Since Nochlin’s essay, throughout these fifty years, feminist theory has expanded this discourse and museums have been revising their policies along with these debates. Now, a self-critical discourse is on the rise. However, the systemic exclusion is still with us and affects art institutions as well as daily life. The struggle against systemic discriminatory practices should be an ongoing process and renew itself by inventing new strategies against the also changing power apparatuses and forms of exclusion, domination, and violence. Therefore, it is a necessity and urgency for museums to constantly rethink and reevaluate their priorities, policies, and practices in order to be more inclusive and just.
Historical revisionism is a productive strategy for filling the gap in museums’ collections and exhibitory practices. It is an important way to critically engage with art history. Feminist historical revisionism addresses the structural exclusion of women artists who are reclaimed from history. This strategy’s main ambition is to include those who have been concealed, suppressed, and left out of sight. Revisionist strategies can revivify any artwork of the past to mobilize the past, present, and future.
The history of art tends to be discussed as series of revolutionary developments which dominantly represent the masculine Western artist. The schema of Alfred H. Barr in the catalogue of the exhibition Cubism and Abstract Art (1936) at MoMA is an example of how modern art has been narrated through a chronological flowchart where movements connected by directional arrows indicate influence and reaction. Barr’s history of modern art has become iconic and naturalized. However, Meyer Schapiro suggests that Barr’s schema puts “the art of the whole world on… a single unhistorical and universal plane as a panorama of the formalizing energies of man.” Likewise, Griselda Pollock criticized Barr’s approach, as it “creates a tradition which normalizes a particular modern art history and gendered set of practices.” Barr’s narrative establishes a norm that is based on the heterosexual white male artist and is produced by a structure of exclusion and subordination.
Politics of inclusivity in art institutions therefore necessitate a problematization of the masculine discourse of modernism. This perspective sees art history as constituted of consecutive events, synchronic, and a linearity of “-isms.” To encounter a woman artist in this history of modern art is very rare. Women artists such as Moss have been dismissed as anachronistic and disempowered to produce critical concepts. Moss’s innovative concept of the double line mostly remained in the footnotes of writings on Mondrian. Her works have been seen rarely in public. It is striking that Moss’s Composition in Red, Black and White after its arrival in the Stedelijk Museum’s collection in 1962, was first exhibited at her posthumous solo show of the same year and, apart from not registered collection presentations, only in three other exhibitions, the latest is the Migrant Artists in Paris (2019–2020) at the Stedelijk. Her works have been in the shadow for a long time. Yet, they can broaden our vision towards abstract art and space.
Moreover, as Lucy Howarth writes, if art history continues to be perceived as a series of revolutionary developments, artists such as Moss can be evaluated as a throwback. However, Moss’s work offers us innovative aesthetic concepts, and an anachronistic view towards Moss can be subverted to consider contemporary sociocultural issues. Giorgio Agamben suggests that “the contemporary is the untimely and through anachronism we are more capable of grasping our time.” Additionally, Elizabeth Grosz writes:
Something is untimely by being anachronistic, which is another way of saying that it is not yet used up in its pastness and still has something to offer that remains untapped. Feminist theory has directed itself to re-reading the past for what is unutilized in it.
Instead of being monologic and static, the history of modern art can be dynamic and diachronic. Agamben proposes a regime of historicity which is spatially represented by a broken line, in opposition to chronological continuity. This broken line recalls the truncated lines in Moss’s work Composition in Red, Black and White. Moss’s spatial structure can be interpreted as a visual manifestation of Agamben’s understanding of history. In this abstract painting, Moss realizes an unceasing mobility—forms orbit rhythmically, fast and slow, boundless. The movement of lines in Moss’s canvas and the dynamic composition inspire us to imagine a non-synchronic, dynamic, and mobile art history.
Installation view from Marlow Moss, 1962, Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam. Courtesy of Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam.
Body and Space
For Moss, art and life were inseparable, and both are forever in a state of becoming. Moss’s idea of a “state of becoming” is revealed in her dynamic compositions. Moss offers us a new concept of space in geometric abstraction by creating perpetual movement in the canvas through the double line and the truncated lines. Moss is often recognized for her double lines, which are visible in most of her paintings. However, later she developed truncated lines, which are equally essential to understanding Moss. Both are her solution to the static space of the picture plane; the lines create a flow on the surface of the canvas by boundless energy. The key element of fully comprehending Moss is to examine the way she grasps and abstracts space. Moss perceives the movement in space with her body and in the same breath creates pictorial space with this perception. Moss conceives of space by movement in terms of the primacy of corporeality. Therefore, Moss’s paintings enable us to conceive of corporeality in different terms for feminist purposes.
Most writings on Moss explore this double line; they first mention Moss as being a follower of Mondrian and then explore her contribution to abstract language. For example, in a 1974 catalogue of Mondrian’s works in Dutch collections, Cor Blok writes that, after Moss’s introduction of double lines, Mondrian adopted them into his compositions and started to double or multiply his lines in the early 1930s. Furthermore, Yve-Aiain Bois mentions Moss’s appearance in the first issue of Abstraction Création. Bois writes about her adherence to Mondrian’s aesthetic and later points out her contribution of the double line to Mondrian’s vocabulary. Similarly, Carel Blotkamp writes about Mondrian, “The double line was most certainly borrowed from one of his most faithful disciples… Marlow Moss.”
It is actually Moss who influenced Mondrian to use the double line, but Moss’s invention has mostly been left in the footnotes of Mondrian. We must ask why Moss introduced the lines and what the effect of this was. For Moss, in Mondrian’s paintings there was a lack of movement and the double line offered a solution. Until 1931, Mondrian aimed to “freeze time and obtain a static universal equilibrium in which everything would be neutralized, every force cancelled out by its opposite.” However, as discussed above, Mondrian reversed his course after 1932 and explored dynamism in his work by adopting the “double line.” Moss first introduced the lines in her paintings in 1931. The lines are perfectly visible in the two works dating from 1931 which are published in the first issue of Abstraction-Création (1932). They created a sensation in the Abstraction-Création group.
Later on, Moss ensured a different kind of movement in space: she introduced truncated lines. These types of lines are more visible in her later works, mostly from the 1950s, such as Composition in Red, Black and White. Moss expands the contours of the canvas with her use of lines. In Composition in Red, Black and White, the line on the upper right corner and the one on the lower left corner seem to be seeping in from the painting’s border. The upper and lower halves of the painting are forced apart by a movement that seems to go beyond the canvas and connect it with its surroundings. Lines flow on and from the painting surface. She goes beyond the spatial limits of the canvas.
Another oil on canvas, Blue, Red, Black and White (No. 3) (1953), produced in the same year as Composition in Red, Black and White, shares these characteristics. It was also exhibited in Moss’s 1962 solo show at the Stedelijk Museum. Both paintings are the result of her exploration of movement in series of paintings between 1950 and 1953. The geometrical structure of these works creates a dynamic shift in the picture plane. In both, the lines seem to protrude from the painting surface. In Blue, Red, Black and White (No. 3) the short lines create dynamism by intersecting on the left side. One of the short lines located on the upper right overflows from the surface, while the one below it moves towards the left. They seem to be moving in opposite directions. The shortest red and black lines magnetize and move towards each other. Mobility is ensured by the magnetic energy between the lines.
Similarly, returning to Composition in Red, Black and White, the lines at the center magnetize each other and also interact with the red square. The geometric forms fluctuate on the surface, affected by the tension between these lines. There is a perpetuum mobility, a continuous energy in Moss’s canvases. Her compositions are like ebb and flow, a recurrent pattern of coming and going. The ebb and flow designate the falling tide and the rising tide. Tide is the cyclic change on the sea surface caused by the relative positions of the Moon and the Sun. The relative positions of the lines create a similar movement on the surface of Moss’s canvas. The surface of the canvas is in flux, like the sea surface. This geographical phenomenon can be perceived as a spatial metaphor that informs us about Moss’s approach to space as her lines flow on the surface of the canvas.
Moss perceives and senses her environment through the body. For Moss, space is constructed by movement; she therefore visualizes the constant flow. The canvas is informed by the mobility of the body and vice versa. Moss destabilizes the static canvas by bringing corporeality to its surface. In the catalogue of Moss’s exhibition at the Stedelijk, her partner, writer A.H. Nijhoff, quotes Moss: “I am no painter, I don’t see form, I only see space, movement, and light,” then elaborates on Moss’s obsession with space, movement, and light with a biographical anecdote:
The youthful period of intensive work at music is followed by long years of illness (tuberculosis) and enforced idleness. When normal life is resumed, she has a craving for movement, for activity.… Meanwhile her vitality finds an outlet in dancing. She takes ballet lessons. Once again—rhythm, movement in space, choreographic architecture.
Moss established a relationship with space through bodily movements by performing ballet. Her understanding of space is an example of the embodiment of space. She engages with ballet as a way to embrace the movement in space. Her way of understanding space through bodily movement can be interpreted as a feminist strategy.
Women have been alienated and objectified through containment and the derogation of the female body. Patriarchal conceptualizations of the body formed a universal “Women” in essentialist and ahistorical terms. It assumed a precultural, prelinguistic, pre-social, and natural body. Challenging these patriarchal concepts of the body applies to feminist ambitions. Moss creates a framework to acknowledge women’s bodies as active, mobile, liquid, and autonomous. As Moss sees both life and art as a constant state of becoming, her conceptualization of the body is also constituted of processes of becoming. Moss’s abstract works have the potential for retheorizing the body outside patriarchal frameworks. The body is not a fixed state of being, but in flow.
The truncated lines that are the apogee of her ambition of space, movement, and light are similar to the small, delicate but effective gestures of ballet. The mobility in Moss’s canvases aligns her with her teacher from Académie Moderne, Fernand Léger, more than with Mondrian. It is not a coincidence that Léger also engages with ballet in his only film, Ballet Mécanique (1924), in which he draws a parallel between the movement of human, machine, and the city. If Moss understands space through bodily movement, then the overflow of lines in Moss’s paintings points out the expandable boundaries of the body.
For feminist geographer Gill Valentine, gender and space are controlled and produced through the same regulatory framework:
Gender is the repeated stylization of the body, a set of repeated acts within a highly rigid regulatory framework that congeal our time to produce the appearance of substance, of a “natural spirit.” In the same way the heterosexing of space is a performative act naturalized through repetition and regulation. These acts produce a “host” of assumptions embedded in the practices of public life about what constitutes “proper behavior” and which congeal over time to give the appearance of “proper” or “normal” production of space.
As Valentine puts it, both the regulation of gender and space require a coherent and repetitive act. If we bring Judith Butler’s famous conceptualization of gender as a stylized configuration through repetitive bodily acts and gestures to the picture alongside Valentine’s parallelism between gender and space, then Moss’s aim, to disrupt the enclosed and regulated space of a single line grid through corporeal mobility visualized as flowing lines, opens up a space to imagine a feminist theory of body. Both body and space are sociocultural artifacts, and Moss, who understood them as such, challenges the traditional notions of body, gender, and space. Hence, she brings corporeality to the canvas and creates a dynamic space where spatial and gendered behaviors can be denaturalized and displaced.
Moss creates a corporeal form of knowledge of space that is opposed to masculinist rationality. For Gillian Rose, another feminist geographer, masculinist rationality is a form of knowledge which assumes a knower who believes he can sperate himself off from his body. Correspondingly, Briony Fer writes that Mondrian’s endeavor of stability in the canvas aligns with his aim to reduce the corporeality out of the picture plane. Mondrian’s neoplastic discourse “aims to find a ‘new plastic,’ or ‘new structure,’ by ‘reducing the corporeality of objects to a composition of planes that give the illusion of lying in one plane.’” He renunciates the body out of the canvas, creating a contained and incorporeal space.
The reduction of the body out of the picture conceals the social construction of body and gender, as gender is a bodily act. In incorporeal geometric abstraction, in the disembodied space of the canvas, gender identities remain as an illusion, impossible to “embody,” just like the illusion of objects lying in one plane.
Nonetheless, Moss’s dynamic space can enable a feminist conceptualization of corporeality and gender identities. An analogy between the physical space, the space of the canvas, and the metaphorical ground of gender identity can be formed through Butler’s spatial metaphor of “ground.” Butler suggested that “the ground of gender identity is the stylized repetition of acts through time and not a seemingly seamless identity.” Moss’s dynamic space exposes that there is not a “substantial ground of identity” but an “occasional discontinuity.” The discontinuity of lines in Moss’s canvas is an abstract manifestation of the discontinuity of gender identities. The identifier “women” on which feminism is based is not a stable and universal subject but a process. As corporeality is the material condition of the subjectivity, then the body is a process. Consequently, the feminist subject is not stable, always changing and overflowing from the rigid frameworks, like Moss’s lines.
Liz Bondi suggests that subjectivity is a position. One should ask “Where am I?” or “Where do I stand?” to position herself—it creates the subject position. She uses geographical terms of reference to reveal how subjectivity is constituted. Bondi offers that thinking in terms of space helps us to understand identity as process, as always fractured and multiple, hence contradictory.
This contradiction coincides with the concept “paradoxical space” that Gillian Rose developed to understand the production of social space in relation to gender. Paradoxical geography is a space where the subject is everywhere and anywhere. She is at the margin and at the center at the same time. Paradoxical space enables us to “acknowledge both the power of hegemonic discourses and to insist on the possibility of resistance.” It is a “multidimensional geography structured by the simultaneous contradictory diversity of social relations. It is a geography which is as multiple and contradictory.… They fragment the dead weight of masculinist space and rupture its exclusions.… Paradoxical space, then, is a space imagined in order to articulate a troubled relation to the hegemonic discourses of masculinism.” Thus, the subject cannot define a concrete and stable position and therefore subjectivity is never solid and definitive. Consequently, the material boundaries of the subject, the boundaries of the body, are unstable. This paradoxical space, body, and subject finds its visual response in the flow of Moss’s paintings.
In fact, in the catalogue of Moss’s posthumous retrospective in Carus Gallery, New York, in 1979, Randy Rosen quotes Moss, writing, “The secret of form lies not in form itself but in continual changing and shifting forms.” Rosen continues:
The eye can no longer “fix” on a particular shape, nor locate the structuring source, nor determine the beginning or end of the space field. The canvas has been converted into a pure energy field. Marlow Moss’s last works constitute an important new perception of space. Although she still employs a consistent spatial reading, the paradoxes and mutability of space are implicit. It is a concept of space that contemporary artists of our time continue to explore.
There is a continuous energy in Moss’s paintings. The geometric forms and lines create a tension in the pictorial space. Moss offers us a space which acknowledges that the body shifts within space and also interacts with other bodies on an unstable ground. In such a way, the body is in the process of becoming, which is aligned with the feminist theoretical approach to the body.
Moss not only challenged gender norms by her appearance, by her name, by appropriating a masculine look with her tailored suits, riding crops, and short haircut but also with her double and broken lines. Moss disrupts the masculinist spatial discourse through her embodied apprehension of space. Her free-floating truncated lines create an aesthetic imagination for fractured and discontinuous subjectivity, which is ensured by a feminist account of space and body. Her manner of engaging with movement through the body enables a paradoxical space. In this space, the subject is contradictory and the body cannot be understood as a precultural, pre-social, pure body but as a social and discursive object, a body bound up in the order of desire, signification, and power.
The body is important to understand women’s cultural and social existence, but feminism should bring corporeality into the picture by avoiding concepts of the body as a biologically given object or as a screen on which masculine and feminine could be projected. Instead, women should develop autonomous models of the body and create contradictory positions. Paradoxical spaces can challenge male conceptualizations of body, subjectivity, and space. As Butler insightfully wrote:
Contemporary feminist debates over the meanings of gender lead time and again to a certain sense of trouble, as if the indeterminacy of gender might eventually culminate in the failure of feminism. Perhaps trouble need not carry such a negative valence. To make trouble was, within the reigning discourse of my childhood, something one should never do precisely because that would get one in trouble. The rebellion and its reprimand seemed to be caught up in the same terms, a phenomenon that gave rise to my first critical insight into the subtle ruse of power: the prevailing law threatened one with trouble, even put one in trouble, all to keep one out of trouble. Hence, I concluded that trouble is inevitable and the task, how best to make it, what best way to be in it.
Marlow Moss definitely caused trouble. The task is not to stabilize a coherent subject and body in feminist debates but to acknowledge a multiplicity of bodies in a field of differences. Moreover, museums, as spaces for collecting and exhibiting and writing the history of art, can produce alternative spatial concepts by being more inclusive and causing gender trouble. Exhibiting, collecting, and also commissioning works by women artists are very crucial tools to disrupt the patriarchal order of art history and art institutions. While museums currently redefine themselves, the history of art should be rewritten from a more inclusive perspective. I propose that it is essential for art institutions to revisit artists left in the shadows. As Adrienne Rich puts it, “Re-vision—the act of looking back, of seeing with fresh eyes, of entering an old text from a new critical direction—is for woman more than a chapter in cultural history: it is an act of survival.”
Born in 1992 in Istanbul, Gülce Özkara graduated with a degree in Sociology from Université Paris X Nanterre and later received her MA in Cultural Studies at Istanbul Bilgi University. Özkara was the Assistant Curator of the group exhibition “Miniature 2.0: Miniature in Contemporary Art” (2020–2021) at Pera Museum, Istanbul. Previously, she has worked as Artists’ Representative at Pilot Gallery, Istanbul. She has also contributed to various publications as an editor and writer. Özkara is interested in cultural strategies for repairing historical narratives.
 Fernand Léger, “The Machine Aesthetic: The Manufactured Object, the Artisan, and the
Artist,” in The Documents of 20th Century Art, ed. Edward F. Fry (London: Thames & Hudson, 1973).
 Marlow Moss, quoted in Lucy Harriet Amy Howarth, “Marlow Moss (1889–1958)” (PhD dissertation, University of Plymouth, 2008), 1.
 Linda Nochlin, Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists? (London: Thames & Hudson, 2021).
 Maura Reilly, Curatorial Activism: Towards an Ethics of Curating (London: Thames & Hudson, 2018), 23.
 The other three shows were: Europa rondom, Stedelijk Museum, 1997; Summer 2013 : Linder, Barbara Hepworth, Marlow Moss, Gareth Jones, Patrick Heron, Nick Relph, R H Quaytman, Allen Rupersberg = In Focus : Marlow Moss = BP Spotlight : Marlow Moss, Tate Saint Ives, 2013; 100 jaar De Stijl, Stedelijk Museum, 2016.
 Lucy Howarth, Marlow Moss, Modern Women Artists (Sussex: Eiderdown Books, 2019), 17.
 Giorgio Agamben, “What is Contemporary?,” in What is an Apparatus?, ed. Werner Hamacher (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 2009), 40–41.
 Elizabeth Grosz, “The Untimeliness of Feminist Theory,” NORA—Nordic Journal of Feminist and Gender Research 18, no. 1 (2010): 48–51.
 Giorgio Agamben, Infancy and History: The Destruction of Experience (London: Verso, 1993).
 The wall text of Moss’s work Composition in Red, Black and White (1953) exhibited in the Stedelijk Museum’s group exhibition Migrant Artists in Paris stated: “Art is—as Life—forever in the state of Becoming.”
 Yve-Alain Bois et al., Piet Mondrian 1872–1944 (Boston, New York, Toronto, London: Bullfinch Press, Little Brown and Company, 1994), 62. Quoted in Howarth, “Marlow Moss,” 31.
 Carel Blotkamp, Mondrian: The Art of Destruction (London: Reaktion Books, 1994), 214. Quoted in Howarth, “Marlow Moss,” 31.
 As Howarth explains, the double line has an important place in the interpretation of Moss, especially used in queer readings which evoke the Derridean concept of différance. However, in this manuscript I mostly engage with feminist theory. Also, the truncated lines have an equally important place as the double lines. Moss used both types lines to ensure movement in the composition.
 Yve-Alain Bois, “Slow (Fast) Modern,” in Time, ed. Amelia Groom (London: Whitechapel Gallery / Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2013), 49.