Everyday Alchemy

Marisa Merz: Untitled, 1993, copper wire, unfired clay, and steel structure, dimensions variable. Photo Paolo Pellion di Persano. Courtesy Fondazione Merz, Turin.

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A GROUP OF small sculpted heads sits on a low metal table set against an empty wall. Though most of the nine heads appear human, several are best described as humanoid. With an elongated neck and bulging eyes, one vaguely resembles a seal, while another—its angular countenance puckered into an off-kilter mouth—seems to have landed from outer space. The heads are composed mostly of unfired clay. Some bear metallic paint and gold leaf. Others have been enlivened with pastel and colored pencil or adorned with copper wire and coins. 

This cluster of sculptures forms a relatively minor element in the first North American retrospective of Italian artist Marisa Merz (b. 1926), organized by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles. In another sense, the untitled and undated assembly recapitulates her entire oeuvre and suggests the problems attendant upon any exhibition thereof. Does each of these heads constitute a work unto itself, or is their meaning contingent on the ensemble? Is the grouping definitive, or do the apparent spontaneity and informality of the arrangement—suggesting changeability—constitute the very crux of its significance? When an artist eschews the chronological record of her own work, as Merz has done by leaving many of her pieces undated, how does one set about to survey its development? Has Merz obviated the possibility of her practice falling prey to the vagaries of fashion or obsolescence?

Since the late 1960s, Merz’s home-cum-studio in Turin has served as the first venue for her work. Photographs from the late 1960s onward reveal sculptures, drawings, and paintings intermingled with domestic furnishings. Images reproduced in the exhibition catalogue show undulating sculptures of ribbed aluminum hanging from the ceiling behind the kitchen stove and spilling into the bathroom.

In situ, these works might be mistaken for gas ducts. At the Met Breuer, they appear like dramatic cascades of silver, greeting visitors at the entrance to the exhibition. The billowing, scalloped tubes conflate industrial material with organic, biomorphic forms, suggesting a rapport between the synthetic and the natural—a tendency evinced by the gamut of Merz’s work. Fittingly titled “Living Sculpture” (1966–67), the pieces were featured in her first exhibition in Turin, at Gian Enzo Sperone gallery. A testament to their variability, the sculptures were also hung in the Piper Pluri Club, a venue that frequently hosted experimental concerts and avant-garde theatrical performances.1

Merz purposefully undercut the distinction between aesthetic objects and everyday items in her home. In this setting, functional objects, like a swing made for her daughter from an angular wood plank suspended from the ceiling by three wood posts, could be difficult to distinguish from purely formal curiosities. The poetics of materials Merz explores in her art emerge from encounters with the textures of daily life. That such a frisson would take place in the kitchen or other home settings underscores the gendered inflections of Merz’s work.

The women artists included in Italy’s overwhelmingly male, post-WWII modernist canon—Carla Accardi, Carol Rama, Dadamaino—are few and little known outside specialized circles. Merz’s case is further complicated by her marriage to one of the leading figures of Arte Povera, Mario Merz (1925–2003), in whose shadow some of her work—and her name—still lingers. Though she participated in the groundbreaking 1968 festival-like exhibition in the coastal town of Amalfi, “Arte Povera + Azioni Povere,” Marisa was never listed on any of the group’s official (albeit fluctuating) rosters. Like most of the artists associated with Arte Povera, Merz had honed an individual practice well before critic Germano Celant applied the moniker in an attempt to unify disparate tendencies that emerged in Italy in the 1960s (and while Celant engaged only minimally with Merz’s experiments, the critic Tommaso Trini lent them careful attention). The artist’s work, in any case, has developed over many decades, outlasting the sporadic application of Arte Povera as a descriptor. A fellow traveler of the group and an occasional contributor to its evolving iterations, Merz nonetheless must be understood on her own terms.2

In the northern metropolis of Turin—home of Fiat’s major factories—the lyrical misapplication of manufacturing materials like aluminum challenged the narrative of Italy’s postwar economic “miracle.” Merz avoided the more overtly political allusions employed by her contemporaries, including her husband, whose installations engaged with the general political climate of protest and expressed opposition to the Vietnam War in particular.3 With its whiff of craft and links to vernacular aesthetics, Marisa Merz’s work exercised a more implicit defiance: a refusal of the consumerist commonplaces increasingly on offer in postwar Italy. Her sculptures must also be considered within the art-historical context of Post-Minimalist experiments in Europe and the United States, which favored the irresolution of process over the fixed rigor of form. Though Merz never exhibited internationally at the time, her practice reflected a general aesthetic recusancy from the straitjacket of geometric and formal propriety characteristic of Minimalism.

The works on display in a gallery adjacent to the “Living Sculpture” reveal the artist’s broader rejection of formal consistency, setting into relief the range of Merz’s aesthetic penchants. Hung salon-style is a large group of undated works on paper and small canvases, all depicting female heads. Some are rendered with loose applications of paint while others manifest a fastidious approach to naturalism. Though figuration is evacuated from most of Merz’s early work, the human form regularly resurfaces in her numerous sculptures, paintings, and drawings beginning in the 1970s.

The ease with which Merz oscillates between figurative (and vaguely expressionist) imagery and more conceptually driven installations calls to mind artists like Eva Hesse and Gino De Dominicis. The connections between Merz’s seemingly distinct bodies of work are highlighted in the Met Breuer’s exhibition. Below Merz’s drawings of heads sit two evocative assemblages: a gurgling fountain of paraffin molded into the shape of a violin, from 1997, and a small wooden chair studded with nails on one of its slats, from which piano wire is strung to the chair’s back. Both pieces use forms and materials associated with musical instruments to create an atmosphere of quietude.

 

THE WALL OF undated drawings further suggests a cumulative, malleable approach to art-making, and many of the individual pieces contain the kernels of themes that Merz would develop in other mediums. One of the images, for example, is a collage featuring a still of actress Maria Falconetti from Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1928 Passion of Joan of Arc. This expressive depiction of piety seems, at first blush, a rather unlikely inclusion. Yet religious themes, especially those related to sacred conceptions of the female form, resurface elsewhere in Merz’s oeuvre. A large-scale undated and untitled copper-framed painting of a veiled figure resembles a kind of altarpiece. In another large painting, from 2014, an abstracted feminine body is surrounded by a gold nimbus and thick black outlines reminiscent of stained glass. Scattered around the figure are tiny collaged pieces of paper bearing the words quasi / splendente (almost / resplendent). 

The spiritual “resplendence” of Merz’s work can also be quite subtle. Take, for example, her pair of untitled “shoes” (1968 or 1975), three-dimensional objects loosely woven from green nylon thread. In their utter fragility, the objects evoke a benign uselessness and have the aura of ersatz relics. Iron nails inserted around the perimeter of the shoes perhaps conjure Christian iconography, though the work’s sacred air derives more generally from a simple humility.

The shoes’ intricate, flimsy construction also recalls natural forms. Indeed, Merz photographed one of the shoes—along with various other works—on the seashore at Fregene, on the Tyrrhenian coast of Italy. With waves in the background and sea foam receding around them, these nylon objects appear in the photographs like marine life washed ashore. Displayed in a vitrine at the Met Breuer, a group of untitled objects similarly woven from iron and copper wire or nylon thread resemble nothing if not sea fans or anemones dried and laid out for display.

Merz possesses an uncanny ability to elicit organic effects from synthetic materials. She created one sculptural assemblage by pouring paraffin inside a steel frame on which several of her unfired clay heads are posed at various angles. With dark spots beneath the wax’s marbled and pocked surface, the piece suggests a shallow pond in winter with leaves frozen beneath. Rather than lament nature’s eclipse by technology and industry, or recoil from the latter outright, Merz transmutes manufactured substances into something magical.

Looming large in these seemingly alchemical transformations is a sense of craft, of individual, homespun fabrication over and against the manufacture of standardized commodities. A record of process remains prominent in many of Merz’s works. Nowhere does this foregrounding of process appear more poignant than in the undated Untitled (Bea). Large letters of nylon mesh affixed to a wall spell the name of Merz’s daughter. Sewing needles inserted into the fabric remain a silent testament to the mother’s hand at work.

 

FOR ALL THE contingency of such elements, Merz has never renounced a fundamentally pictorial sensibility, even in her three-dimensional experiments. In this sense, she shares much with her contemporary, the late Jannis Kounellis, whose Arte Povera installations evince theatrical and even painterly dimensions to the same degree that their frequently natural materials invite literal phenomenological experience in real time. The mix of symmetry and everyday substances in Kounellis’s work—whether coffee grounds suspended from the ceiling on recurring scales, or bundles of fabric arranged in a mix of two- and three-dimensional installations—form compelling counterparts to Merz’s work from the same period. Take, for instance, her Lingotto (1968, not in the exhibition), comprising several bundles of sticks leaned symmetrically against the wall, with a small podium placed in front. As much as the installation brings nature into the gallery space, it domesticates its elements into neatly proportioned components.

In a similar vein, one of Merz’s most recognizable works is an untitled 1966 sculpture composed of stringy clumps of hemp knotted around a wire mesh cylinder. As much as it simply presents natural materials, the assemblage—with its strong vertical form balanced by hairlike wisps—simultaneously courts bodily analogy. The most appropriate point of comparison might be Eva Hesse’s Metronomic Irregularity from the same year, which likewise disrupts Minimalist geometry with skeins of erratic wire (and perhaps also hints at a subversion of Minimalism’s undercurrents of machismo).

While the wire grill of Merz’s cylinder affords a certain transparency, and hence connection to the surrounding space, at the Met Breuer it is displayed close to the wall, rather than in the round. This curatorial strategy enhances the pictorial dimension of certain sculptural works, but it neutralizes the contingency—the mere objecthood—of others, as with the nearby Altalena (Swing). What once hung in the middle of the Merz home as a swing for their young daughter appears here tucked into a corner, as do a few other comparable works in the show—the 1997 violin fountain, for instance.

Of course, pictorialism has never been far from Merz’s purview. Three large-scale drawings of faces, from the 1990s, suggest the extent to which a post-Cubist sense of space informs Merz’s sensibilities. The later phase of her work should be considered vis-à-vis the Italian Transavanguardia, a group of artists who revived both painting and figuration from the late 1970s onward in aggressive defiance of Arte Povera’s often iconoclastic practices. While this return to painting can be understood as a conservative revenge against the conceptual turn of the postwar Neo-avant-garde, Merz reconciled these seemingly contrary poles into a kind of continuum. The more phenomenological objecthood of her nylon sculptures alternates with the figurative impulses of her sculpted heads, for example.

The curators of the exhibition, Connie Butler of the Hammer and Ian Alteveer of the Met, emphasize this sense of continuum by deliberately short-circuiting distinctions between early and late periods in Merz’s work. Considering her reluctance to date certain pieces, chronology (or lack thereof) would seem either to pose an insurmountable problem, or else to suggest a readymade excuse for dispensing with sequential order altogether. Butler and Alteveer wisely opted in favor of the latter, and turned a potential limitation to their advantage, dodging any facile avant-garde/conservative binary.

The Met Breuer’s hanging afforded a good deal of breathing room without appearing either too sparse or too packed (though the exhibition’s title rings a bit capricious, given the terrestrial disposition of Merz’s work). The display of a few period photographs of the Merz family and their apartment in a case by the bathroom seemed, at first, like an odd choice. Yet given the informality of Merz’s practice, these photographs’ unlikely placement appeared in fact rather apposite, wittingly or not.

The exhibition’s beginning and conclusion are deftly linked. The partition against which the metal “Living Sculpture” hangs at the exhibition’s start is set just back from another partition to its left. It is against this “last” floating wall that we find Merz’s untitled installation, 1993. One of her clay heads sits on a tiered construction resembling three interlinked tables of varying heights and devoid of tops. A series of triangles woven from metallic wire are pinned to the partition in a spiral shape. The spiral radiates from the base of the table construction, and the largest triangle is suspended between the wall and the floor. These triangles decrease in size as they converge on the center of the spiral in accordance with the Fibonacci sequence, a numeric progression of integers that figures repeatedly in her husband’s work.

From the side, a wedge of reddish mesh floating between the table and the wall appears almost like a plane of dazzling, golden light, directing the eye back to the hanging “Living Sculpture.” This circular, spiraling arrangement is a fitting end to the retrospective consideration of Merz’s work as well as an apt start to a process of securing her place in the canon of twentieth- and twenty-first-century art.