Marisa Merz: The Sky Is A Great Space
By Nancy Kay Turner
Through August 20th
“The Sky is a Great Space,” exhibited in New York at the Met Breuer last spring, is the first and long overdue retrospective of the sculpture, installation and paintings of the prolific ninety-one year old artist Marisa Merz. Married to Mario Merz (who died in 2003), she was a founding member and sole female of the storied Italian Arte Povera group that rose to prominence between 1962-72 in a particularly experimental and volatile decade. Arte Povera means “poor’ or “impoverished” and refers to the commonplace materials these sculptors used—among them earth, rocks, beeswax, paper, rope and clothing. Arte Povera marries the tenets of Surrealistic sculpture (think Merle Oppenheims’s fur-lined tea cup and saucer) with Conceptual Art. Indeed, one of the first images one sees upon entering this exhibit is a 1968 black and white grainy video of Merz at her kitchen table in the repetitive act of counting canned peas (perhaps a sly commentary on the tedium and banality of cooking and cleaning). The museum wall text states that this is her only “durational work on film” and to me it is reminiscent of Andy Warhol’s late sixties movies with Edie Sedgewick.
Born in 1926, Merz was already in her forties and a mother by 1968, and her early work reflected the seamless and creative way she blended motherhood and her artistic life. Some of her earliest works shown here reference furniture with a dual purpose -an upside down table-like sculpture used as an indoor swing for her young daughter Bea and a knitted wall piece—purposely unfinished- that spells out “Bea” in wire with the knitting needles still in place and the “e” unfinished (ironically at first it seems to say “BFA,” a degree not yet in place at most universities in the sixties). The intentionally “unfinished” piece speaks to the creative process both in art and in life. It reminds one of Rauschenberg’s now famous dictum “I try to act in the gap between …art and life.”
Her enormously vibrant 1966 series entitled “Living Sculpture” hangs from the ceiling of the cavernous gallery space. Composed of an aggregation of stapled strips of aluminum and occasionally painted red and green with the Italian flag colors, these works are monumental and striking. There are at least three sets of these, all called “Living Sculptures,” usually unpainted, that highlight the sumptuousness of the aluminum surface. These are often figurative and one sees simplified heads, torsos and appendages hanging – a concept that could be a disturbing if not for the works exuberance and spirit. These originally hung in Merz’s apartment in Turin, Italy and one can only imagine what it felt like to walk among them then in her home. As it turns out, Merz only showed once with the group that came to be called Arte Povera in 1967.
The exhibition mixes works from different decades as Merz circles back and reworks ideas and materials. Often the work is untitled and sometimes undated as well. An installation from 1994, also untitled, is made of copper, paraffin, clay, metallic paint, pigment, lead and iron: elements that Merz uses frequently like an alchemist trying to strike gold. In this piece, the arrangement suggests furniture in a room. On the wall is a grid of loosely knitted copper wire rectangles stretched at all four corners and connected to form a wall hanging that is almost like Op Art as the curved interstices of the stretched rectangles create arcs that form circles. Underneath this is a table with a sculpture that is a mash-up of Francis Bacon and Cycladic art. The abstracted “head” is made of malleable wax and unfired clay, two materials Merz employs specifically through the decades for this type of ‘bust.” A lead foil collar wraps casually around the neck. Merz’s simplified and somewhat chunky use of unfired clay as an expressive medium predates the contemporary mania for unfired clay by 25 years.
An untitled sculpture from 1966 constructed of only wire mesh and hemp sits nearby. The wire mesh looks like the kind of wire cage used to support tomatoes but instead of a vegetable, Merz has wrapped what look like multiple long ponytails (in the 1960’s hair extensions known as “falls” were very popular). This is an amusing and quite clever piece that speaks to fertility and fashion conformity.
A 1977 group of sculptures cleverly allude to art movements in painting. A wood door is covered in copper knitted forms that echo the design elements in Op Art (repetition and connectivity) that are nailed to the door, where they are barely visible. Underneath these knitted forms are bits and pieces of newspaper also barely visible. The door has parallel sides and a flat bottom, but the top edge is a large slicing diagonal, paralleling the new use of shaped canvases used by contemporary painters like Frank Stella. It leans against the wall at an angle like a forgotten piece of furniture at a flea market. Merz’s elegant and highly original work also seems remarkably nonchalant and humble.
Nearby is a grouping of related and undated sculptures. There is a four legged table swathed in knitted copper wire. Situated on the table are two knitted objects-one is a small child-like shoe, the other is a lumpy bowl. A single stalk of a calla lily sits unceremoniously in the middle of the table, alluding to setting the table and other female domestic duties. There are many beguiling sculptures that seem to be adaptations of children’s furniture –little chairs and tables that Merz alters or recreates.
Merz was equally comfortable in two dimensions as well as three, and there is a series of framed drawings—more than 25- of heads/faces depicted frontally or in profile. Done in 2004 when Merz was already 78, these are playful and feel spontaneous, perhaps each done in a single sitting. Constructed with charcoal, pastel, graphite, metallic paint and even nails on board, these are sometimes mixed media or just graphite. This beautiful installation that hangs the more than two dozen related but different works salon style highlights the diversity of Merz’s work.
It seems that many women artists who have been overlooked or underappreciated have now begun to be “seen.” As Nancy Spero said “ We have been there but we have been written out.” So it is a rare and wonderful treat to see five decades of Merz’s rarely seen dynamic and original installations paintings, sculptures and drawings in this enlightening and exciting exhibition.