Mothers of Invention: Marisa Merz

The Sky is a Great Space at the Met Breuer, January 24-May 7, 2017

Originally published July 14, 2017

Untitled, 1993; copper wire, unfired clay, steel structure

Knitting, as you will see, is one of Merz's recurring structural methods. Her interest in the Fibonacci series is something she shared with Arte Povera's other Merz

Marisa Merz is better known in her native Italy than here, but her recent 50-year retrospective at Met Breuer, The Sky is a Great Space, has brought her work and career to an appreciative audience on this side of the Atlantic. Modest materials—clay, wax, copper wire, clothing—are the stuff of a body of work that is part poetry, part crafty Earth Mother.

Merz (pronounced mairtz—yes, she is is the widow of Mario) was the only female member of the Arte Povera movement, Italy's humble and homespun response to the sleekness of Minimalism. Homespun thought it may have been, Maritza Merz would appear to have been the only one of its members who made art at home while raising a child. This may account for the scale, which typically consists of smaller elements amassed or assembled into a larger installation, or what the museum describes as a "constellation of objects." Like many wives-of—Frida, Elaine, and Lee, for example—Merz's career was marginalized until the point when it was not, which seems to be right about now. At 90, Merz lives in her native Turin and is still making art. [Update: She died on July 20, 2019]

Two views give you a sense of the layout of the exhibition

Both images are screengrabs from the Met video of the exhibition 

Untitled, 1994; copper wire, paraffin, clay, metallic paint, pigment, lead, iron

Two details below

Untitled, undated; unfired clay, paraffin, copper wire, thumbtack, paint, dried leaf, alabaster, plastic, paper, plaster, metallic paint, graphite, colored pigments, metal coin, gold leaf, metallic pigment, pastel, colored pencil, metal table

About the heads: The wall text describes Merz's heads as "enigmatic," further noting that they "possess both a solemnity and a peculiarity characterized by their compositions and odd materials." Merz's interest lay in "angels, madonnas, queens, and aliens"

I'll be honest: I am not especially taken with Merz's vision, but I admire that she held her own in the face of the muscularity and large scale of Arte Povera, which for all its focus on the modesty of materials, was as macho as any other movement of the time

Untitled, 2004; metallic paint, pastel, ink, paper, copper wire, nails, thumbtacks, paint can, and adhesive tape on plywood with copper shelf

Detail below

(Doratura Tixe is a metallic synthetic shellac)

Untitled, 1994; wax, tempera, copper wire, cardboard, and bamboo cane on panel

Says the wall panel: "This may be a portrait of a queen or of Joan of Arc, a figure who holds a particular fascination for the artist"

Detail below

Wall of portrait heads. Most are undated; of those that are, the earliest is from 1981, the latest from 2012

The installation is reminiscent of how the work was installed in her studio

Below: A section of Merz's studio wall. Screen grab from the Met video of the exhibition 

This room was my favorite in the exhibition. The two discrete works here, created in different decades, feel like an installation intended by the artist instead of, I'm assuming, one designed by the curators. I found it muscular yet light, bold yet intimate

Untitled, 2010; mixed media on paper mounted on wood, iron and copper frame; beams, wax

Detail below

From the wall text we learn that the celestial blue wax orb was cast from the inside of a teacup, a punctuation that is as sweetly domestic as it is mysterious. Depending on your vantage point, it may appear that the diagonals in the drawing emanate from the orb

Above and below: Living Sculpture, 1966, aluminum

This work opened the exhibition. Cut and assembled from aluminum sheet, the sculptures initially hung in the flat Merz shared with her husband, Mario, and daughter, Beatrice. I love that they feel somewhat ominous; you can imagine them suspended in the kitchen above the stove (a perfect conplement to Sylvia Plath's potatoes hissing on the stove)

Panoramic view of the vignette in the last gallery that sums up a 50-year career, with a closer view of an untitled work below

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