OPINION

The Sky is a Great Space

New York

1 February 2017

Marisa Merz: The Sky is a Great Space at New York's Met Breuer is the Italian artist’s first major retrospective in the United States. The exhibition highlights and explores Merz’s decades-long experimentation with materials and media, inviting visitors to celebrate her contribution to a movement largely dominated by male voices, and to discover a prolific yet under-represented career of subtle and dynamic achievement.

Merz is associated with the Italian Arte Povera artist circle of the 1960s. The group was by no means uniform, but approached artistic production as an antidote to the elitism of post-war art world traditions. Arte Povera positioned itself as a movement that was antithetical to the capitalist industrialism of the 1960s by using non-fine art methods and “poor” materials such as rope, dirt, and discarded debris.

The timing of The Sky is a Great Space is opportune, in that Arte Povera is currently undergoing consideration in galleries and exhibition spaces throughout the West. Giuseppe Penone, one of the youngest members of Arte Povera, is simultaneously exhibiting new sculptures in Equivalenze/Equivalences at Gagosian Rome and in Matrice/Matrix, the first exhibition of contemporary art at the Fendi headquarters at Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana. The Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes in Havana houses Cuba’s first solo exhibition of Michelangelo Pistoletto’s work. Magazzino, an exhibition space in Cold Spring, New York, will soon open as an art warehouse entirely devoted to exhibiting the work of Arte Povera artists, in an effort to bring the group’s work to American audiences.

This recent resurgence has focused on the group’s collective questioning of the establishment of Italian post-war mass manufacturing, Futurism, and machine aesthetics, through organic material – perhaps a means of counteracting the historical exhibition of 20th-century Italian art that has favoured Futurism. Merz engages with the organic materials of Arte Povera by intrinsically linking her practice with her body and her daily existence as a mother and wife. Her focus on material as a place of exploration of the matrix of art, contemporary life, and bodily existence presents a counter-product to the Futurists’ obsession with tomorrow and technological machine. Still, her choice and handling of materials is complex, nuanced, and at times purposefully contradictory.

Although Merz was not acknowledged to the extent her work merited at the time, she was the only woman to have played a significant role in the Arte Povera group. Like many female artists of the 20th century – Lee Krasner, Varvara Stepanova, or Elaine de Kooning – the relative obscurity of her work has been exacerbated by the towering figure of her husband. Mario and Marisa Merz played significant roles in each other’s work, but Mario historically received the majority of the attention, while Marisa appeared at times as an afterthought, or at least designated as the wife, alongside or in conjunction with her husband’s career. The retrospective, which numbers amongst the Met Breuer’s first exhibitions since its opening in March 2016, is a welcome exhibit that presents the crucial voice of the artist in her own right, and highlights the ways in which she stands out from the group.

The exhibition presents a comprehensive view of Merz’s long and diverse career as she experiments with sculpture, painting, drawing, and installation. In addition to the wide range of media in which Merz works, her pieces present a multitude of diversities including large and small scales, abstraction alongside figuration, and an approach that reflects an intimate yet universal vision for artistic production. Although the wide-ranging elements of her work construct a sprawling career with diverse perspectives and considerations, the exhibition comprehensively presents an image of the artist as a whole.

Because few details are known about the artist, the retrospective’s goal of tracing and constructing the trajectory of her career is a necessary one. The exhibition begins with her early grappling with non-traditional materials in large sculptural forms of sheet metal. The hanging groups first appeared installed in the family’s small kitchen in 1965, before featuring in small gallery exhibitions in the later 1960s. These monumental mobiles evoke a bodily figuration with rounded silhouettes and constant movement. They appear as somewhat ephemeral, as if the independent pieces that make up one suspended sculpture could be hung in a new configuration for a different space. Still, Merz subverts the connotation by using aluminium, a visibly industrial material.

Next, smaller sculptures and pieces beginning in the early 1970s bear a distinct, personal nature, such as the hand woven scarpette (or little shoes), knitted out of copper wire that take the form of her daughter’s or her own feet. The tightly coiled wire re-appears in delicate, geometric configurations as mounted wall sculptures of varying scale and colour themes in the later 1970s. As her artistic persona evolved publicly and privately in the 1980s and 90s, she took on portraiture of Madonna-esque figures and heads, sometimes called teste, in painted, drawn, and sculptural form, which have become synonymous, to some degree, with the artist herself. The most recent works from the past few years present angel-like forms through a build-up of vivid colours and rich combinations of paint and pastel on paper. Regardless of medium or material, the hand of the artist is sustained and present in the details of each of her works.

Despite the significant shifts throughout the evolution of Merz’s career, her later pieces mirror her early works, and the sustained visual elements link together the works in various media. The qualities of the specific materials she used, including wax, copper, clay – both fired and not – nylon thread, and aluminium sheeting, develop an iconography as they appear in various iterations and manipulations across the five decades of her career. These particular materials allowed for Merz to produce objects that question their function: are scarpette sculptures for observation or domestic slippers?

She achieved the gauze-like quality of her earlier woven copper and wire sculptures in a series of untitled drawings from the early 1980s. The works from this phase delicately and carefully produce mesh through drawn spirals of graphite on paper or board. The same woven wire appears on wooden planks in mixed media sculptures as well as on stools and household objects from the late 1970s. The artist incorporates the copper mesh in some of her most recent works, in lieu of canvas, as a painting surface for her portraiture and drawn heads of women. These mixed media objects blur the lines of material and surface; the viewer must observe the object at extreme close range to identify the materials at play.

Three large-scale structures, two from 1976 and the third from 1993, present the quintessential experimentation with material that lies inherent in Merz’s oeuvre. She manipulated copper wire into stiff woven tapestries that she placed purposefully around clay and steel pedestals or small sculptures, or spread in a deliberate mapping across a wall. All three untitled works use relatively small quantities of actual material but take up nearly equal wall space as the massive hanging sheets of metal. The dimensions of these works are variable depending on the exhibition space, confirming the changing face of her works, and keeping the process of the artist an ever-present element.

In one gallery of the exhibition, a group of 25 small portrait-like images appear hung in a group. These heads appear as paintings, drawings, photographs clipped from journals or magazine spreads, and in varying degrees of abstraction. The small collection reflects Merz as curator of intimate spaces, creating environments of art objects in which a family would live. Merz is generally deeply entrenched in the art history of Italy. She frequented exhibitions and permanent collections, and made reference to Renaissance portraiture with her heads and faces, but the span of her references is broad and complex. Tucked within the group of faces appears a portrait of actress Renée Jeanne Falconetti as Joan of Arc in Carl Theodor Dreyer’s seminal 1928 silent film, La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc. Falconetti’s shaved head mimics the rounded effects of each of the small portraits surrounding the photograph, and her face, free of makeup but full of dramatic punch, developed iconic status in Dreyer’s infamous and lengthy close-up shots. In the later decades of her career, these heads present a repeated visual motif with which she experimented in medium and material. Much like the connective tissue of the mesh she produced or the materials she consistently used, these sculptural heads and ethereal portraits of women’s faces function as a unifying design theme, linking broad experimentation with raw material into a living network of objects.

Merz consistently repurposed the materials she used, as well as the early works she produced, into her later installations, maintaining or reviving a sense of urgent life, as if the pieces were living and certainly deeply connected to the physical existence of the artist. A later piece from 1990-2003 presents nine small sculptures in unfired clay, positioned in a shallow trough of wax that must be refilled each time it is exhibited, as if the replenishing of the fresh wax nourishes a re-living of the piece’s original construction.

Many of the sculptural forms embody the nature of household objects, such as pedestals, warped stools and chairs, and sculptures that blur the lines between domestic and artistic object. Merz embraces the domestic nature of her practice but the notion that this domesticity is feminine or feminist would be prescribed. Her work instead engages with the media and materials of the counter-commercial production of the Arte Povera group as both a sustained experimentation with the effects of materials, as well as the embodiment of the intersection of life and art. In other words, the objects carry a living quality as existing within her home and in relation to her own bodily existence and lived experience. Her large-scale yet delicate wall sculptures of gauze and wire appear alongside the rolled up mats and rugs that featured in her husband’s performance works. The sculptures include vase-like forms that invite fresh flowers. Nylon thread coiled around sculpted wire in a 1968 wall hanging, produce the letters “BEA” for the Merzes’ then eight-year-old daughter, Beatrice. The small clay bowls appear in imperfect and clearly homemade forms, a consistent reference to the hands and physical process of the artist. As she recalled, “everything was on the same level, Bea and the things I was sewing; I was as involved with the one as with the other.” The exhibition appropriately does not – and perhaps cannot – disentangle the artist’s works from her life, and the viewer leaves as if departing a fascinating yet tranquil dinner with at the home of the artist.

A quiet highlight of the exhibition, which would have benefited from expansion, is the small group of photographs of Merz in her private life. The artist appears living amongst her art objects, as they were displayed in her family’s apartment, wearing her scarpette, embracing Mario and Beatrice and perhaps contemplating her or her husband’s work. The few images elaborate on the idea that her artworks were and are constants in her everyday life, changing and living alongside the family: a crucial element for understanding Merz’s oeuvre. These striking photographs seem to provide a glimpse of the historical life of the objects that appear in the exhibition, and the memory that they develop and leave. The early, massive metal mobiles from 1966 named “Living Sculptures,” appear photographed in the kitchen of the family. In the exhibition space, they hover suspended above the viewer, introducing Merz’s familiar touch, and welcoming us to join the life available within them. These photographs of the artist – compelling stand-alone objects – add a vital and significant layer to the paintings and sculptures displayed elsewhere in the exhibition. Including more of these photographs may have not been possible, but the exhibition may have benefitted from the images playing a more prominent role, rather than inconspicuously appearing in a tucked-away corner.

The retrospective utilises the space of the second floor of the Met Breuer well in that regardless of where the viewer is situated, the overarching threads that connect the various phases of the artist’s career are visible at once. The monumental pieces are sectioned together to accurately introduce the early years of the artist’s career in the 1960s, but can be seen simultaneously when standing amongst the small scale, intimate sculptures of the mid to late 1970s, or the portraits of the 1980s and 90s. As a result, the scope of the five decades of Merz’s work appears unified in order to visually survey and present the image of the artist as a whole. While the nonagenarian continues working in her Turin home, the Met Breuer successfully presents the unique and unified shifts of a colossal career.