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Marisa Merz’s (b. 1926) enormous layered aluminum hangings, her Living Sculptures (1966), abruptly confront the viewer who enters her retrospective exhibition — the first of its kind in America — The Sky Is a Great Space at the Met Breuer. The sculptures devour the empty space, reminiscent of the way they would have in their original installation in the artist’s kitchen in 1966. Instead of espousing the life-as-art practice endemic to art movements of the 1960s like Fluxus and Happenings, Merz’s Living Sculptures are more art-as-life: works so beguiling and domineering that, when installed in her small Turin kitchen, they subsumed her lived space into her art. No wonder, since at this time her home was also her studio.
Married to a key member of the Arte Povera movement in Italy, Mario Merz, Marisa Merz’s recognition as an artist in her own right is long overdue, at least in the United States. But the breadth and virtuosity of the work in The Sky Is a Great Space — organized by Connie Butler of the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles and Ian Alteveer at the Met, and supported by Foundazione Merz (run by Marisa’s daughter Beatrice) — rightly asserts Merz’s place in art history far beyond the bounds of Arte Povera.
As members of the poveristi, the artists that comprised Arte Povera forged an artistic rebellion against the sudden economic boom of the late 1950s and early ’60s in Italy, and its quickly expanded middle class, through their use of dejected and unconventional materials.
Merz’s work evidences political and aesthetic commonalities with her Arte Povera cohort. One senses the radically left-wing sentiments in her oeuvre when familiar objects of consumption are rendered surreal: a table-like sculpture hangs upside down from the ceiling, its legs loosely hinged to its top in “Atelena (Swing)” (1968).
Yet this show — as well as the artist’s clear resistance to categorization and history (she left many works undated and untitled) — proves that there is much more to be seen and felt. In her powerful early work, Merz creates from an entirely different place than her male contemporaries: that of a mother. Her uniquely female experience is mined and celebrated in enigmatic works such as “BEA” (1968), a fragile construction of nylon thread shaped into the name of her daughter. Other works in this vein turn objects that evoke traditionally feminine domesticity — blankets (“Coperta (Blanket),” 1968) and tiny stools (“Untitled,” 1979) — from common commodities into inscrutable works of art.
In later decades, the life of a woman is made universal with her stirring teste series — faces rendered in ghostly ink, charcoal, and paint that seem, at first glance, to represent Merz, then, by the sheer volume of this unending series, come to represent all women. In fact, this series of haunting, identity-less faces seems to capture the anti-humanist turn of postwar art with a primal elegance unique to Merz. Their cryptic articulations in wax, ink, and chalk teeter on the edge of humanizing their subject: they could be anyone, or no one at all. The pleasure is in the mystery.
Turin, where Merz still lives and works today, was the site of many postwar industrial factories, including the Fiat factory where Merz’s father worked. In this light, Merz’s hand knit scarpette (shoes) series from 1968 and 1975, tiny, wearable slippers woven from nylon thread and fastened with iron nails, is a succinct critique of the rapid industrialization and production that drove the post-war economy. As Lucia Re observes in the show’s catalogue, the reference to domestic tasks such as knitting is also quite subversive: fascism, stridently oppressive to women, defined knitting as a characteristic act of femininity.
Merz proves that domesticity — and for that matter, the female experience — is no light fodder for art; rather, she uses it deftly to radically critique many of the same phenomena as the rest of the poveristi, but to a piercing and multifaceted effect.
But there is so much more. In the work that continues on into the 1990s and early 2000s, Merz repeatedly exhibits a resolute hypersensitivity to texture, light, material, and form that is both expressive and enigmatic. Gold leaf, clay, wax, and wire are transformed into sculptural teste (heads) that arrest and befuddle.
This series of undated and untitled teste resemble emotive, human-like faces, but once again they defy easy meaning. Less narrative, the heads are more a singular, expressive sculptural gesture by Merz’s hand. Her seemingly boundless creative urge and propensity for enigma are as clear as ever.
Unlike most retrospectives, the organization is not linear or chronological. Instead the curators have placed a host of objects in dialogue with one another, reflecting the general notion of a “sky,” which somehow holds everything together, duly reflecting the artist’s affinity for open-endedness.
However, the curators have treated the work fittingly: rather than overcompensating for her delayed recognition in the art world or associating her entirely with the poveristi, they have taken the dreamlike, semi-unconscious state of the work — which reaches back into Italian art history, grapples with the concerns of her day, and looks towards the future — and gently placed it in an exhibition that that is as captivating and shrewd as the artist’s tiny scarpetta.
Marisa Merz: The Sky Is a Great Space continues at the Met Breuer (945 Madison Avenue, Manhattan) through May 7.