Marisa Merz

Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, USA

Framing Marisa Merz as the ‘sole female protagonist’ of Arte Povera – a term coined by Germano Celant in 1967 to describe a group of Italian artists who rejected loftier forms for ‘poor’ materials such as rocks, wood, burlap and industrial remnants – ‘The Sky Is a Great Space’, the artist’s first US retrospective, forefronts her importance within the dominantly male group and broader category of postwar contemporary art. This is a considerable task, further complicated by the artist’s own ongoing attempts to undermine the conventions and methods of art history. Merz, in good avant-garde faith, took issue with fine art’s penchant for the masterpiece, and many of the works in her retrospective are undated and untitled. While this aversion to naming and categorization positions her vast and diverse body of sculptures, drawings, paintings and mixed media works into a relational practice that defies the specificities of medium or periodization, it also takes form in the artist’s blatant refusal to identify herself or her work as feminist. The curators of the exhibition suggest otherwise. 

screen-shot-2017-05-06-at-11.45.14-am_copia.jpg

Marisa Merz, Untitled, 1968 or ca. 1975, nylon thread, iron nails, 5 × 20 × 7 cm. Courtesy: the artist, Fondazione Merz and Hammer Museum, Los Angeles; photograph: Renato Ghiazza

Marisa Merz, Untitled, 1968 or ca. 1975, nylon thread, iron nails, 5 × 20 × 7 cm. Courtesy: the artist, Fondazione Merz and Hammer Museum, Los Angeles; photograph: Renato Ghiazza

Merz’s sculptural production often incorporates weaving and knitting – activities conventionally tied to women’s work, craft and domestic labour. The chairs, blankets, flower-filled vases and other quotidian objects in her work further signify spaces of domesticity and maternity. So do poignant references to her daughter Beatrice; a work comprised of knitting needles and woven nylon letters spelling out ‘BEA’ finds multiple iterations throughout her life. If these are the forms, subjects and techniques that ostensibly separate her from her male counterparts, they are also what endanger her to a ‘rhetoric of femininity’.

In other words, if Merz’s practice is feminist, its complexities do not translate well to a soundbyte, museum didactic or even an exhibition review. What can be said is that her objects and images are stunning aesthetic forms that conjure the body and bodily. Not merely figurative or abstract representations of bodies, the works seem to invoke the somatic conditions of being a body. In the sheets of lambent aluminium that form her biomorphic mobiles, or Living Sculpture (1966), we encounter alien stamen and floating entrails. Re-envisioned on a two-dimensional surface, the layered masses might articulate the futurist paintings of Filippo Marinetti or Giacomo Balla – a single, blurred body caught in motion.

merz-install-05.jpg

Marisa Merz,  Living Sculpture, 1966, Aluminum and paint, 351 × 264 × 180 cm. Courtesy: Art Institute Chicago, Adeline Yates and Fowler McCormick, Wilson L. Mead fund and Hammer Museum, Los Angeles

Marisa Merz,  Living Sculpture, 1966, Aluminum and paint, 351 × 264 × 180 cm. Courtesy: Art Institute Chicago, Adeline Yates and Fowler McCormick, Wilson L. Mead fund and Hammer Museum, Los Angeles

Merz’s works on paper, with their oscillating, intersecting lines and dynamic compositions, also share affinities with futurist precedents but convey a nuanced movement that speaks to the body’s internal rhythms, the pulse of arteries and nervous systems rather than the speed of technological progression. In one group of drawings, individual frames also entrap pennies and autumn leaves behind their glass panes: currency’s circulation made still, seasonal flux subtly diverted. These are insights into Merz’s singular sense of temporality, which seems not linear or contained but relational and open-ended, defined by personal, material and sensorial cues.

Her ‘Scarpette’ (Little Shoes) (1968-1975) and other woven works are also an exercise in drawing that speaks to this personal and material orientation of temporality. Here acquiescent threads of iron, copper or nylon are woven into delicate shoes or faintly geometric shapes. Hung on the walls or displayed in vitrines, these sculptures’ unruly lines cast delicate shadows that might be confused for cracks in paint, or pesky strands of hair that inevitably find their way into pristine spaces that mean to keep them out. 

merz-install-03.jpg

Marisa Merz, 'The Sky Is a Great Space', 2017,  installation view, Hammer Museum, Los Angeles. Courtesy: Hammer Museum, Los Angeles; photograph: Brian Forrest.

Marisa Merz, 'The Sky Is a Great Space', 2017,  installation view, Hammer Museum, Los Angeles. Courtesy: Hammer Museum, Los Angeles; photograph: Brian Forrest.

 

In Untitled (Stave) (1993) Merz’s recurring metal textiles stand-in as the clef and notes for a gleaming “staff” made with five copper wires that have been pinned to the wall with rusty nails. Against the buoyancy of Stave’s shimmering lines and delicate floating geometries, Merz has placed a fleshy slab of clay with a radiant face of gold atop a curved, steel plinth that sits unceremoniously on the floor.  By translating the graphic notations of music into a sculptural composition, the artist creates a phenomenological score wherein visual and tactile stimulus subtend musical signification. In the absence of sound or touch, we are still able to access the crisp timbre of copper; the lustreless pliancy of clay; or the heavy solidity of steel. These subtle juxtapositions of surfaces, textures, and densities affirm the psychic and somatic condition of embodiment. 

Main image: Marisa Merz, Untitled, 1991, pastel on chipboard in iron frame,110 x 130 x 2 cm. Courtesy: Glenstone Museum, Potomac, Maryland and Hammer Museum, Los Angeles; photograph: Ron Amstutz

Olivian Cha is a curator and critic based in Los Angeles, USA. She received her Masters of Library and Information Science in 2007 and is currently a PHD candidate in art history at UCLA.

Issue 189

First published in Issue 189

September 2017

Most Read

The rapper and artist have thoughts about originality in art; Melania Trump tries graphic design – all the latest...
The dilapidated Nissen hut from which Rachel Whiteread will take a cast
Yorkshire residents complain that the concrete sculpture of a ‘Nissen hut’ will attract excrement, vandalism and litter
Poul Erik Tøjner pays tribute to Denmark’s most important artist since Asger Jorn
Toyin Ojih Odutola’s portraits of a fictional aristocratic Nigerian family push toward an expanded definition...
Photographer Dragana Jurisic says her account was deactivated after she uploaded an artwork depicting a partially naked...
In further news: open letter protests all-male shortlist for BelgianArtPrize; Arts Council of Ireland issues...
From Sol Calero’s playful clichés of Latin America to an homage to British modernist architect Alison Smithson
Everybody’s favourite underpaid, over-educated, raven-haired art critic, Rhonda Lieberman, is as relevant as ever
‘Prize & Prejudice’ at London's UCL Art Museum is a bittersweet celebration of female talent
The curators want to rectify the biennale’s ‘failure to question the hetero-normative production of space’; ‘poppers...
A fragment of the brutalist Robin Hood Gardens will go on show at the Venice Architecture Biennale
‘Women's role in shaping the history of contemporary art is being reappraised’
Three shows in Ireland celebrate the legendary polymath, artist and author of Inside the White Cube
The legendary performance artists will partner up again to detail their tumultuous relationship in a new book
An open letter signed by over 100 leading artists including 15 Turner prize-winners says that new UK education policy...
Naturists triumph at art gallery; soothing students with colouring books; Kanye’s architectural firm: your dose of art...
Avengers: Infinity War confirms the domination of mass culture by the franchise: what ever happened to narrative...
The agency’s founder talks about warfare in the age of post truth, deconstructing images and holding states and...
From hobnobbing with Oprah to championing new art centres, millennial crown prince Mohammed bin Salman is following a...
A juror for the award last year, Dan Fox on why the Turner Prize is and always will be political (whatever that means)
The argument that ancestral connection offers a natural grasp of the complex histories and aesthetics of African art is...
One of most iconic and controversial writers of the past 40 years, Tom Wolfe discusses writing, art and intellectual...

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

March 2018

frieze magazine

April 2018

frieze magazine

May 2018