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

With the 12th edition of the itinerant European biennial opening in Palermo, what do local artists, curators and...
In the age of Brexit, why Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s pledge to return the ‘stolen’ Parthenon marbles has never been...
The museum director, who resigned last year, acted with ‘integrity’, an independent report finds
In further news: study finds US film critics overwhelmingly white and male; woman sues father over Basquiat
With the government’s push for the controversial English baccalaureate, why the arts should be an integral part of the...
From Bruce Nauman at the Schaulager to the story of a 1970s artist community in Carona at Weiss Falk, all the shows to...
Sotheby’s and Christie’s say they are dropping the practice of using female-only staff to pose for promotional...
For the annual city-wide art weekender ahead of Basel, the best shows and events to attend around town
For our second report from BB10, ahead of its public opening tomorrow, a focus on KW Institute for Contemporary Art
The curators seem set to ask, ‘how civilized is the world’s current state of affairs?’
In further news: declining UK museum visitors sees country fall in world rankings; first winner of Turner Prize,...
The Icelandic-Danish artist’s creation in Vejle, Denmark, responds to the tides and surface of the water: both artwork...
In further news: Emperor Constantine’s missing finger discovered in the Louvre; and are Van Gogh’s Sunflowers turning...
The opening of a major new exhibition by Lee Bul was delayed after one of the South Korean artist’s works caught fire
The LA-based painter’s exquisite skewing of Renaissance and biblical scenes at Stuart Shave/Modern Art, London
Lee Bul, Abortion, 1989, performance documentation. Courtesy: the artist and PKM Gallery, Seoul
In a climate of perma-outrage has live art self-censored to live entertainment?

A tribute to the iconic New York journal: a platform through which founder Andy Warhol operated as artist, hustler and...
A distinctively American artist who, along with four neighbourhood contemporaries, changed the course of US painting...
From Assemble’s marbled floor tiles to Peter Zumthor's mixed-media miniatures, Emily King reports from the main...
From Ian White's posthumous retrospective to Lloyd Corporation's film about a cryptocurrency pyramid scheme, what to...
Kimberly Bradley speaks to ‘the German’ curator on the reasons for his early exit from the Austrian institution
In further news: #MeToo flashmob at Venice Architecture Biennale; BBC historian advocates for return of British...
German museums are being pushed to diversify their canons and respond to a globalized world – but is ‘cleaning up’ the...
Sophie Fiennes’s new film Bloodlight and Bami reveals a personal side of the singer as yet unseen 
‘At last there is a communal mechanism for women to call a halt to the demeaning conventions of machismo’
The German artist has put up 18 works for sale to raise money to buy 100 homes
The novelist explored Jewish identity in the US through a lens of frustrated heterosexuality
Artist Jesse Jones, who represented Ireland at last year’s Venice Biennale, on what is at stake in Friday’s Irish...
‘I spend more time being seduced by the void … as a way of energizing my language’: poet Wayne Koestenbaum speaks about...
To experience the music of the composer, who passed away last week at the age of 69, was to hear something tense,...
In a year charged with politicized tensions, mastery of craft trumps truth-to-power commentary
In further news: women wearing rainbow badges beaten in Beijing’s 798; gallerists Georg Kargl and Richard Gray have...
‘Coping as a woman in France is a daily battle: the aggression can be subtle, and you always have to push harder to...
Toyin Ojih Odutola’s portraits of a fictional aristocratic Nigerian family push toward an expanded definition...

On View

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

April 2018

frieze magazine

May 2018

frieze magazine

June - August 2018