Like other young artists of her generation, Merz questioned this disastrous historical inheritance and utilized her own art as a source of critique that could look back in time for a better precedent. The sculptures, paintings and drawings on view at the Met Breuer reflect a range of earlier visual influences such as ancient Byzantine mosaics and the heroic figure seen throughout the art of Classical Greece, Rome and then Renaissance Italy. “The Sky Is a Great Space” is a remarkable retrospective since it stands as a distant echo of those earlier societies at a time when Europe once again found itself in ruins as it sought to rebuild with sustainable, modern relevance.
“The Sky Is a Great Space” opens on the museum’s second floor with a monumental installation titled “Living Sculpture” (1966) that consists of layered aluminum sheets, suspended from the ceiling. These larger-than-life coiled clusters fill one’s vision and suggest traces of grand physical movement. Initially this composition filled the empty space within Merz’s apartment, located in Turin, Italy. “Living Sculpture” was later utilized as a performance piece by Tonino De Bernardi and Paolo Menzio in a 24-minute film titled, “Il mostro verde” (1966–67) wherein participants placed their bodies within the massive volumes of metal. One could see this as a dark paraphrase of the silver balloons seen throughout Andy Warhol’s Factory even though Merz’s voluminous installation did not entertain the fringe spectacle of underworld celebrities like Warhol’s Factory did. Instead, Marisa Merz showed how this extensive puff piece was indeed an icon of individual struggle.
By the 1970s Merz retreated from large installations to create pieces on a much smaller scale. “Untitled” (1970) and “Untitled” (1975) for instance, incorporate light blue and gray hues through the use of transparent nylon thread that winds around either three or four iron needles. The artist does not propose wearable fabric with these pieces, but rather, represents the circuity of individual thought while suggesting the repetition of history as a show of manufactured, limited actions. Merz’s knitted lines, moreover, move on to construct hollowed objects such as a pair of light green slippers and a copper color bowl. In each case these vessels are unusable and stand as a critique of the human body, individual thought and physical movement.
However within this context of uselessness, the artist turns to thin-gauge copper wire due to its flexibility, like nylon, but also its fragile character. Unlike nylon thread, moreover, copper wire functions as a conduit for interpersonal communication. Merz clearly places high significance upon networks and geography in “Untitled” (1976), a wall installation of fifty-two woven squares that appear horizontally at various heights across a vertical, white surface. Two later installations “Untitled” (1993) and “Untitled (Stave)” (1993) add large, swirling triangular sheets of woven copper that hover around small mounds of clay. The artist’s inclusion of these minimal components, that appear either unfired or covered in gold leaf, suggest the place of the individual and its relative insignificance within the scope of unlimited waves of connectivity.
From the 1980s onward Marisa Merz’s use of materials increased as colors appeared more vibrant and dense. Gold shined from a consistently smooth surface that was either clay or paper while red and blue became more bold. “Untitled” (1990–2003) is a floor installation that consists of nine unfired clay sculptures, each measuring about 7-inches high while arranged across a large, 10-foot square of steel and paraffin. The distorted sculpted heads appear far away from one another and reflect different colors and finishes.
“Untitled” (1990–2003) contrasts starkly to a much smaller installation of eight clay heads that are arranged on a small metal table. Bearing different guises, some of these otherwise simple gestures appear with thin layers of pink, red and blue pastels. Others are shrouded with either a woven copper wire mask or sheet of gold leaf. This particular piece, that is both untitled and without date, conveys luster as timelessness. Between this and the installation before, the artist had moved away from the suggestion of minimal, cracked decay that had characterized her earlier work. As time went by Merz’s repetitive, Byzantine, Madonna-like portraits also became more glamorous, risking the loss of her work into the rising stream of Postmodernism.
“The Sky Is a Great Space” defines timelessness through the artist’s use of transient, ephemeral materials. This exhibition also charts the growth of Melissa Merz into the Arte Povera movement. The artist’s continuous search for a sense of humanity begins with nothing as its critical subject and weaves back and forth through time before gradually renewing cultural meaning and purpose through an array of media. This exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum’s Breuer building first feels like the result of an anthropological expedition that reveals the poverty of Postwar imagination. However, a very small number of sculptures consist of time-based elements such as fresh flowers and water, ending this retrospective by Marisa Merz with a sense of ongoing renewal.
Jill Conner, New York
Originally published at artists-studios.com on March 6, 2017.