Mario Merz

opening November 20, 2020, Dia Beacon

Overview

Dia Art Foundation presents a long-term exhibition of work by Mario Merz, opening fall 2020, at Dia Beacon in Beacon, New York. Featuring recent acquisitions, the exhibition includes Teatro cavallo (Horse Theater, 1967) and Tavola spirale (Spiral Table, 1982) alongside historical loans from collections in the United States and the Fondazione Merz in Turin. Using recycled organic and industrial materials, the artist developed a highly imaginative iconography and recast timeless forms, such as the igloo and table, in installations that envision the interdependency of individuals, society, and the natural environment. Spanning the late 1950s through the mid-1980s, the exhibition revisits Merz’s key forms and motifs, distinctive use of neon, and deployment of the Fibonacci sequence—where each number equals the sum of the two that precede it—for the structure of his installations. This will be his first solo institutional presentation in the United States in years.

Merz was a central figure in the Arte Povera movement that emerged in Italy in the late 1960s. Formally related to Postminimalism in the United States and Mono-ha (School of Things) in Japan, Arte Povera challenged the traditional values placed on art objects by dissolving sculpture into performance. To this end, Merz pursued installations that are at once autonomous and open-ended, using the Fibonacci sequence as a symbol and structure, and employing widely varying materials like fruits, twigs, wax, tar, wire, and neon tubes, which at times spell out political aphorisms and at other times graft onto the architecture that hosts them.

Mario Merz is made possible by significant support from Cindy and Howard Rachofsky. Additional support provided by Nicolo Cardi, Raymond Learsy, and Martin Z. Margulies. Special thanks to Fondazione Merz and Lite Brite Neon. Fruits and vegetables are a collaboration with Fareground Community Kitchen, Field and Larder Farm, and Obercreek Farm.

Dia Beacon Interactive Floorplan

Using organic and industrial materials, Mario Merz developed a highly imaginative iconography and recast timeless forms, such as the igloo and table, in installations that draw attention to the interdependency of individuals, society, and the natural environment. The works on view revisit Merz’s signature motifs, distinctive use of neon, and deployment of the Fibonacci sequence—where each number equals the sum of the two that precede it—for the structure of his installations.

The slippage between figuration and abstraction as well as between animal, human, and vegetal imagery is evident in Merz’s early paintings, which are characterized by a coarse impasto on salvaged board. For example, in Senza titolo (Untitled, 1958), a gridded mandorla shape—patched with yellow, green, and blue oils straight from the tube—alternately reads as a face, leaf, or turtle shell. De-skilled and intrasubjective, Untitled offers a rebuttal to the lyrical warps of Abstract Expressionism, the dominant style of the period. In the early 1960s Merz further pushed the limits of painting with wall-bound, projecting canvases pierced by neon tubes. On view here, Vento preistorico dalle montagne gelate (Prehistoric Wind from Frozen Mountains, 1966–79) memorializes this experimental period while renewing it with additions from a decade later: a heap of branches studded with neon Fibonacci numbers. Merz’s additive process, titular evocation of prehistory, and juxtaposition of industrial and organic materials destabilizes linear notions of time.

The question of how to sustain links with the past while articulating a critique of the present is central to Merz’s practice. Two works on view exemplify how the artist employed neon to question narratives of economic progress that present the agrarian and the animal as superseded categories. In Senza titolo (Untitled, 1969) a neon rod pierces four stacked haybales, reinstating the vast agricultural imaginary in the contemporary gallery space. Minimal yet allusive, Teatro cavallo (Horse Theater, 1967) presents neon and horse as coterminous: blue-neon rods at once reveal their technological origin and produce a life-sized image of a horse. The work asserts the continued presence of the animal world in advanced industrial societies by keeping the two realities in perpetual balance. 

Merz developed his mature working method in the late 1960s. During this time, he participated in exhibitions that gathered together Italian Arte Povera artists and many others in Dia’s collection—such as Robert Morris, Bruce Nauman, and Lawrence Weiner—who similarly challenged the fixity of sculpture by emphasizing ideation, process, and the properties of materials. Placed directly on the ground or grafted onto their surrounding architecture, Merz’s open-ended installations continued to accommodate a multiplicity of materials, temporalities, and cultural references rather than embracing one dominant perspective.

Taking its name and shape from Inuit dwellings, Merz’s first igloo sculpture was realized in 1968. Unlike Western extractive settler logic, the igloo models decentralization and sustainability, as it is designed to work with nature to preserve energy until it is dismantled and reassembled. Set atop a modular, metal-tube structure, Merz’s semispherical sculptures feature opaque or transparent cladding made out of materials including broken glass, clay, tar, and twigs. At times the works carry a neon inscription in the form of open questions culled from a variety of sources—from political aphorisms and union slogans to anonymous writings on the wall and the artist’s own prose poems. Hypothetical utterances, such as the nineteenth-century anarchist mantra che fare? (what is to be done?) return in different idioms on multiple works. There, these words are not only remade but also renewed. 

Is space bent or straight? (1973) presents one such question in the form of a precarious shelter. A glass-shard dome contains an Olivetti Lettera 35 typewriter, used by the artist when the work was first exhibited at the fifth Berlin International Art Fair in 1973. The artist, his wife Marisa Merz, and their friend Emilio Prini took turns sitting inside the igloo where they read, wrote, listened, and knitted, presenting the possibility for unproductive space as an alternative to the economically saturated space of art fairs. The transparent boundaries of the sculpture keep two opposing ideologies in visible tension: the “curved” or circuitous space of ideas, which grows from within and lacks a dominant axis, and “straight” Cartesian space, designed for the assignment and tabulation of value. 

While the artist’s earlier igloo sculptures are typically autonomous—that is, they stand on their own—by the 1980s the form proliferated, as in 8, 5, 3 (1985). In this work, three igloos, covered in glass, twigs, and tar, respectively, graft into one another, their diameter growing according to the Fibonacci series. The lush texture of the bound twigs is called into question by the red-neon phrase objet cache-toi (object, hide yourself!), refracted in the interior of the glass dome many times, to the point of dissolution. Neon rods radiating through the glass further dissolve the boundary between inside and outside, private and public space. 

Just as the semispherical dome represents the archetypal dwelling, the table is the place of assembly, sustenance, and work at its most basic. At times hosting ephemeral gatherings, at others photographic shoots, Merz’s early tables grew in size according to the number of people they accommodated. In Tavola spirale (Spiral Table, 1982) the table is recast as an elevated portion of the ground. Set upon a metal-and-glass structure, an arrangement of fruits and vegetables unfolds in a spiral dictated by the Fibonacci progression. A beeswax violin by Marisa Merz, senza titolo (untitled, n.d.), completes the work—a material memory of their collaboration.

The Fibonacci sequence offered Merz an alternative way to measure and mediate space. The ancient series finds its origins in the application, by a twelfth-century mathematician, of Arabic numerals to the study of proliferation common to all organisms. Merz started to systematically apply the series around 1970, at the tail-end of Italy’s so-called “economic miracle”—when economic growth was prioritized over all, to the detriment of workers’ rights and with disastrous effects on the social fabric and natural environment. “The series is organically conceivable; hence, the work has a direction and real roots. This series is not mere fantasy; it is used in computers, by mathematicians and architects; so I thought it would be possible to create relationships with it,” the artist said. A metonym for factory workers, Grembiali = numeri naturali (Aprons = Natural Numbers, 1971) presents ten red aprons distanced according to the Fibonacci progression. This signals both the space occupied by a growing number of individuals as well as their collective sum, echoing another frequently employed aphorism, “a real sum is a sum of people.” For Progressione di Fibonacci (Fibonacci Progression, 1979/2019), a series of numbers rendered in blue neon are grafted onto the gallery’s beams, proliferating outward and hinting at the possibility of exceeding the rational architecture of the building. “Luminosity is collective visibility,” the artist once stated. “From the series I learnt that there is an enormous mental and political space available to us.”

Unless otherwise noted, all works by Mario Merz
 

1
Tavola a spirale (Spiral Table), 1982
Aluminum, glass, fruit, vegetables, branches, steel, tar paper, and beeswax
Dia Art Foundation

2
Marisa Merz
senza titolo (untitled) ,n.d.
Beeswax
Collezione Merz, Turin

3
Senza titolo (Untitled), 1958
Oil on board
The Rachofsky Collection

4
8, 5, 3, 1985
Metal, glass, twigs, tar paper, neon, and string
The Rachofsky Collection

5
Vento preistorico dalle montagne gelate (Prehistoric Wind from Frozen Mountains), 1966–79
Mixed media on canvas, neon, and brushwood
The Rachofsky Collection

6
Teatro cavallo (Horse Theater), 1967
Neon and plastic
Dia Art Foundation

7
Grembiali = numeri naturali (Aprons = Natural Numbers), 1971
Vinyl, 10 units
The Sonnabend Collection and Antonio Homem

8
Progressione di Fibonacci (Fibonacci Progression), 1979/2019
Neon; exhibition copy
Collezione Merz, Turin

9
Is space bent or straight?, 1973
Metal, glass, putty, typewriter, and typeset ink on paper
Collezione Merz, Turin

10
Senza titolo (Untitled), 1969
Hay and neon
The Rachofsky Collection

Mario Merz was born in Milan in 1925. A medical student in Turin during World War II, Merz started drawing in 1945 while imprisoned for his participation in the anti-fascist group Giustizia e Libertà. He had his first solo exhibition of paintings at Galleria La Bussola in Turin in 1954. In 1967–68, Merz participated in a series of events that gathered artists across Italy under the title Arte Povera. Soon thereafter, in 1969, the artist participated alongside several other artists in Dia’s collection in the exhibition When Attitudes Become Form at Kunsthalle Bern, Switzerland, and, in 1970, the Tokyo Biennale. Merz’s first solo presentation in the United States was held at the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, in 1972. Major international surveys have since been held internationally, most recently at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid, in 2019–20. The Fondazione Merz in Turin, Italy, opened to the public in 2005 with a series of retrospectives dedicated to the artist. Merz died in Milan in 2003. 

Artist

Mario Merz

Mario Merz was born in Milan in 1925. He died in Milan in 2003.

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