PRINT Summer 1992

Marisa’s Swing

Art is an effort at healing, a shield against a reality of intolerable human and social conflict. A system of rituals, tactics, methods, and projects of thought and behavior, a network of motions and actions, clamors and silences, art offers the only possible truths, the only viable rescues from the existential shipwreck. Art is less flexible, more resistant, than the “scientific” forms of knowledge, which can always be contradicted by reality and subsumed in it. Art approaches experience but is not distorted by it—it keeps a distance. Art operates in protected territory, it makes itself a lair. Yet its visual vertigos shatter the habitual configurations of reality, atomize them into dust. Shunning reality, art must be unreal, even fragile. But that means it never has to establish itself as habit, law, rule, or system. Living off the moment, off the mobility of history, it cannot repeat itself. Like lightning, it reveals the horizon—then vanishes into the mass of other figures, ruins, and traces left from the art of the past.

Art lives on the total impossibility of fixing its own limits. The instant it is defined, it flees. It builds ramparts for protection, then knocks them down—immediately. From the outside, art is often perceived as wanton and dangerous, for it rips up the curtains that hide the nakedness of life and culture. It reveals what is most perverse and disquieting about them. But from the inside, art is the soothing cloth with which we wipe away the sweat of life’s fever. It is a kind of screen through which we can clearly see the world’s tumultuous representations. Art, then, is a mix of defense and frenzied attack, of immobile stupefaction and heat, of detachment and derangement, of quiet rage.

All these ideas pass through my mind as I look at the works of Marisa Merz. Merz has been producing sculpture since the mid ’60s but rarely exhibits it. She has no interest in the usual career processes of the art system; as Louise Bourgeois did, she works in silence. Her concerns are with fleeting, momentary figures, strange and enchanted apparitions that sink down in the softness of leaves or wax, or in crystallized brine, or in the invisible thread that is knit, over years, into a canvas of visual, emblematic, and personal notations.

In 1966, in a room in the house in Turin that she shared with her husband, the artist Mario Merz, Marisa built a cavern of sculptures that came down from the ceiling like metal stalactites. This hanging forest of dangling spirals and curves, made by stitching together thin sheets of aluminum, seemed to be trying to fill the private space of the room—a primordial tangle evoking the closed, suffocating space of both unconscious and social compression. Nocturnal, visceral, this was almost a universe, moving, throbbing, with any puff of air to form a tin monster, something inhuman, suspended in silence. Its folds suggested chains, the eclipse of reason. It also implied some gigantic, interwoven growth, with a taste for eating up space. Yet its reflective surfaces could also be taken as a mirror of inwardness. Indeed, this was a mirror for the dark pulses of an emotional life that was closed up inside itself, and was therefore trying to defend itself, declaring its own alienness from the art that lives off the sunshine struggle for power and affirmation.

The work was disturbing. With its reliefs and depressions, its curves and depths, it seemed to reflect the interiority of a body simultaneously soft and hard, indeterminate and fixed. This mosaic of sharp-edged but fluid, violent but intimately commingled forms teemed with shadows, beings that seemed to be trying to throw themselves into an enormous solitude, searching for nothingness. These were the same kind of unresolved, enigmatic figures you found in Eva Hesse’s work of the time, or Hanne Darboven’s: you sensed that these artists wanted to gaze “elsewhere,” into terra incognita, far from the landscape of Minimalism’s straight lines and smooth planes, or of the disintegrative shapes of arte povera. Instead, Merz’s forms suggested tiny wrinkles and ripples in the soft gaze of time, the slow process of metamorphosis.

The theme of entanglement or inner identity was obvious in Merz’s work from 1967 to 1969. It was an inward-turned space, a space imprisoned by forms and materials, that nourished her gestures, and was reflected in them—as when, in 1968, she rolled up a blanket and abandoned it on the beach at Amalfi, at the waterline. Perhaps the piece echoed Man Ray’s Enigma of Isidore Ducasse, 1920. But here the mystery—the soft figure rolling to the rhythm of the waves—confirmed an exploration of the values of inside and outside, and attested to flexibility and adaptability of the identity that must coexist with others. For Merz, these “others” were chiefly her husband, Mario, and their daughter Beatrice. On the Amalfi beach, Marisa also laid a pair of rolled-up blankets over her husband's shoulders. The gestures signaled her gentle existence behind the other’s image—turning absence into presence.

The piece reflected Merz’s recognition of her own social and creative condition linked to Mario and Bea (short for Beatrice). In 1968, she had produced L’altalena per Bea (Swing for Bea): a huge wooden triangle—or, in a second version, a rectangle—suspended from hinges and axels on the ceiling of her combined studio bedroom. During a period of rigorously intellectual modes of sculpture, L’altalena per Bea projected an impulse to smash through the rigid barrier of objectified images and let in games, pleasures, and subjective experience. It asserted the artist’s humanity, which it showed as mobile, in suspension, tearing and unhinging limits, propelling itself forward toward an intimate, personal practice based on a life both cognitive and sensual. At the same time that the swing was a swing, and a gift from mother to daughter, it proclaimed sculpture issuing from the form of the unconscious, and from the archetypal figure of the Mother. And it also signaled the affirmation of a spirit that tried to inject a familiar tender fluidity into art's absolute, crystalized agenda.

The force of L’altalena per Bea incompletely understood at the time, as if we of arte povera were trying to reject the works impulsive instability, and the fullness of its opening to the personal and the intimate. Nevertheless, it was a key piece in Merz’s solitary artistic road. In 1968, she withdrew form the system of art, settling down in a chair to knit. From this vantage, apparently a place of renunciation, she produced a singular series of sculptures: Le scarpette (The slippers), O sulla terra (O on the earth), Bea, and Gomitolo (Ball, all 1968). All were made of nylon thread, which the artist knitted into the shapes she desired. Merz’s subject in these works was individual relationships, which she visualized through the physical task of weaving this thread—which, however, was not very malleable. Like the copper wire she used later on, it needed a certain amount of energy to bend it.

In her knit works Merz creates an exceptional artistic universe through a continuous rejection of the social, a striving to repudiate the schedule of living as it is imposed from the outside. Her awareness comes from distance and detachment, as if things had to be purged of their obscene aggressiveness. It is typical of these works that they would include, in the scarpette, an intimate covering, a shield, for the body. In subsequent works Merz gathered everyday objects—postcards, for example, and bowls—and isolated them under a layer of white wax: a flow of softness and purity over the venomous signs of the world. Wax, a fluid from elsewhere, settles on objects and strips them of their rigidity, their absoluteness. At times, Merz would also meld wax with her nylon-thread and copper-wire pieces; at times, with a layer of salt. Salt too is white, and, like wax, it is sensitive to conditions around it. It adjusts, it breathes and sweats, and, often, it has the osmotic ability to pass straight through compact matter. Hence a group of works from 1975, in which copper wire was woven around a number of marble and copper cups filled with salt. Merz’s is an insinuating sensitivity that penetrates and modifies, revealing the other side of things, the inside on the outside and vice versa. “What interested me in the salt cups,” she told me last fall, “was the process of passing through: the material perspired and the salt passed from inside to outside.” Inner feeling changes outer appearance.

Traveling along the paths of a world crystallized by salt and made opaque by wax, the artist evoked a being whose image she supplemented with a self-portrait, of a kind, and with portraits of her loved ones. In 1974, she exhibited a drawing of Mario Merz; in 1975, she presented a small wooden head, its body consisting of four knitting needles wound with knitted nylon thread and two dancing slippers of the same material. Revealed through a sharp, unstable process, this was the artist’s “glorious body,” her conscious and fragile presence, her flesh and her skeleton. The theme of the thread that both wraps the body and gives it shape has various implications: suffocation, and the impossibility of existing in a world that identifies only the outside, not the inside; the defense of creativity, but also its power, subtle and precious. Merz was inventing and reappropriating her own sensual territory.

She articulated all this by opposing light and dark, inside and outside, conscious and unconscious, public and private. In 1977 she installed an exhibition of her work in two complementary spaces: the open environment of the gallery and the underground space of its basement. Both were traversed by works knit from the same thin copper wire. This fine mesh was a fusion of the visible and the invisible. Everything was revealed, but its texture was transparent, fragmentary, decentralized, as if to create a continuous universe of infinite potential that could only be realized in time.

Together the two spaces formed a large mosaic, its central figure Merz herself. The gallery space conformed to the external and the public. It orchestrated work previously shown—the slippers, the copper-wire triangles, the bent needles intertwined with knitting, the salt-filled cups. A sheet of paper saying La stanza del mare (The sea room) lay on a table next to wax-covered postcards, marble blocks, and an old door. These were little things, autobiographical moments, their secret forms concealing an inner reality. In the basement space the walls were crude, the floor earthen, and the room small and secluded, so that one’s relationship with the art was more intimate and complicit. At first, in fact, the works could barely be seen, the knitted wire invisible against the bricks in the ceiling and walls. A small cup filled with salt stood in a niche, as if someone had hidden it there. In these cup works the energy passing from the inside to the outside had always been an issue. Here, however, it imbued the space more forcefully than ever. It was almost as if existence could be exhaled, could be thrust out into the world, cutting out a territory there.

In 1979, for a show in Athens, Merz built a room that seemed meant to evoke her own home. There was a chair, and two slippers. But there was also a large piece of knitwear that filled the floor, supported on long knitting needles. And on the wall hung a group of small knitted forms, organized in the mathematical progression called the Fibonacci series. The installation emblematized an existential condition—that of the artist who, isolated in space (in the chair), conveys an affirmation through the light and lovely movement of her own body and sensibility, but who, in order to exist, has to construct a net, or a huge cobweb, to isolate and protect herself. But the work also had a strong, structured character, for example in the use of the Fibonacci series (which Mario Merz too has often used in his proliferating numbers, igloos, and table works).

In 1980, in Turin, Merz created a large installation in which all her linguistic and personal motifs converged. To define a space within the space, she laid down a layer of brown-paper sheets, spotted with blotches of wax that joined them where they met. Various objects stood on this paper: a triangle recalling L’altalena per Bea, a table of wax with metal legs, a metal frame (exactly like those Mario Merz has used to stretch his canvases) crossed by a copper-wire musical “score” whose “notes” were small twigs. At the edge of the brown-paper territory a broken toy gosling lay on its side; the whole space was illuminated by a large beacon lying flat on the ground. The installation worked as a large mirror for Merz’s own reality, intimate and personal. The space seemed filled with the murmuring rustle of the paper, a frail, delicate material that yet could isolate an area of uninterrupted flows of feeling, and could define an identity conscious of its own limits and of its relationships based on strength and emotion.

After this came negation and silence. Having established this self-definition, a symbolic checkerboard of infinitely sensitive and personal connections, Merz has barely exhibited since. (Besides a small one-person show in Düsseldorf in 1982, there are occasional appearances in group shows, including the upcoming Documenta IX, in Kassel.) But the image of her body metaphorically lying in fragments on the ground in the Turin show has been replaced with a strength and a light. Identity is a coexistence of opposites; these opposites find a unity in the faces that Merz weaves out of an infinite maze of graphite on canvas or on paper, or that she sculpts in soft earthenware that she dries naturally (rather than firing it in the oven). The fragmentation displayed in the Turin installation has given way to unification. Presence has become absolute. The subjective sets the course, no longer separated from the body or the face.

The small clay heads and the pencil drawings begin in 1982, then become more frequent, turning into an entire repertoire of Merz’s own double. They are signs of a mastery of and a desire for being as a force that tries to reappropriate an uncontaminated space. By now, in fact, they usually manage to create their own space—a space of silent sounds and elegant decors. Covered with colors, and with sweet but witty veils, they fill the rooms of Merz’s house in Milan. Here the relationship between her art and her life allows no gaps. On entering, the visitor is confronted with an intense, magical magma, a totalized tension that permits no loosening of the things it ties together. The sculptures and the paintings, the dried flowers and the chairs, the copper wires and the carpet, all interchange roles in an undulating movement that transforms the totality into a “swing for Marisa.”

Germano Celant is curator of contemporary art at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. New York. He recently curated the first European retrospective of the work of Robert Mapplethorpe, an exhibition that will travel in Europe until 1994. He is a contributing editor of Artforum.

Translated from the Italian by Joachim Neugroschel.