PRINT January 2004


Mario Merz

IF I CLOSE MY EYES, I can still envision my first encounter with Mario Merz in 1966 at his studio in Turin, which marked the beginning of my long friendship and collaboration with him as a fellow nomad and adventurer, a journey unbroken until his death on November 9, 2003. In the series of rooms where he worked, the artist’s triangular structures projected out from the walls and floors. Made of fabric and woven bamboo, they brought to mind the shaped canvases being produced at the time by Frank Stella and others and were splashed with red paint (as well as scorched with burn holes), evoking the history of an artist, born in 1925, who had come to maturity amid the climate of action painting and Abstract Expressionism. As a scholar of contemporary art, I had already experienced Pop art firsthand at the Venice Biennale, had known Claes Oldenburg, Robert Rauschenberg, and Jim Dine, and was a reader of the Minimalism-influenced Artforum. Thus I was not immediately struck by Merz’s work, except by the presence of one new visual element, fluorescent tubing—not the mass-produced version used by Dan Flavin, but the free-form type seen in advertising signs. Merz’s neon lights, which hung from the projecting structures or traversed them, seeming to pierce and tear them open, produced a perceptual surprise: They destroyed the object. At the same time, the paintings’ aggressive swells became enhanced by the lights’ lightninglike brightness. The luminous energy introduced an aspect of fragility and impalpability and not only created a crisis for the primary object (sometimes bottles as well as various fabric items) but also altered the way colors and forms were read. The glass and canvas became less anonymous and more alive, and therefore organic. The encounter between discordant entities added up to an intentionally vertiginous, if not chaotic, whole.

In this interweaving of elements and materials, Merz created an autonomous “habitat.” In 1966, this kind of production was decidedly disruptive to the day’s more prominent, monolithic theory of art, the absolutism of Minimalism’s pure concepts and surfaces. But Merz’s stance, which questioned the linguistic and territorial limits of artistic research, was shared by an entire generation of artists whose work ranged from arte povera to Body art, from Land art to Conceptual art, and whose number included Joseph Beuys, Jannis Kounellis, Bruce Nauman, and Joseph Kosuth. Merz’s artistic practice at that time, in fact, coincided with the concerns of society at large, where critiques of social order in its most advanced industrial manifestations were giving birth to models of procedural extremism, both political and cultural, based principally on marginalized values. Indeed, the rebellion of that young generation was about an ethical vindication of social relationships, and this challenge was manifested both in Europe and in America, with an invitation to shake off the weight of the past. Artists, who no longer had any intention of relinquishing control to others—critics, dealers, collectors, or museums—similarly rejected the traditional hierarchy of techniques and materials. Instilled with a utopian spirit, Merz, who was in fact jailed for his antifascist views, attempted in his work to abolish all degrees of stratification and felt urgently impelled to break free of those strictures and battle for the equivalence of things.

Some of Merz’s most important developments took place within this alternative magma. In 1968, after three previous shows of more traditional painting, he had his first exhibition of this new work of neon and shaped objects at Galleria Gian Enzo Sperone in Turin. Accompanied by my brief theoretical text, the show was a significant step in his complex artistic journey. The exhibition was a fireworks of pieces: The fluorescent tubes passed through bottles, glasses, and cones, as if they were an eruption of wine and lava; they supported soft forms, like a cushion; they marked the red-silver surfaces of an umbrella and a raincoat; they transformed into lances with colored tips. The luminosity caused everything to boil visually, without any coherence save its deliberate incoherence. With this intentionally uncontrolled process, Merz aspired to present multiple artistic identities, so that a solo exhibition would be perceived as a group show.

Merz further complicated his universe of objects by mixing writing in fluorescent light with wax, as in Sitin, 1968, and then with structure, as in one of his first igloo pieces, Mai alzato pietra su pietra (Never Has Stone Been Raised upon Stone), 1968. The former consists of a spaghetti pot that contains the title, a definition of peaceful social rebellion, written out in neon; the latter is a construction that recalls Eskimo or Native American igloos but which, instead of ice or clay, is made of white fabric bricks, a transformation from the rigid to the soft, from the purely volumetric to the organic.

The igloo, a form that would preoccupy Merz throughout his life, is one of his singular contributions to the language of art. As he told me in an interview in 1971, “I made the igloo for . . . overlapping reasons. First in order to discard the jutting plane or the wall plane and create a space independent of the process of hanging things on the wall or nailing them to the wall and putting them on a table. Hence, the idea of the igloo as the idea of absolute and self-contained space: it is not modeled; it is a hemisphere placed on the ground. I wanted the hemisphere to be nongeometrical, so the hemispherical shape created by a metallic structure was covered with sacks or shapeless pieces of material such as soil, clay or glass.” Indeed, his structures are not fixed but in a state of continuous change and precariousness. As such, many of his works no longer exist or, once taken apart, are difficult to remake, particularly without his guidance. This ephemerality perhaps threatens the permanence of his place in art history, which favors rigid and petrified objects.

Likewise, Merz’s artistic perspective was that of a nomad, someone inclined to adapt with the greatest flexibility to any and every context. This Situationist-influenced desire to incorporate materials found at the different sites of his shows and to improvise in the space offered him characterized his entire artistic voyage. In 1969, when he arrived in Rome in his Simca for an exhibition at the Attico gallery, located in a former garage, he covered the space in stucco and also used the car—pierced with neon—in the show. The fluidity of his practice was apparent in his writings, politics, and poetics as well and received a literal reference at the gallery when he placed the phrase “Che fare?” (What’s to be done?) above a tap, which he turned on to let the water run.

His adaptive nature was evident also when he arrived at the Guggenheim in 1989 for his first museum retrospective, and he and I, as the show’s curator, began to discuss the difficulty of installing his large paintings and sculptures along the ramp designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. He allowed me to fold the canvases so they could be adjusted to such architectural obstacles as platforms or diagonal walls. The result was a sequence of paintings that followed the corners and curves of the Guggenheim without opposing or being compressed by its limitations, which is what generally happens to artworks exhibited in the legendary rotunda. His unconventional attitude toward the space was also displayed in the magical presence on the building’s exterior of a stuffed crocodile and inside, as if driving on the spiral ramp’s wall over the void, of a motorcycle, its handlebars replaced by buffalo horns. Both pieces were followed by a series of neon numbers from the Fibonacci sequence, which Merz incorporated in works throughout his career.

But more than anything, I remember the construction of the triple igloo, Città irreale (Unreal City), 1989, in the rotunda: three large overlapping metal domes that supported heterogeneous materials like rubber, large sheets of broken glass, plaster, bundles of sticks, metal hinges, wax, enormous stones, and neon words. This precarious and ephemeral edifice, in its fragility and potential danger, fully represented Merz’s ideas with its combination of intensity and aggression, of articulations both heavy and light, of security and insecurity. As a Merz dome took shape inside Wright’s dome, the organic architecture of the American master coexisted with the wild, dynamic architecture of the European one.

In scores and scores of installations over the years, Merz was always nurtured by dialogue with his wife, Marisa, a significant artist in her own right (her work is made of subtle weavings of graphite and copper wire). The two were united by a constant exchange of gestures and glances, signals and smiles. Merz continually availed himself of these and of her works themselves, to give energy and sweetness to his igloos and tables, which, thanks to Marisa’s contributions, were covered in fabric rolls, delicate clay, soft Arab bread, piles of fruit and vegetables, yellow wax violins, and heaps of straw. His art was always about dialogue, and it thrived as well on chance encounters. Roaming through city streets led him to leave traces of both autobiographical and public visions. Merz was an artist who used the act of construction in a manner antithetical to the traditional model; architecture implies planning, but Merz built largely by improvisation. He created works meant to be experienced and consumed but which must not remain. He believed in the natural breath of people, places, and things; he loved what life bestrews. I am sure that he will also love what is bestrewn in death. If I close my eyes . . .

Germano Celant is a contributing editor of Artforum.

Translated from Italian by Marguerite Shore.