PRINT Summer 2005


the Fondazione Merz

“NO STRAIGHT LINES,” says Beatrice Merz, showing me around the Fondazione Merz in Turin, a few days before its inauguration last April. Of course, she is describing her father Mario’s work—the space newly devoted to its legacy is primarily rectilinear: a 1936 Rationalist industrial building that was formerly the heating plant of the Lancia automobile company. Discovering the space abandoned in 1999, Beatrice and Mario decided on the spot that the structure would be ideal for housing the artist’s foundation, which would include galleries, a library and archives for scholars, and a program of collaborations with visiting artists (the last still in development at the time of writing). Sadly, Merz the elder did not live to see the architectural transformation, and the public opening of the foundation was dedicated to his memory—as was a discrete retrospective staged jointly at the Galleria Civica d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea (GAM) and Castello di Rivoli Museo d’Arte Contemporanea taking place earlier this spring. It seems all of Turin is honoring an artist who lived and worked in the city for most of his life; even the first work in a major Turin public-art program directed by Rudi Fuchs, then director of the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, was Merz’s Igloo fontana (Igloo Fountain), 2002.

One wonders if perhaps an element of pietà was involved in the father and daughter’s selection of the foundation’s site. It wasn’t too long ago that Turin hummed to the rhythm of assembly lines, with people clocking in night and day. But whole working-class areas like Borgo San Paolo are now shadows of their former selves, as most of the Lancia factories, buildings that used to extend over several acres, have been demolished or await demolition. Against this backdrop, the Merzes conceived of saving and “purifying” the building by restoring elements of its original structure, focusing in particular on the renovation of a main hall with its thirty-five-foot ceilings, pure white walls with cool, clean surfaces, and long banks of windows. Looking out of those windows today, one is treated to a clear view of a piazza with trees and a children’s playground; from the outside the interior appears luminous and open. The gray of the carefully preserved Lancia logo above the entrance harmonizes with the stone used for the window surrounds. Only a sunken basin outside, with traces of giant circular water tanks and discolored concrete walls, is left untouched, a reminder of the building’s former function.

The repurposing of industrial spaces into art galleries or museums has become a familiar process—think of Tate Modern in London or Dia:Beacon in upstate New York—so its occurrence in Italy is not surprising. Nor is it unprecedented: In Turin alone, the historic Fiat Lingotto plant was adapted by Renzo Piano to house the Agnelli art collection, the Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo Centro per l’Arte Contemporanea is housed in the former Fergat factory, and plans are already in an advanced stage to convert a massive nineteenth-century railway-repair shed into an extension of GAM. However, Mario Merz’s life and art have long been at odds with what the factory system and the architecture of modernism are commonly seen to represent. He clearly anticipated a productive tension between his art and the contained space of the future foundation. When asked in 1970 to mount a show at the Museum Haus Lange in Krefeld, Germany, designed by Mies van der Rohe, Merz remembered how he wanted not so much to “put an object inside the existing building” as to install work that was the “absolute contrary” of the architecture while being completely inside it. It was around this time that Merz had “discovered” Fibonacci and was exploring ideas of proliferation and growth that seemed to explode notions of complete or ideal forms. He was filmed by Gerry Schum (the pioneering filmmaker who collaborated with artists including Dennis Oppenheim, Joseph Beuys, and Robert Smithson in establishing an ephemeral “television gallery” of commissioned video works) drawing, on a sheet of glass, a spiral starting from the center—where he had placed a snail—to which he later added the numbers of the Fibonacci series: 1; 1; 2; 3; 5; 8; 13; and so on. For Merz, the infinite sequence’s “coupling” of numbers—a process that was not linear but rather spiraled, as in the form of a snail’s shell—represented proliferation and reproduction in nature. The space imagined is one of vertiginous and continuous expansion, undertaken in a series of leaps. Space is also time.

The installation at the foundation is consistent with Merz’s sense of space and time—or, more accurately, his sense of working outside time as it is defined by social and institutional convention. Works from different periods and in different media share the same space. And it is clear that Merz’s later output, from the 1980s on, tends increasingly to combine elements from his earlier production: Favorite forms and materials—the igloo or glass, for example—combine with bundles of sticks, spiral tables, or piles of newspaper, fruit and vegetables to create, in Merz’s words, “landscapes.” And while some later works may now appear overburdened by self-reference, they are ultimately representative of the artist’s continuous use of bricolage and improvisation. Indeed, they are emblematic of his practice. In his igloos, Merz uses clamps to attach industrial-size sheets of glass to the structures’ metal frames, juxtaposing the transparent and the opaque, the geometrical and the amorphous, breaking down the isolation of the object and the continuity of line and surface (the cracked shards of glass are fragile and threatening). Looking across the floor area of the foundation’s main hall or the installation at Castello di Rivoli, works appear to interpenetrate. There are no plinths, frames, or privileged points of view: no straight lines.

On numerous occasions, you have to walk around and around a Merz work in order to grasp its whole. Such is the case, at the foundation, with Doppia spirale (Double Spiral), 1990, a set of glass-topped metal tables divided into segments that form two intersecting spirals wrapping the sharp vertical of a square pillar in sinuous horizontal lines. Similarly, in Le case girano intorno a noi, o noi giriamo intorno alle case? (Are the Houses Circling Around Us, or Are We Circling Around the Houses?), 1994, the words of the title that are written in red neon on horizontal slabs of slate invite viewers to circle the igloo of glass, which in turn houses another igloo made of stone. With such pieces, bodily and mental processes are made analogous by Merz, problematizing any fixed notions of being—as does an Einsteinian understanding of the universe. Stability is presented as an illusion that humans sustain by building monuments, but the contemporary existential condition remains that of the nomad. Herein lies the significance of the igloo, simultaneously world and house.

Merz’s entire oeuvre has a restless quality. In the early paintings exhibited at GAM, his preoccupation with spirals, vortices, and continuous movement is already evident, along with a fascination with light and energy. The artist would sometimes recount how, when imprisoned as a resistance activist during the Second World War, he drew continuous lines on any available surface without lifting the pencil. The compulsive desire to cover surfaces completely and to dispense with distinctions between figure and ground, abstraction and figuration, later distinguished him from contemporaneous practitioners of art informel: He felt a greater kinship with Jackson Pollock and the painter’s desire to push the physical limits of his medium—which Merz himself did in 1962, when he made a work consisting of a spiral of paint built up layer by layer until it was six inches thick (it later collapsed under its own weight). Significantly, during this period, Merz was spending a great deal of time in Alba, Italy, where he had intense discussions with Pinot Gallizio, a singular personality: host to the Situationist International, pharmacist, left-wing mayor, and self-taught artist. Gallizio’s was a milieu fascinated by myth and the liberating power of creativity and deeply hostile to modern architecture as encapsulated by the idea of the house as a “machine for living in.” Merz, whose preferred reading consisted of writers like Pavese, Leopardi, Blake, Whitman, Rimbaud, and Pound and philosophers including Heraclitus, Nietzsche, and Heidegger, engaged contemporary debates while developing a practice that was willfully marginal to the mainstream of the art market and art scene. Often seen in Turin in rough clothes stained with oil paint, he lived a virtually underground life with his wife, Marisa. Politically, he was a kind of anarchist but one inclined toward poetic allusion rather than polemical statement: For example, in his writing on the celebrated Igloo di Giap, 1968, the artist offers no straight answers, only circular propositions: “If the enemy masses his forces he loses ground if he scatters them he loses strength.” At the GAM show, slogans of 1968 rendered in neon rested in cooking pots filled with wax in Sitin; Che fare? (What to Do?); and Solitario solidale (Solitary Solidarity), all from that year. And one sees that even his very latest work, shown at the foundation, bears the same quality of troubling enigma: A Mallarmé, 2003, consists of piles of newspapers forming a horizontal column, a kind of “archi-text.” The papers’ headlines announce the invasion of Iraq, while a text in blue neon reads UN COUP DE DÉS JAMAIS N’ABOLIRA LE HAZARD (A throw of the dice will never abolish risk).

Beatrice Merz explains the career-surveying selection at the foundation in terms of an attachment to particular works and her collaboration with her father in his final years (notably on the retrospective at the Fundación Proa in Buenos Aires in 2002). The installation here aims to communicate an atmosphere of freedom and a feeling of empathy. By contrast, the retrospective at GAM and Castello di Rivoli were relatively small, adopting chronological divisions and tending to isolate work in different media—for example, at GAM paintings were displayed in a space separate from the neon sculptures—but assembling nevertheless some of Merz’s finest work from collections across Europe. The focus at GAM was on the work that he produced between 1945 (when he started out as a self-taught painter) and 1968; more than twenty rarely exhibited canvases in oil and mixed media were included. Around 1966, the artist began to construct installations in which neon tubes perforate a range of objects, and curator/GAM director Pier Giovanni Castagnoli also made a judicious selection of examples of these. Many feature the use of bottles and glass; others, media such as wax—in Sitin, for example. At Castello di Rivoli, on the other hand, curator Ida Gianelli dedicated one room exclusively to Merz’s igloos, showing the historic Giap Igloo and Objet cache-toi, 1968, as well as later examples such as Chiaro oscuro (Light and Dark), 1983. Merz’s return to painting was represented by key works such as Vento prehistorico dalle montagne gelate I (Prehistoric Wind from the Frozen Mountains I), 1976.

Comparing all these shows, one should remember that Merz himself loved to work with and against the spaces put at his disposal. Once recalling the major Merz retrospective staged at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York in 1989, Germano Celant described the artist’s ability to adapt with the “greatest flexibility to any and every context.” In his absence, the task of exhibiting Mario Merz’s work today will present still more problems and challenges. But these first retrospective moves and, more significantly, the establishment of a foundation, will together provide an invaluable resource for reviewing and rethinking the complex legacy of the man whom Harald Szeemann memorably described as “belong[ing] to that current, latest generation of solitary, wandering, visionary artists who create from chaos by considering ‘interior necessity’ to be the fundamental criterion.”

Robert Lumley is the author of Arte Povera (Tate Publications, 2004).