New York

Mario Merz

Sperone Westwater Fischer Gallery

Mario Merz’s humor is utterly unmuzzled. Try as hard as you can, it’s impossible to maintain a straight face at his exhibition. I’m a pretty cheap laugh, but Merz’s expansive pranks have an infectious silliness that could ruffle the soberest feathers. Take, for example, his gestural rendering of vegetables on an unstretched length of raw canvas: he attached actual raw vegetables to it; radishes, horseradishes, cabbages, celery, cauliflower and escarole seemingly grew out of Merz’ painted depictions of them. Raw vegetables for raw canvas: the collision of macrobiotics with trompe l’oeil.

If Merz has a theme to his work, it must be playfulness. He proposes some modular architecture for the ice-age: extraterrestrial-looking igloos made with plate glass clamped onto the jungle-gym-like armatures. I once saw an Argentine movie called Hunger for Love where a group of disaffected would-be radicals traipsed through funky domes like Merz’s: these buildings are some middle ground between Gaudi and the playground; they have a utopian uselessness and plenty of yuks. Stuck into the igloo armatures are tubes of neon like so many birthday-cake candles, giving the impression that antennae are necessary for the playpens of the future.

A nutty professor quality is the Merz trademark: the Fibonacci number series in neon (where a number is the sum of the two previous numbers in the series) decks many of the igloos and is cheerfully ordered on the ceiling or any other available place in the gallery. I don’t quite get the Fibonacci inclusion, except that the blue neon looks pretty and tells us that there is some order in the Merz chaos. Clearly each individual piece is not the sum of the two previous works in the installation, but there is something about the rapid acceleration of numbers in the Fibonacci series (1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55 . . .) that parallels the ever-adding combinations present in his work.

The jokiness of Merz’s work comes from the clumsy grace of his use of high-tech materials (plate glass, neon) in no-tech situations. Vegetable gardens and igloos may be requisites of food and shelter in some parts, but not here in advanced capitalism where their counterparts are agribusiness and high-rise. His garden and shelters are misfits, anarchic solutions to problems of complexity. Is he proposing that we cultivate our gardens with paint instead of water? That we build permanent shelters with impermanent materials? Organize our economics with the erratic Fibonacciseries as a base? These are endgame solutions with extravagant wit and impoverished wisdom.

Carrie Rickey